Another week, another dolls/dummies/puppets movie for the Vicar. I never realized until recently I had this many such films in my library. Clearly my subconscious is trying to tell me something. I just hope it doesn't lead to blackouts and mysterious charges to RealDoll.com on my credit card.
This time the movie is 1988's Waxwork, a horror/comedy with a strong Tales from the Crypt/Darkside vibe starring Zach "Hey, Wasn't He in Gremlins?" Galligan. Here we find Zach fighting terror on the clock again, only this time rather than trying to keep his freaky furry friends from eating after midnight he's racing to prevent a sadistic sculptor from claiming 18 souls with his magical wax museum before the clock strikes twelve and the monstrous mannequins take over the world. And he has to do it without Phoebe Cates this time, which we can all agree is a downer for him.
We open with a strong pre-credits sequence set in an old mansion, where we join the murder of an anonymous screaming dude, already in progress. An unseen assailant force-feeds his victim a fiery yule-log and we get to see the poor guy dance around on fire before taking a nose-dive right back into the blazing hearth! The killer then steals a bunch of artifacts from a museum-quality display case before disappearing and allowing the opening titles to roll.
After some cartoon-wipe transitions we finally meet Zach, playing spoiled rich kid Mark Loftmore. There's a weird scene here where he's having breakfast with his socialite, oppressively infantilizing mother (Mark gets very pissy when she insists he drink juice instead of coffee) before stepping out in the hallway to get his espresso and a cigarette from his stereotypically English butler Jenkins. There's lots of grousing and generally bratty behavior from Mark here, leading me to question at first whether he is to be our hero or some kind of frat-boy villain who will get his comeuppance through the horror. He's certainly not going to win "Mr. Congeniality."
However, we quickly learn that Mark's behavior is pretty much standard for the youths of 1988, in the universe of this film anyway. As Mark walks to school we cut to a couple of his school chums, mousy Sarah (Valley Girl Deborah Foreman) and sassy China (Michelle Johnson). China is a blonde in a black body suit, totally rockin' the Mariel Hemingway bushy-brows, and is so bitchy and sex-obsessed you just know she'll come to a bad end. As they too walk to school (nobody drives or takes the bus in this posh neighborhood) they pass a gothic mansion right in the middle of their street which strangely neither of them has ever noticed there before. A big sign over the door reads "WAXWORK" in gothic script, and the proprieter (a wonderfully creepy David Warner) appears out of nowhere to invite them and "no more than four" of their friends to a private showing that evening. He disappears just as quickly, leaving the two girls to sass their way to school and tell their friends the good news.
Tony (Dana Ashbrook). They attend a lecture by a German professor standing "hilariously" in front of a Nazi flag, then later while watching football practice from the bleachers (China is schtupping the quarterback, natch) decide they might as well go to the waxworks, since otherwise we'd have no movie.
So far (with the exceptions of Log Boy) the movie has been all comedy and no horror, and the comedy has left quite a bit to be desired. The jokes are all broad and obvious, the characters snarky and unlikeable, and the plot worthy of several eye-rolls. A couple of quotable lines from sassy-slut China allay matters a little (such as her motto "I do what I want, when I want--dig it, or fuck off!" and the can't-believe-it's-not-foreshadowing line "Can't a girl get laid around here without getting burned at the stake?"), but mostly it's been a slow train to Yawnsville. That's about to change, however, thanks to a big performance in a small package: Mihaly 'Michu' Meszaros.
Michu is a Little Person of the creepy Hungarian variety, and it's impossible to take your eyes off him. A veteran of such classics as Big Top Pee-Wee and Warlock: the Armageddon as well as a nightmare-realization specialist in H. R. Pufnstuf, Michu will forever be best remembered as "full-body ALF"--that's right, he was the man in the suit whenever Alf had to be shown running after the Tanners' cat or dashing upstairs or in his hot steamy love scenes with luscious teeny Lynn. Or maybe that was just the dream. Anyway, he's ALF.
Hans, the butler who welcomes our group of punk kids to the waxworks. (With his distinctive voice and that character name, I wondered if his casting was an homage to Harry Earles's immortal role in Tod Browning's Freaks. Probably not.) He only gets a few minutes of screen time here, but he makes every second count, giving sharp militaristic bows (complete with "whoosh!" sound effects) and berating his Lurch-like underling butler before exiting in a huff. Seeing Michu connect with a left hook to Lurch's kneecaps makes me smile every time.
Left to their own devices, the Brat Pack soon find their way into the musuem proper, and FINALLY the horror elements start to make their presence known. The museum itself is the expected Hall of Horrors, with werewolves, mummies, zombies, vampires, and even a bandaged Invisible Man force-feeding a flapper from a gasoline pump! I don't remember that from the Claude Rains version; maybe it was cut. The figures and lighting are very well done here, with blue and red gels just screaming "80s Music Video" and the wax monsters themselves being suitably creepy.
