The Edge of the Aisle: Waxwork (1988)

Every month we discuss some of the best and worst cult films ever made, from the hits, classics, underground, grind house, and utterly obscure, from Full Moon, and Empire, to Cannon and American International, it’s all here, minus the popcorn.

Vestron Pictures
Directed by:
Anthony Hickox
Starring: Zach Galligan, Deborah Foreman, Dana Ashbrook, David Warner, Patrick McNee

The Plot is Afoot! A group of rotten teenagers are invited to a local “Waxwork” wax museum by its mysterious curator David Lincoln. Little do they know that each wax exhibit is a supernatural portal in to another realm composed of monsters and ghouls of many kinds. Before long young Mark and Sarah learn that the curator has sinister plans for the unwilling participants, and it’s now up to them with the help of a wheelchair bound historian to stop him and destroy the gallery of supernatural beings.

The Damage: Anthony Hickox’s “Waxwork” is a delightful mess. It’s a fun and awfully interesting distraction that gets you to the finish line thanks to its tongue in cheek humor, and in spite of its uneven tone. Sometimes it’s a dark comedy that celebrates horror tropes, and sometimes it’s a stern horror movie with Zach Galligan jumping from douche bag to protagonist over and over. Seriously, his establishing scenes in the movie literally made me think “Is this really the movie’s hero?”

I’ve seen “Waxwork” a thousand times and I’m still not too sure what to make of it, exactly. While “Waxwork II” out and out embraced its horror spoof tone with Bruce Campbell adding spice with his talent for slapstick comedy, “Waxwork” wants to convince you it’s scary, but also doesn’t seem to take its own premise too seriously most of the time. It’s an inherently goofy movie with way too many questions that are put forth but never resolved or logically explained. Even the final scene of a crawling hand makes zero sense, and only seems placed for a gratuitous sequel stinger. As we all know, “Waxwork II” is as much as a follow up to “Waxwork” as “Return of the Living Dead II” was to the original film. Are there other wax museums out there like the one we see in the film? Why did no one catch on to this supernatural trap earlier?

Can you beat the wax works and defeat them somehow or did Larry find an accidental glitch when he’s tossed in to the “Night of the Living Dead” exhibit? And if these attractions kind of appeal to our inner nature, what did the zombie exhibit signify for Larry? And why didn’t Hickox just employ the use of stills or freeze frames rather than simply asking the actors signifying the wax works stand as still as possible? Seriously, if you look closely, every time Hickox cuts to one of the wax exhibits, you can plainly see the actors doing their damndest to be as still as possible. This is supposed to allow the illusion that the wax sculptures are so life like they’re incredibly enticing and alluring, but it ends up coming off as inadvertently goofy.

“Waxwork” mostly works as a fun diversion when it’s not having trouble figuring out its own tone, as the very eighties-centric cast goes up against some of the worst monsters in history. Folks like Zach Galligan, Deborah Foreman, and Dana Ashbrook lead the charge in what feels a lot like an ode to William Castle films. They’re a small group of privileged douche bags who spend most of their time bickering about their own lives and trying to deceive each other. They arguably get their comeuppance after receiving an invitation from the curator of a mysterious wax museum. Visiting the museum late at night (because that’s what everybody does), each of the friends end up getting sucked in to the wax exhibits which happen to be supernatural portals in to another realm where they’re thrust in to broadly sketched scenarios involving familiar horror tropes.

Friends China and Tony don’t stand a chance when they find themselves stuck in realities they’re incapable of comprehending. Tony finds himself lost in the woods at night and happens upon a cabin where an older man (John Rhys Davies) transforms in to a werewolf and bites him. After witnessing the werewolf murdered by a pair of hunters, he’s rendered a victim of the curse turning in to a werewolf and is murdered. China, on the other hand, meets someone as deadly and sexy as she, as she’s a guest at a party where a group of noblemen and women consume a salty dish of meat and red sauce. Despite her disbelief and resistance, she falls prey to the throes of the castle’s master, Count Dracula.

When the pair go missing and become a part of the museum’s displays, the rest of their group, Mark and Sarah, begin investigating where they disappeared to, and learn that the museum is at play. They just have to find a way to get around the dwarf doorman (Mihaly Meszaros), and violent butler with a tendency for snapping peoples’ necks. Hickox has a lot of exposition to unfold in such a short time, so he enlists Patrick McNee as wheelchair bound Sir Wilfred, who tells the pair about the museum’s large history, the supernatural gallery, and Mark’s unusual connection to the roots of the place, which involves his grandfather and the museum’s villainous curator, as played by David Warner.

There’s so much explaining. Along the way there’s Sarah’s inexplicable obsession with sadism, and Mark getting in to a pretty funny sword fight with the Marquis De Sade. So when they destroy this wax museum does that mean Mark has to fulfill a destiny to destroy all wax museums around the world? And are there copies of these realities he has to commit to ending? David Warner at least has a good time as the villain David Lincoln, who plans to lure eighteen victims to turn their souls over to the former curators. Through this process, the dead will rise and destroy the world because… you know… he’s a bad guy and that’s what bad guys do.

They either take over the world, or destroy it.

The Rundown: “Waxwork” is a novelty from beginning to end that might inspire a hearty giggle every now and then and nothing more. I’d be hard pressed to call it a horror masterpiece, but it’s at least a neat approach at a horror comedy with a good sense of self-awareness.