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Waxwork
(1988)

Director: Anthony Hickox
Cast:
Zach Galligan, Jennifer Bassey, Joe Baker


Although I certainly like living in this very day and age, every so often I get a feeling that I would like to experience something that was in the past. As I have mentioned several times before on this web site, I sometimes wish I was in the age of the cowboy, so I could explore new frontiers and do a lot of other cool stuff that was common over a hundred years ago. More often than not, however, the past things that I wish I could experience in this day and age are things that actually happened while I was growing up. It was fun to be able to wildly ride a bike without a helmet in my neighborhood and not have the possibility of getting into an accident fill my mind. But one of my top memories to come out of my years growing up was the era of the video store. True, today you can download a whole bunch of movies and watch them at home, but to me there was something magical about a video store. Even before my family finally got a VCR, I would often walk in a video store - any video store - just to soak up what I considered to be a kind of paradise. The idea of thousands of movies - of all different kinds of genres - available to take into your own home to watch for just a few dollars really blew my mind. And when my parents eventually bought a VCR, I was well prepared and started to rent various movies that helped to shape me into the movie critic that I am today. At one point I thought that running your own video store would be a great career move, and I thought seriously of maybe one day owning my own store. (Boy, was I eventually glad that particular dream of mine never came true!)

While I was renting movies from video stores as a teenager, thought I certainly found the movies themselves interesting, I also found how they were packaged interesting. Certainly, many of the video boxes on the shelves had interesting art on the front cover and intriguing descriptions on the back cover that caught my eye. But there was another way the packaging interested me, and that was with the various video distributors themselves. For example, one of my favorite video distributors as a teenager was MGM/UA - not because of their classic movie, but the fact that for a time they distributed movies from Cannon Films. It was amusing to me that eventually they found the Cannon product too schlocky and stopped handling it (though for some reason they didn't have a problem distributing Roger Corman's cheaper and cheesier movies.) Media Home Entertainment was another video label that was a favorite of mine, since they put out a lot of B movie product. Another video label whose product that I kept selecting was Vestron Video. Like Media Home Entertainment, they distributed on their label a lot of B movies. For a time, they released movies from American-International Pictures, they also got the rights to many Italian B movies, and much much more. They had no qualms about releasing just about any kind of movie, though they did release some rougher than average movies under a different label (Lightning Video). And they made a great deal of money with all the movies they sold to video stores, so it should come as no surprise that in the mid 1980s, they started their own movie studio - Vestron Pictures - that aimed to conquer movie theaters as much as video stores.

However, Vestron Pictures was the main reason for the eventual downfall of the Vestron company. Most of the movies they made were of the B movie variety, and by the mid 1980s, it was getting harder and harder for B movie studios to get movie theaters to carry their product. That Waxworkcertainly hurt, but what made it worse for Vestron was that while they had the money to make their movies, for the most part they didn't have the money to spend to make substantial advertising campaigns that could stand up to those coming out of the major Hollywood studios. Because of all this, Vestron eventually got on shaky financial ground, which soon lead to the studio folding its tents and its library being sold off to another party. But memories of Vestron lived on among B movie fans. So it was a happy day in 2016 when Lions Gate Entertainment (which currently owns the Vestron catalog) revived the Vestron Video label and started to re-release movies on Blu-ray that Vestron made and/or handled in the past. One of those movies was Waxwork, which Vestron had made themselves and was given a theatrical release. Recently I thought it would be fun to relive those Vestron days, so I got a copy of the movie to watch and review. The events of Waxwork center around, as you have probably guessed, a wax museum. Early on in the movie, it's established that the mysterious David Lincoln (David Warner, Hostile Takeover) has overnight set up and opened a new wax museum in a small town. When Lincoln meets young adults China (Michelle Johnson, Dr. Giggles) and Sarah (Deborah Foreman, Destroyer), he invites them and their friends to come to his museum for a special presentation. China and Sarah bring with them several of their friends, including Mark (Galligan, Psychic) and Tony (Dana Ashbrook, Twin Peaks) to the museum that night, where they are soon treated to Lincoln's wax figures - all of which are famous monsters and various figures related to classic horror. When several of the young adults soon after disappear, Mark suspects Lincoln has something to do with their disappearances, but he can't convince the police of this. So he turns to a friend of his grandfather, Sir Wilfred (Patrick Macnee, The Avengers), who quickly tells Mark that Lincoln is indeed holding secrets... secrets that if not stopped, could mean the end of the world as we know it.