When idiot Tony drops his lighter into the werewolf display, he saunters in after it and magically finds himself in a real-life version of the scene, courtesy the best cartoon blue wavy lines the studio could offer. Suddenly in the middle of a vast forest in period costume and with a ponytailed colonial hairdo, Tony jumps to the only logical conclusion--his friends have hypnotized him and are playing a practical joke! Makes sense to me! He follows the trail to a creepy cabin, where pre-Gimli John Rhys-Davies is doing that furry moondance. We don't get a real transformation here, but the practical werewolf costume is pretty imposing and impressive--except for the comically over-sized ears that make him look like a vicious wolf-rabbit hybrid.
Wolfy bites Tony just as some hunters come in to break things up. One of them gets the most impressive death scene in the movie, as the werewolf grabs the top of his head and tears him in half VERTICALLY, just like a blood-spurting paper doll! You have to cheer. Then Gimliwolf gets pumped full of silver and Tony starts to change from the bite, getting a load of pewter for his trouble as well. We return to the museum, where half-changed Tony is now a part of the display. It's a trap!
Next to go wandering into a display is China, who we knew wouldn't be long for this movie anyway. She is whisked to Castle Dracula, where a romance-novel cover-model count (b-movie prettyboy Miles O'Keeffe) is serving steak tartar to his guests. This is actually one of the most effectively disturbing scenes in the movie, as shell-shocked China chokes down a slice or two of "beef" (complete with special sticky red "sauce") while the rest of the party gnosh like hyenas on a downed wildebeest, dripping blood and meat everywhere. Excusing herself from the table, China staggers into the kitchen where she finds a man strapped to the butcher block, his lower leg stripped to the bone! The effects here are very good and icky, and I found myself cringing at the thought of looking down and seeing half your leg gone; and of knowing that you just ate some poor dude's calf RAW. Nasty stuff.
The vampires soon storm the kitchen and there's a great, bloody battle as China puts up one hell of a fight. There's an exploding head, more leg trauma, amazing gouts of blood on the white-tiled walls (a great visual), and one of the most hilarious vampire kills I've ever seen--China desperately pushes one of the Count's brides away, throwing her roughly against a wall-sized wine rack. Three champagne bottles impale the vampire, corks intact, and once they tear through the front of her dress (these are CORKS, mind you), they pop, spraying now-pink champagne all over the horrified China! Amazing! Shortly thereafter Miles shows up and puts an end to all this foolishness with a bite to the neck, but I had to admire China's toughness. Sassy slut, you are redeemed.
Back in the museum, sweet and silent Sarah is fascinated by a display showing the Marquis de Sade whipping one of his women, the first hint that she might only LOOK sweet and innocent. Before the museum can claim more victims, however, bratty Mark drags her out and they head on home, living to fight another day.
His curiosity aroused by his friends' disappearance and some missing persons posters that look EXACTLY like some of the figures in the museum, Mark somehow figures out that the museum isn't what it appears to be and contacts his crazy uncle for help and much-needed exposition. It seems the wax artist is collecting souls with his wax displays, which are life-sized voodoo dolls or something since they have bits and pieces of all the original subject in them (a hair of the Marquis de Sades, a knife of Jack the Ripper's--I'm not sure how they got the werewolf's nail clippings or the invisible man's used cotton swabs) and, if he gets 18 souls (6 plus 6 plus 6, just like in AD&D!) his creations will turn into real live boys and wreak havoc on the world. It all leads to a final battle in the museum that's as fun as it is wacky, and of course you know it all comes out in the wash.
It's slow going on the front end with the bad acting and terrible "humor," but once Michu shows up, the supernatural stuff kicks in, and we start to go into the wax displays, it's like several horror movies in one--none of them spectacular, but all of them entertaining. In the second trip to the museum we get a nice mummy scene with an unlucky cop as the victim, a black and white zombie display with Zach, and a strange but satisfying trip to the court of the Marquis de Sade (played wonderfully slimy by the "striking" J. Kenneth Campbell) where quiet little Sarah finally indulges her wild side. The final battle between the living dummies and Mark's uncle's army of old men (including Jenkins!) is silly but fun, with rapid-fire references to Little Shop of Horrors, It's Alive, and even Dirty Harry ("Go ahead, bat--Make My Day.") Though Mark's arc from spoiled brat to hero isn't at all believable, it was necessary to get to the end, and the end was a blast, so I didn't mind too much.
So while it's by no means perfect, Waxwork is a fun little flick with something to offer the 80s-nostalgic horror fan, and I give it a solid 2 thumbs. If you don't shed a tear when Poor Hans meets his fate, you have no soul. And that's a shame, because we're still a couple short.
PS--Not sure if you can read it on that poster, but the tagline at the bottom of the poster is "More fun than a barrel of mummies!" Seriously, guys, that's the best you could do? Ugh. I'm sure my readers could do LOADS better. (Wink-wink!)