“Eh, waxworks are out of date. This is the video age.”
WAXWORK (1988) is an American movie, but it’s the debut of English writer/director Anthony Hickox, the son of legendary editor Anne V. Coates (LAWRENCE OF ARABIA, OUT OF SIGHT) and director Douglas Hickox (who directed one of my favorite Vincent Prince movies, THEATRE OF BLOOD).
My first association for the younger Hickox is always HELLRAISER III: HELL ON EARTH, but WAXWORK is what put him on the horror/cult movie map. A very small, light dot on the map, but it’s on there if you squint. WAXWORK is not quite an anthology, but it’s an odd mix of different types of movies, using the characters in a wax museum as excuses to visit different dated horror subgenres.
College students China (Michelle Johnson, BEAKS: THE MOVIE) and Sarah (Deborah Foreman, REAL GENIUS) notice a wax museum in a residential area (“Kind of a weird place to have a waxwork” – I like how this movie acts like “waxwork” is a totally normal word everybody knows and uses casually.) A strange man (David Warner, TRON) appears and invites them to return at midnight with no more than six people for “a private showing.” So they convinced their friends Gemma (Clare Carey, ZOMBIE HIGH), James (Eric Brown, Mama’s Family), Tony (Dana Ashbrook, RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD PART II) and Mark (Zach Galligan, who had only done GREMLINS and NOTHING LASTS FOREVER) to come with them.
They separate and wander around the waxwork, which has wax dummies (many very obviously just people in makeup trying to stand still) posed in violent tableaus, and if they get too close to the displays they’re transported to other dimensions where the scenes are real and they become characters in them. For example, Tony ends up as a long-hair guy in a cabin where John Rhys-Davies (FIREWALKER) transforms into a werewolf. Tony first theorizes that China “put acid in my drink – again,” then that it’s a hologram, then hypnosis.
It’s all a little cheesy looking, but gets some energy from Hickox’s above average enthusiasm for gore and mayhem. You get that sense from the opening scene (some guy gets his head shoved into a lit fireplace) and it continues here when a hunter breaks a chair over the werewolf and it cockily brushes its shoulder off. Then it crushes his skull and tears him apart like two sides of an extra gooey grilled cheese sandwich.
China ends up in a castle, wearing a fancy dress, and sits down at a table with Dracula (Miles O’Keeffe, SWORD OF THE VALIANT) and his wives for a meal of raw meat in blood sauce. She tries to be open-minded about it. The highlight of her Dracula adventure is when she finds her non-existent fiancee Charles (Tom MacGreevey, HAPPY ENDINGS) chained to a table with one leg chewed carved down to the bone and a rat nibbling on it.
Mark and Sarah can’t find everybody else so they leave, and officially become the protagonists. It turns out Mark was destined for that because his grandfather was murdered by David Lincoln (the waxwork guy) 50 years ago and has related artifacts in his attic. An old newspaper article leads them to Grandpa’s adventurer friend Sir Wilfred (Patrick Macnee, THE HOWLING), who explains that Lincoln made a deal with the Devil and is trying to capture 18 people in wax to resurrect “the most evil souls that have ever been” – which I guess means Dracula and the werewolf and shit were real people? I don’t know. But Mark and Sarah need to burn the place down.
Sarah is distinguished by being the shy friend of China, and friends refer to her as “the virgin.” I can’t really tell if you’re supposed to judge China for making Mark jealous by going out with other guys – when she says “Can’t a girl get laid around here without getting burned at the stake?” he says, “Anybody got a match?” – but either way I found her the coolest character, especially when she responded to Mark’s crack by saying, “I do what I want when I want. Dig it or fuck off.”
Of course, she does not survive. But Sarah reveals new layers when we realize she gets super-sweaty-turned-on by any mention of Marquis de Sade (J. Kenneth Campbell), who of course has a wax effigy and she can’t help but visit his dimension and get whipped by him and called a whore. When Mark shows up to save her she grabs Sade’s leg and begs to stay with him! But Mark says she’s possessed.
Various other wax scenes are visited – a mummy movie, The Phantom of the Opera, a Dr. Frankenstein lab, a NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD homage (in black and white, even).
The climax really has all hell breaking loose, with a mob of good guys sword fighting and battling against all the wax characters, the possessed friends, etc. For me it gets pretty tiresome, but I do like when Dracula turns into a bat and somebody (Mark?) immediately grabs it and blows its head off. (Points subtracted for having it say “Make my day.”) And there’s some people on fire and Lincoln falls in a vat of wax. Always a plus when the bad guy falls into a big vat of something.
From the beginning I enjoyed the strange off-kilterness of this world – Mark’s rich snob mother (Jennifer Bassey, later in STEPFATHER 3) admonishes him for being nice to the butler (cartoon voice actor Joe Baker), tells him “now drink your milk, you’ll be late for college” and argues with him about whether or not he’s allowed to drink coffee. What the fuck is up with these people? But I like that feeling. Keeps you on your toes. Also there’s goofy stuff like Johnathan calling to see if China is home and being told “She went to a waxwork party,” meaning her mom politely answered the phone at like 1 or 2 a.m. without complaint?
