Friday, October 28, 2016

Hubrisween 2016 :: W is for Waxwork (1988)

On a quiet suburban street, a new wax museum has seemingly sprung up from nowhere. And while it is not scheduled to open for several more weeks, the owner, David Lincoln (Warner), lures a group of six hipster college students into attending a special midnight sneak preview. And so, Mark Loftmore (Galligan), his estranged girlfriend, China Webster (Johnson), and their friends Sarah (Foreman), Tony (Ashbrook), Gemma (Carey) and James (Brown) gather at the gated entrance of the large and foreboding mansion -- so foreboding Gemma and James both chicken out and bail. 

The others, however, press on, are greeted by a midget butler with a thick Hungarian accent (Meszaros), who welcomes them to come inside before leaving them alone in the foyer. And while the snark flies between the group, the doors to the display room suddenly open by themselves, beckoning them to enter, essentially, at their own risk.

Inside, they find a Chamber of Horrors -- well, more like a Famous Monsters of Filmland exhibit as each display renders a macabre reenactment in wax of a movie monster pouncing on a helpless victim. Check that, at least six of them have no victim to menace -- at least not yet. And no one notices this slight deviation, or the fact that Lincoln insisted on only six attendees for the preview, as the group slowly splits up and takes in the morbid sights. And while everyone senses something isn’t quite right here (-- are the displays twitching? And who is observing who in here?), Tony is the first to stumble upon the sinister truth when he crosses over the red velvet barrier rope, enters the wolfman display to retrieve a dropped lighter, and in a flash of blue light is instantly transported somewhere else.

Suddenly finding himself lost in the woods, Tony at first thinks China has spiked him with acid, again, but that wouldn’t explain his change of clothes to peasant garb, the massive hair growth, and the scent of pine. And as the full moon rises he heads toward a cabin, looking for answers, whose interior looks suspiciously like the waxwork display one should note. He also finds a man inside (John Rhys-Davies), who implores him to flee, flee for his life, but it’s already too late. And as the moonlight seeps through the window, the man begins to change into werewolf, who pursues the terrified Tony around the cabin, finally cornering him and burying his fangs into the victim’s shoulder just as two more men enter the cabin. And while the older man fumbles to get a silver bullet loaded into his rifle, the beast tears his companion asunder.

But this gives the hunter time to load and fire, mortally wounding the monster, whose gaze falls on Tony, who, having been bitten, is already slowly and painfully starting to transform into another werewolf. But before the change is complete, he is felled by a second silver bullet. With that, cut back to the wax museum, where Tony’s corpse is now part of the display. But since he was killed mid-transformation, Mark doesn’t recognize him when he peruses the werewolf exhibit, looking for his friend. And while he finds Sarah transfixed in front of an effigy of the Marquis de Sade, there is still no sign of Tony -- and now China is missing, too, last seen by the Count Dracula display...

For all of his life Anthony Hickox has been around film. His father, Douglas Hickox, was a long time genre director, responsible for the likes of The Giant Behemoth (1959), Theater of Blood (1973) and Zulu Dawn (1979), and his mother, Anne Coates, was a ground-breaking editor, who cut films ranging from Lawrence of Arabia (1962), to Murder on the Orient Express (1974) to Masters of the Universe (1987). And while she was working, she would give her son several different splices of film to stick together, creating mini-nonsensical opuses. This love of film carried over when Hickox started working as a club promoter in London in the 1980s, churning out short films about the nightlife in places like the Le'quipe Anglaise, whose owner was so thrilled he showed the reel to Michael White, the producer of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (1975); and White was so impressed he bought Hickox a one-way plane ticket to Hollywood, charging him not to come back until he “made it."

