Waxwork. 1988. Directed & Written by Anthony Hickox.
Starring Zach Galligan, Jennifer Bassey, Joe Baker, Deborah Foreman, Michelle Johnson, David Warner, Eric Brown, Clare Carey, Buckley Norris, Dana Ashbrook, Micah Grant, Mihaly Meszraros, Jack David Walker, & John Rhys-Davies.
Vestron Pictures/Contemporary Films/HB Filmrullen
Rated R. 97 minutes.
Father Gore’s been knocking down titles left and right lately, in pursuit of seeing every worthwhile horror out there. Particularly when it comes to the 1980s, certainly one of the best eras there’ll ever be for the genre. Not all of the horror that came out during the decade was spectacular, yet even some of those titles are fun. But the ’80s didn’t just come with an abundance of genre filmmaking, from slashers to supernatural killers to monsters and other creatures. No, we got plenty of sweet gold in amongst the rest.
That’s where Waxwork comes in. No doubt this flick did better on VHS and other later formats, and I’m sure it’s seen a resurgence over the past few years as genre fans snatch up better looking copies with the release of many older horror movies on Blu ray. It deserved better at the time of its release. This is a unique bit of cinema, a slightly metafictional story before Scream and its copycats almost a decade later, boasting effects that can go from spellbinding to gruesome in the blink of an eye.
Anthony Hickox’s cult horror takes the concept of the wax museum and twists it some, imagining it isn’t merely the wax figures that come alive, it’s the entire waxwork itself. The story and plot are fun, spooky, and the characters shine well through the smart writing. This isn’t as campy a horror-comedy as others of its ilk. Truthfully, there isn’t an overt amount of comedy, other than bits and pieces. Most of all, we get an urban adventure film crossed with horror, set in a regular neighbourhood where a waxwork opens up suddenly under the care of a mysterious man (David Warner); people go missing, movie monsters emerge, and only a couple high school students seem to understand.
The nature of a waxwork allows for a sort of episodic telling of its tale, in that the main attraction of the film provides different predicaments, along with different monsters, killers, villains, so on, for the characters to confront.
Almost a surreal experience, as the characters step through the exhibits into another world, a place where waxworks aren’t just wax statues their sculptors built, they’re whole living environments full of all the familiar horror tropes, villains, whether human or monster. Some of these are the classics, like Frankenstein’s monster, Count Dracula, to the creepy baby from Larry Cohen’s It’s Alive and one of the pods from 1956’s Invasion of the Body Snatchers. It’s a ton of fun! Would’ve been even more interesting had legal reasons not prevented appearances by Jason Voorhees, a few kids from Village o the Damned, and even the planned cameo of a form of the creature from John Carpenter’s masterpiece The Thing.
While there are moments of comedy interspersed about the edges, the core of Waxwork is its terror. Partly built on atmosphere, aided by Gerry Lively’s wonderfully vibrant cinematography, and a fantastic, classic-sounding genre score courtesy of Roger Bellon. The other part, a major one, are the effects. We get gnarly blood at times, we also have great looking monsters courtesy of Bob Keen (Event Horizon, Nightbreed, The NeverEnding Story, & more). A favourite is the vampire feast at the table, a delightfully yucky moment of blood and slurping, sucking sounds that’ll gross you out, at least for a second. After that is the big basement scene, which becomes a blood-filled parade; and to think, there were major cuts here because it was gorier than the final product.
“They‘ll make a movie about anything these days“
The line uttered by Warner’s Willy Wonka-esque waxwork curator comes eight years before Craven’s Scream too metafiction and self-referential writing in the horror genre to new heights. There isn’t a ton of this in Waxwork, however, there’s just enough to enjoy. The owner sees the sculptures themselves as the real monsters, the actual version, and we know, from knowing the genre, the titles from which these monsters originate. So the duality there is a spot-on bit of metafictional writing, calling the horror lover’s mind outside of the film, making us look inward. Of course then characters are assaulted by various horror figures in the otherworldly exhibits, as metafiction comes to life and aims to kill.
Note: The purest moment of intertextuality between horror films is when we’re thrown into George A. Romero’s Night of the Living Dead; the monsters aren’t the only referential here, we’re literally dropped into a whole other film within this film. So much fun!
There are quirky characters on both sides, the good and the villainous. Above all, the characters feel engaging in a way that half of the ’80s horror character catalogue doesn’t, in that there’s a genuineness to these people, no matter how you feel about them. We don’t get all the backstory to the group of high school friends around which the plot centres, and that work swell. Through plot, the relationships we do see, we gain a sense of the characters and their personalities without requiring lengthy, chunky exposition, trying to tell us exactly what happened between Mark (Zach Galligan) and China (Michelle Johnson) before the film takes us into their lives. Instead it all comes out, Hickox shows rather than telling; in film, as in literature, this is always better, particularly in film because it’s a visual medium. Something so small and seemingly insignificant can make a horror even better than just its spectacular effects work and atmosphere.
There are sometimes horrors that, when we see them, we don’t necessarily understand the hype around them from other people. Waxwork is entirely the opposite. It took so long for me to watch it that when I finally did I felt stupid for leaving it this long. It was always one of the VHS covers I saw at my local video rental shop, never biting the bullet and watching it, simply admiring the artwork. Shame on me, because this deserves an even bigger following than it’s gained over the years.
Waxwork is definitely one of the best horror flicks from the late ’80s, probably even the decade as a whole. Mainly, Hickox never pretends his film is more than it is, sticking to what makes it good – the near surreal atmosphere, great monsters, a dash or five of blood – and doesn’t aim to be anything else. The comedy helps round out a few scenes, but it’s always the horror that pulls us back in.
Recommend this for a crew of people. Few snacks, a drink, a joint, then dive into the surrealist waxwork in this little, unassuming neighbourhood, that could be anywhere. Could even be right down your street. Just watch out, keep an eye on those wax sculptures; there’s always more than meets the eye.