The first conversation between Mark and his mom implies some class-related themes, which is further suggested by the huge number of butlers in the movie. The waxwork is run by a very small one (Mihaly “Michu” Meszaros, who played Alf when he was a costume) and a very tall one (Jack David Walker, MAC AND ME), Sir Wilfred has one (Gerry Lively, also the d.p.) and Dracula has one (Candi, SEXBUSTERS!), plus a man-servant (James Lincoln). Also Mark has a maid (Irene Olga Lopez, GOTCHA!, FLETCH, FALLING DOWN, THE BIG LEBOWSKI) who he makes do his homework. A weird joke to act like the hero is blandly likable and then have him be total garbage out of the blue, but I’ll go along with it.
In the end his butler is revealed to be part of a secret army of people protecting the world from… the evil voodoo wax conspiracy or whatever, so I guess this is meant to show service workers in a heroic light, maybe.
This is kind of a fun movie, but more of a movie where it seems like they must’ve had fun making it. It benefits from good effects work by Bob Keen, who had worked in the makeup department for EMPIRE STRIKES BACK, RETURN OF THE JEDI, LIFEFORCE, HIGHLANDER and HELLRAISER, so obviously he knows his shit.
WAXWORK was given a limited theatrical release, but many more people saw it on the VHS release from Vestron. Four years later Hickox returned for the sequel, WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME, intended as a theatrical release (and seeming like one), but instead it was released direct-to-video on June 16, 1992.
The sequel picks up exactly at the end of the first one, with Mark and Sarah fleeing the burning wax museum. Galligan returns as Mark, but Sarah is now played by Monika Schnarre (FEARLESS TIGER). They wave down a cab (which happens to be vacant and driving in this residential neighborhood in the middle of the night at exactly the right moment). There’s a good joke about the driver (Jack Eiseman, “Cop #1,” HARD TO KILL) dryly noting that the place they were leaving in the middle of the night was on fire – “So… pretty big blaze back there” – which they pretend not to have noticed. One thing they actually do not notice is that the living severed arm that was the ending stinger in part #1 followed them and crawled onto the back of the taxi.
This makes for a really good sequel opening. Sarah goes home to her drunk asshole stepfather (George “Buck” Flower, BLOOD GAMES), and the hand grabs a hammer and kills him. Next thing you know, Sarah is on trial for his murder, and seems likely to be convicted since she tells the truth about what happened and no one believes her. Mark busts her out so they can try to find proof of their magical adventures.
They go to the home of Sir Wilfred (killed in part 1) and thank God he somehow filmed a message to them on film, had it developed and left it threaded in a projector for them to watch. Way to think ahead! I thought this was a fun/funny way to have a dead character return for the sequel, and later he also provides the voice of a Poe-inspired raven (“Of course it’s me! It’s the only way they’d let me appear in this one,” he says. Meta!)
The film includes clues that lead them to a secret room and a magic compass that makes them travel through different dimensions in the same way they did in the waxwork (R.I.P.). This time they face vampires, Frankensteins, Jack the Ripper, and several scenes that are homages to specific movies, mimicking their visual styles. There’s a silent NOSFERATU part, a quasi-Godzilla with a hacky bad-dubbing joke, a black and white THE HAUNTING section, an ALIENS part, a DAWN OF THE DEAD part. The latter gets a good ‘70s look going and then for some reason uses an electro-disco type style for the score and puts Mark in a Tony Manero outfit.
David Carradine shows up briefly in a fantasy movie section and gives Mark a sword. Alexander Godunov (Karl from DIE HARD) is a major villain called Scarabis. And geez, this young blond lady cameoing on the left here looked pretty familiar – wasn’t she in POISON IVY earlier this summer?
The THE HAUNTING part is the most memorable, and not just because it looks nice in black and white (with red blood – like ZENTROPA!). It’s because it features Bruce Campbell, who had starred in Hickox’s second movie, SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT. The whole movie is very openly influenced by EVIL DEAD 2, what with the wacky killer hand, lots of cartoon sound effects, a winged demon in one part, and even following the tradition of having the main character not even seem like the same guy from the first movie.
Campbell plays a ghost investigator who gets tortured as much or more than he would in a Sam Raimi movie. He has a surprisingly good attitude when strung up with his entire chest skinned to reveal his ribs. “Shoo, birdy” he says to a crow that’s eating him, and then he delivers some exposition as Mark removes pieces of shrapnel or something from between his ribs, each time creating a cork popping type sound effect. Later a a burlap sack labelled “Bag o’ Salt” is thrown at him and spills on the wound. He begs for Mark to throw water on it but he accidentally uses vinegar instead.
Like the first movie, there’s lots of good creature effects by Bob Keen. The alien is pretty stupid looking, but still an impressive effect, and has a disgusting squid form like facehuggers. Even more than the first one they seem to be having fun shooting the segments in different styles, giving Galligan different wigs, etc. Here’s my problem with both of these movies, though. It’s similar to the problem I had with CABIN IN THE WOODS (a movie I did kind of like, and will give another chance to some day). The idea of the premise is “wow, we can have all these types of movies we love in one movie,” which sounds nice, but really it’s little slices of cheap knock offs of movies you like. You can admire the craft of making a low budget not as good ALIEN movie, but… it’s not a xenomorph, it’s a silly looking reference to a xenomorph. It’s not a character, it’s a reference to what those types of characters are like. It’s not a world to get emerged in, it’s a reference to a world you could be emerging yourself in if you had chosen to watch a real movie. It’s not a movie as much as a reminder of movies, seen from a distance.