But once there, it was hard going for Hickox, who tried his luck as an actor first but essentially washed out. And so, he decided to try his hand at writing a script next. Fate and fortunate misfortune stepped in next when the near destitute Hickox locked bumpers with Staffan Ahrenberg in the parking garage of the hotel they were both staying at. Now, Ahrenberg was a fledgling producer with money burning a hole in his pocket, and after the two hit it off, in desperate need of a project, he allowed Hickox to pay off the damages done to his car with a script, agreeing to pay him $3,000 on top of this if he delivered it in a timely fashion. Three days later, Hickox handed over a rough screenplay for what would eventually become Waxwork (1988), and then convinced the impressed Ahrenberg to let him direct it as well.

Basing the idea on a long simmering notion of spending the night in Madame Tussaud’s Wax Museum, Hickox then combined this with his love for Hammer horror movies, especially to what he referred to as “the best ten minutes” during the climax of the film when the monsters were confronted by Van Helsing and his ilk. And all of that kinda dovetailed into a truly inspired premise of people getting sucked into the museum displays, sacrifices in some arcane ritual, making this an equally unique anthology film. For you see, once all the displays successfully play out their staged scenarios and claim a victim, the evil trapped within them will be able to crossover into the real world and create a hell on Earth. How cool is that?

Needing more money to bring the film to life, the script did the rounds but got rejected by every studio in town, including Vestron Pictures, who were just starting to expand from home video distribution and dabbling in film production -- most notably a series of Ken Russell films, including Lair of the White Worm (1988). But then came a Christmas miracle, when Hickox’s friend, Mark Burg, asked when filming was gonna start on his movie after the holiday. Told he’d been turned down by everyone, Burg called his friend, Dan Ireland, the head of production at Vestron, who “ate this kinda shit up.” Turns out he’d never even read the script but instantly fell in love with it, giving Hickox and Ahrenberg the green-light.

Hickox’s shooting script called for displays of Friday the 13th (1980) villain, Jason Vorhees, Carpenter’s alien from The Thing (1982), and the five telepathic children from Village of the Damned (1960) but they couldn’t be cleared for legal reasons. And so, the eighteen displays of the “most evil beings” consisted of a werewolf, the Marquis de Sade, the Phantom of the Opera, the Mummy, a Romero-era zombie, Jekyll ‘n’ Hyde, Frankenstein’s Monster, Jack the Ripper, the Invisible Man, a cannibal witch-doctor, a golem, a traditional witch, a snake-man circus freak, a generic alien invader unearthed in the arctic, a generic axe-murderer in the woods, a man-eating plant, and a killer baby.

Oh, and Count Dracula (Miles O’Keefe), too, currently trying to sink his fangs into China, who was compelled to come into the display for a closer look at this handsome fella. Now, it should be noted that Hickox plays the Count as an Anne Ricepire, meaning this might not be Dracula at all; and what follows, well, the viewer will find it either hopelessly grotesque or freaking hilarious, or perhaps a combination of both, as China must fend off attacks from Dracula’s recalcitrant son and his concubines, with the help of her “fiance”, whom she unwittingly dined on earlier (-- long story), in the bloodiest ways imaginable as they tend to explode real good when punctured by wooden stakes with copious amounts of erupting gore. Alas, the girl is unable to resist when the Count swoops in, offering herself up, finishing this interlude with two distinct puncture wounds, and filling up one more display with another obscured victim.

Thus, unable to find Tony or China, Mark and Sarah leave before they can be sucked in, too. Told by Hans that the other two left together in a “wink-wink, nudge-nudge” sense, Mark doesn’t buy this at all. China is cheating on him, sure, just not with Tony. In fact, after several days pass with no word from either of them, while Mark goes to the cops to make a missing person's report, China’s other boyfriend, Jonathan (Grant), is also out looking for her and starts where she was last seen, at the waxwork. He sneaks in but is caught by Lincoln as he snoops around and winds up being chucked into the Phantom of the Opera display, making it fifteen victims down with only three to go.

Meantime, Mark has managed to convince an Inspector Roberts (McCaughan), a cranky, chain-smoking cop with a lot on his plate, that something screwy is going on at the wax museum. Lincoln is all smiles when he invites them in, answering all questions asked, but after a quick and cursory tour of the display area Roberts realizes how foolish this is and vacates, telling a spluttering Mark his missing friends haven’t been dipped in wax and are probably shacked up someplace.