Although I mentioned earlier that Vestron Pictures did give Waxwork a theatrical release, it wasn't a wide release, and it certainly wasn't a well publicized release, given that the final gross of the movie was less than a million dollars. The reason for that was probably due to the aforementioned financial problems of the studio, which by this time had become serious. You might be wondering how I think the movie would have done had it received a wider and more publicized release. My answer to that is pretty blunt; I am convinced it wouldn't have done well at all. There are a number of reasons for this, and the first I will go into detail about will be the production values. I will give Waxwork this: for a movie that had a very low budget ($1.5 million to $3 million, according to several sources I used in my pre-viewing research), they managed to stretch it out so that the end results didn't look quite as tacky as similarly budged Roger Corman movies of this same era. But all the same, the movie usually has a very cheap feel to it. The waxwork museum building has a sign reading "waxwork" above its front door that is so small that it can't be seen clearly from the city sidewalk several yards away. The interior of the waxwork museum, as big as it might appear in certain shots, was clearly hastily set up on a big studio soundstage. The "wax figures" that are prominently displayed in the wax museum are clearly real people who are struggling (unsuccessfully) to stand very still. As a result of this and other cheapness, it quite often seems that writer/director Anthony Hickox (Hellraiser III) is being held back. For example, there is a very tight feeling to the direction, with the camera more often than not zoomed so close in that we don't get a good look or feel of the particular environment we are in.

From what I have just told you, you've probably guessed that Hickox also struggles with the main selling point of the movie - horror. And you would be right with that guess. Waxwork isn't a frightening or even mildly creepy movie. The only thing remarkable about the horror is how Hickox finds many ways to botch the horror presentation, whether it is from a werewolf transformation happening almost completely offscreen to 1940s style big band music playing when someone's head is on fire. If you are wondering about gore and other gushy stuff, you'll be disappointed here as well. While there is one not bad sequence with character with a leg chewed to the bone, most of the red stuff that comes is pretty fleeting and at times obviously chopped down in order for the movie to get an "R" rating. (I refused to pay over $40 Canadian for the uncut Blu-Ray version.) But there is another reason why I didn't think that the movie was particularly effective with its horror, and that is because of its script. The often-poor writing is so obvious that it distracts the viewer from becoming involved in the supposed horrific events that are happening. The story certainly has some lazy plot structure, such as how the character of Mark abruptly and coincidentally finds out the character of Lincoln is up to no good. But Hickox's screenplay is also full of touches that are idiotic and/or don't make a lot of sense. Why has it taken the character of Lincoln forty years to make his preparations for his evil plans? Why do a couple of cops return to the wax museum after previously making an investigation there and finding nothing wrong? How does Mark abruptly figure out the way to get out of the supernatural traps of the waxwork displays?

It should come as no surprise that the screenplay for Waxwork is not only dumb when it comes to the actions the various characters make, but also when it comes to making characters that are compelling and interesting. While the character of Mark may turn out to be the movie's hero, surprisingly more often than not he is not up front and center. There are a lot of stretches when he's offscreen, and when he is on the screen, his actions go for the routine and expected rather than for color. Though part of the reason for that also has to go for actor Zach Galligan's underwhelming performance, explaining like with Psychic why he quickly fell into obscurity after Gremlins. But except for a somewhat lively performance by Patrick Macnee (despite clearly knocking off his scenes in a couple of days of shooting at most), nobody else in the movie seems interested in giving a damn. For example, the villainous character of Lincoln only has about ten or so minutes of total footage in the movie, and we learn next to nothing about his character in the total running time. So it's understandable why actor David Warner doesn't seem to be interesting in creating a real emotional performance. There is a faint pulse where two famous B movie actors (whom I will not reveal) each appear in a scene of horror, but the novelty of seeing them quickly fades, and even their charisma can't save their scenes. Waxwork, like the statues you find at your local museum, is pretty much a total stiff. It's then amazing that there was a sequel made to the movie a few years later, though I am sure the reason for that was they had the experience of making a movie so cheap enough that they could make an easy profit with video sales to unwise owners of video rental stores.

(Posted August 2, 2022)

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See also: The Black Room, A Bucket Of Blood, Terror House

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