In my hometown, there used to be two movie theaters (or there were way back when), the Hersker and the Church Hill Cinema. The Church Hill had two screens, and the Hersker only had one, but it was huge, and it seated about six hundred people. The theater opened in 1915, and even though it has undergone numerous changes (and is now a cinema and drafthouse, though it still just shows second run films rather than very many art or independent fare), it has remained in the same spot for all this time. The Church Hill Cinema expanded into multiple smaller screens and eventually shut down. The point of the history lesson is that I first encountered actor Zach Galligan at the Hersker. If you guessed that the film in question was Joe Dante’s Gremlins, you would be right.
Out in the theater’s lobby (and I also have to mention that I miss lobby cards [What are they? Go look them up]) was a one sheet for the film, and I loved that thing. It had the half-opened box with the big, bright mogwai eyes staring out of it; his chubby little hands, like a pair of furry weightlifting gloves with Vienna sausages sticking out of them. What’s not to love? So, of course I asked if I could have the poster when the film closed, and I was told that I could. To make a long story short, through the caprices of fate I didn’t get the poster, and while I bear no malice toward anyone at the theater today (I’m pretty sure it’s under new ownership, anyway, so…), I was plenty peeved at the time. I could even buy the damn poster now for about thirty bucks, but it just wouldn’t be the same thing or hold the same sort of significance to me anymore. I think you understand what I’m saying. Zach Galligan was in Gremlins.
Opening in the 30s, the Loftmore mansion is ransacked and its owner immolated while a cover of Benny Goodman’s “Sing, Sing, Sing” plays. Cut to the present of 1988, and spoiled but likable rich kid Mark (Galligan), whose mom treats him like he’s still a child, has the hots for blond sexpot China (Michelle Johnson). While walking to school (I want to say college, but it’s difficult to tell, because all the characters act like they’re still in high school), China and Sarah (Deborah Foreman) notice a waxworks, and it’s Wonka-imitating proprietor Lincoln (David Warner) invites them to a private showing at midnight but also states that their party cannot have more than six people in it. That night, part of the group finds out the hard way that the displays (all horror-related) are not quite inanimate.
Anthony Hickox’s Waxwork is, at the start at least, a portmanteau film disguising itself as a Creature Feature. There is a plot to be followed involving the museum as a story in and of itself, a framing device of sorts. But each of the displays opens a gateway into a different scenario. That these scenarios are not particularly original (in fact, they are entirely derivative) is part of their charm. In a normal Horror anthology film, there is some attempt for each of the stories to have something unique about them, a twist which it’s hoped the viewer won’t see coming a mile off (but very rarely is this the case). In the spirit of the EC Comics which inspired so many (or at the absolute minimum inspired most of the ones that came from Amicus Productions), these twists are typically either bleak and/or blackly comical and always ironic. In this film, though, the isolated stories play out as if they are themselves merely scenes from standalone Horror Films. In fact, they play the part of kill scenes from a Slasher Film, but instead of having the expectant victims being slowly stalked and dispatched by a lumbering, faceless hulk, they are killed by different monsters in their own distinctive style.
And here it must be noted that these individual styles, like the film itself, are really nothing more than Hickox’s paean to and personal take on the classic monster films of yore. In this way, the film is a Monster Mash, like Universal’s House Of Frankenstein, Abbott And Costello Meet Frankenstein, House Of Dracula, and so on. What’s interesting is that the first time Mark and company visit the wax museum, all of the displays walked into are straight from the Universal vaults (Dracula, The Wolfman, etcetera). The second night at the waxworks, the displays are far more modern (zombies, the Marquis de Sade). The filmmakers separate traditional from neoteric horrors, and it feels as if we’re taking a walk through a history of cinematic Horror Films (well, a highlight reel, anyway). But the director does put his own spin on these tales, with Dracula’s being both more gruesome and offbeat than the (traditionally libidinous) story is normally depicted, and I felt this was the strongest of the display tales.
Intriguingly, each display and the characters’ interaction with them (mostly) are meant as a mirror of that particular character’s inner self. For example, China eats human flesh, feeling that this is what mature adults do, and she wants more than anything to find romance with a mature man. Sarah is sexually repressed, but the thought of a bit of S&M literally makes her wet at several points in the film (it’s sweat, but still). As an extension of the sinister Lincoln’s id, and the ids of the characters, they share a desire, each opening up to the other, but where the fulfillment of Lincoln’s id takes him towards his ultimate goal of immortality, the fulfillment of the other characters’ ids lead to death. Had the filmmakers stuck to this idea, and played by the rules which they themselves set up, the film could have been an early version of The Cabin In The Woods. But since there are obvious concessions to plot and marketability over thematic concerns, the stronger ideas of the film don’t hold up. This is most readily evidenced in the melee (replete with a modern day gang of “angry villagers,” again invoking the Universal movies) which climaxes the film. There are bits given here and there to individual characters, but by and large, it’s little more than flailing around until the end credits roll. Granted, the lead up to this donnybrook is both fun and entertaining, but part of me wishes that Hickox would have put a little more effort into refining some of his base ideas. I think it would have been well worth the trouble.
MVT: The concept of the Universal monsters with a modern, more gore-centric spin is compelling, and they come off quite well for the most part. It’s sort of like what Paul Naschy was doing with his Spanish films back in the 70s, and it has its own charms, to be sure.
Make Or Break: The Dracula scene Made the film for me. This Dracula is sexual without being overwrought, and the level of splatter and violence is noteworthy. Plus, there are some truly funny moments (involving China’s display-world fiancé) that also manage to be ghastly on a certain transgressive level. Nothing too offputting, mind you, but still pretty gross.
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