However, back in his office, Roberts cannot deny the uncanny resemblance between some of the wax dummies and the photos of missing persons covering his desk. Seems there’s been a rash of disappearances in this burgh, and so, as morbid as the conclusion sounds, Roberts head back to the museum, where he sneaks in and enters the Dracula display. And since this one has already claimed a victim, he is able to collect a sample from the China effigy, which appears to be wax on the surface but with visible sinew underneath. 

Unfortunately, the next display he checks doesn’t have a victim yet, which zaps him into an Egyptian tomb, which leads to my favorite sequence in the whole film, where Roberts becomes an unwilling participant in The Curse of the Mummy’s Elbow. Sixteen down.

Meanwhile, Mark has rounded up Sarah and takes her to the attic of his house, where he shows her some old newspaper clippings about the grisly murder of his grandfather, an eccentric collector of occult objects, who was burned to death during a brazen robbery (-- that we witnessed in an opening prologue). The prime suspect in the murder skipped town but Mark recognized Lincoln from a photo in the same newspaper, only he seemingly hasn’t aged a day. 

Needing answers, they consult with Sir Wilfred (Patrick MacNee), an old family friend and fellow eccentric, who explains why Lincoln murdered Mark's grandfather to gather 18 accursed artifacts to help fulfill his pact with the Devil and bring about the end of the world, where the dead shall rise and consume all things once 18 souls are collected. He then implores Mark and Sarah to return to the waxwork and burn the remaining victimless displays before it’s too late.

This, of course, doesn’t go well at all and Mark winds up shoved into the zombie display while Sarah may have just entered the Marquis de Sade (J. Kenneth Campbell) exhibit voluntarily as, once inside, we find out she has some *ahem* long simmering hang-ups and sadomasochistic tendencies. Meanwhile, Mark is stuck in a graveyard, where the undead are surfacing and swarming around him. Making a break for the gated entrance before he gets eaten, our hero runs smack into some kind of invisible barrier that won’t let him leave. From there, it becomes a harrowing test of wills as Mark realizes the zombies can’t hurt him if he doesn’t believe any of this is real. And once that’s established, he tries to breach the barrier again and, to his relief, finds himself back in the museum, where he must avoid Lincoln, Hans and their one man brute squad (Grant) as he makes his way into the Marquis display to rescue Sarah, currently strung up and whipped bloody by the notorious hedonist.

The problem is, Sarah doesn’t really want to be rescued in a psycho-sexually charged plot-twist. However, with some convincing, Mark is able to break the spell and coax her away from her tormentor, who vows a very painful revenge; and then they escape the display, only to be immediately captured and drug into the shadows, where they watch helplessly as James and Gemma enter the chamber and then just as quickly disappear. But they instantly re-materialize in the last two displays, dead, and so, Lincoln’s ritual is complete. And as he implores his creations to live, the wax statues in the displays start to move, creatures and victims alike, and crossover. And as our heroes try to flee, Lincoln scoffs, saying there's nowhere left to run.

Apparently, Hickox had a grand climax planned for Waxwork where Mark and the Marquis would get into a sword fight and bop in and out of each display, transporting them through time and space as they clashed. Alas, being a novice filmmaker and all, he soon found himself running out of both time and money. And with a completion bond looming, the amateur auteur soon only had one day left to film the whole climax, which was completely overhauled on the spot, changing the whole dynamic.

And this explains why Sir Wilfred suddenly shows up with a mob of -- for all intents and purposes -- torch and pitchfork wielding villagers, triggering an all out brawl in the museum between the good guys and the bad guys as things go kinda bonkers and Waxwork kinda slips the clutch a bit. And if that original proposed climax is ringing any bells, sure enough, it would go on to serve as the basis for Hickox’s eventual sequel, Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992).