Late in the game they do offer an explanation of what’s going on that could add some stakes if you’re able to get wrapped up in it. These stories-within-the-story are explained as “God’s Nintendo game,” with different “time warriors” playing characters in each scenario, and apparently the battles can lead to earthquakes and stuff in the real world. It’s sort of a MATRIX-like “yes, this is a fantasy, but it has consequences in the real world” thing (and Mark and Sarah could also die in these worlds), but it still feels to me like a series of insincere horror skits.
The ending’s pretty good though. They SPOILER do manage to return to the world with a living arm, which they bring to court in a glass case as evidence to prove Sarah’s innocence. The ol’ PHANTASM finger-in-a-box precedent.
WAXWORK’s score was by Roger Bellon (Highlander: The Series). Part II’s is by Steve Schiff, guitarist for Nina Hagen’s band who also co-wrote Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me.” There are a couple themes here that are pretty catchy – the first is an obvious soundalike of SUSPIRIA, another one kinda reminds me of that laid-back-dance-music-with-monks-chanting group Enigma. But alot of the incidental music is, I’m sorry to say, a type of synth score I really hate, the kind you encountered in ‘90s Full Moon productions that use obviously synthetic sounds to mimic an orchestra playing what honestly would be a corny score even if a real orchestra was playing it. I was relieved any time he went into one of the themes.
(Schiff’s only subsequent movie score was for the 1993 shot-in-Seattle action movie BAD ATTITUDE starring Leon.)
The most delightfully 1992 choice in the movie is also music related: the end credits play over a Hickox-directed video for “Lost in Time,” a theme song rap by L.A. Posse. We see Posse members Muffla and Big Dad in the court room with Mark and Sarah, at one point FORREST GUMPed into the Nosferatu scene, giving an overly serious rhyming description of some of the film’s events: “Waxin, taxin for Waxwork II / what in hell can young Sarah do? / Somethins got ahold of her soul and took control / and the Devil tried to break the [indecipherable],” etc. They seem to have filmed some or all of it during production of the movie, because there are scenes with all the characters and extras dancing around in costume on the sets.
I have to admit I found the rapping corny enough that I thought this was a made up or amateur group until I saw that it was L.A. Posse, who are a legit group who in addition to their own album produced a bunch of LL Cool J’s best known work. Dwayne “Muffla” Simons was even a writer on one of my very favorite Run DMC songs, “Beats to the Rhyme.” So I apologize for laughing at this. But I can’t help but laugh at rappers trying to keep a straight face rhyming about time warriors and stuff.
I believe I saw WAXWORK II before the first one, specifically because it was those days when I had to watch anything I found out Bruce Campbell was in. I think I kind of liked it and appreciated that it was trying to be in an EVIL DEAD 2 vein. It’s my impression that the sequel is more popular for that exact reason.
This one going straight to video didn’t slow down Hickox’s career since he had already filmed HELLRAISER III, which would come out in September. (Barker was not a fan of his work and made him promise not to make it a comedy.) The following year he made another pretty big horror sequel, WARLOCK: THE ARMAGEDDON. Zach Galligan had a cameo.
Those two early ’90s sequels-for-hire were the height of the director’s visibility. Since then he’s mostly done low profile TV movies and DTV, but even on those fringes he’s made more semi-notable b-movies than many directors. I sort of got a kick out of his made-for-cable Mario Van Peebles werewolf action movie FULL ECLIPSE (1993). I’ve always been curious about his comic strip adaptation PRINCE VALIANT (1997). He did a couple Dolph movies I need to see (STORM CATCHER and JILL THE RIPPER). I believe I liked the Eddie Griffin DIE-HARD-on-an-oil-rig BLAST (2004) at the time. And SUBMERGED (2005) is a terrible Steven Seagal movie but still kinda funny, especially since it was the first of a handful of them that were shot as sci-fi movies before they chickened out in post-production. In that world if there’s a director whose name and filmography I can remember, that’s worth something.
P.S. The week before WAXWORK II came out, on June 10th, the first ever MTV Movie Awards aired. Dennis Miller hosted. TERMINATOR 2: JUDGMENT DAY dominated. On June 12th we had another good part 3 for the summer, ACES: IRON EAGLE III. Not as dark as ALIEN 3, though Sonny Chiba’s character has to have a Ripley-style heroic sacrifice death.
June 30th, 2022 at 1:15 pm
I enjoy these movies for what they are but rewatchiing them recently they do feel a bit patchy, almost as if they were made up as they went along. Good fun though and Bruce is a real highlight of the second one.
Very nice to see some love for Theatre of Blood, my personal favourite Vincent Price film. If you ever decided to do a series of reviews of Vincent Price movies I wouldn’t get mad at it.