And while the fight rages on and the building burns around them, Mark and the Marquis still have their sword fight, which eventually finds them in the waxwork itself, where Lincoln reveals his motivation for ending the world: “Somebody had to do it.” (David Warner is a treasure. A goddamn treasure!) But just as the Marquis gets the upper hand, Sarah ditches the sub and goes domme all over his ass.

That leaves Lincoln, though, who is dispatched by Sir Wilfred -- just before the werewolf rips his head off, falling into a vat of wax for one final jump scare. With that, Mark and Sarah are just able to escape the raging inferno and then watch as the museum burns to the ground -- not noticing something scurrying around in the rubble that escapes into the night. Ah, but that is another tale for another day.

I fell in love with Waxwork when first encountered during its limited theatrical release, catching it several times at the old Imperial 3. And it was one of the first VHS tapes I ever purchased new and quickly wore it out. I loved the whole concept and the execution, with some excellent creature and gore effects courtesy of Bob Keene and his merry band of muckrakers, and soon became obsessed with the stories not told of how the other victims came to be in the museum and the situations that led them to be frozen in that particular moment in the displays. 

I’m surprised there’s never been a graphic novel to shed some light on this. I clearly remember I sort of tried to do my own comic version back in my high school days, with some rough layouts and sketches on a couple of the scenarios, especially the Little Shop of Horrors knock-off, which appears to have claimed two victims and I got it in my head that this was failed rescue attempt.

Anyhoo, love this movie, from the anachronistic tone -- essentially, if it looked cool it was in the picture, to the mindless violence, to the creature effects, to Roger Bellon's pitch-perfect score, to the sleeve-wearing perversity, to the execution of the concept in general. The cast is pretty great, too. With nods to Warner, Galligan, Johnson, Ashbrook and Foreman, who is simply adorable. I have no idea why Galligan’s career stalled after Gremlins (1984) exploded. And Hickox and Foreman kind of became an item for a while after making the picture, starring together in the sci-fi spoof, Lobster Man from Mars (1989). Alas, a nasty break-up soon followed, which is why Foreman didn’t appear in the sequel apparently.

I also heartily recommend Vestron’s new Bluray of Waxwork, which also includes Waxwork II, which is jammed packed with all kinds of wonderful goodies, including a vintage making of featurette and a brand new 8-part documentary that explores the genesis of the film and how all the parts came together with interviews from both cast and crew covering both the original and the sequel and a delightful commentary track by Hickox and Galligan, who coax all kinds of production stories out of each other. Again, cannot recommend this movie enough so be sure to come in for a closer look, Boils and Ghouls. You won’t regret it.

What is Hubrisween? This is Hubrisween. And now, Boils and Ghouls, be sure to follow this linkage to keep track of the whole conglomeration of reviews for Hubrisween right here. Or you can always follow we collective head of knuckle on Letterboxd. That's 23 down with only three -- wait, what, only three?! -- more to go!

Waxwork (1988) Vestron Pictures :: Contemporary Films :: HB Filmrullen :: Palla / EP: Dan Ireland, Gregory Cascante, William J. Quigley, Mario Sotela / P: Staffan Ahrenberg, Eyal Rimmon / AP: Julian Forbes / LP: William W. Edwards / D: Anthony Hickox / W: Anthony Hickox / C: Gerry Lively / E: Christopher Cibelli / M: Roger Bellon / S: Zach Galligan, Deborah Foreman, David Warner, Michelle Johnson, Dana Ashbrook, Clare Carey, Eric Brown, Mihaly 'Michu' Meszaros, Micah Grant, Charles McCaughan, Jack David Warner


Brian Kuhl said...

It's cheesy and you can see a few of the strings. I'm not one for remakes, but this one definitely had some untapped potential.

Unknown said...

Could you show me your version of the graphic novel t of waxwork
or in lesser average, your fanfition waxwork?

W.B. Kelso said...

I would love to, Carlos, but this was over thirty years ago and I'm sad to report it did not survive.

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