Anthony Hickox's Waxwork films are perfect "concept" horror movies, centered around a premise that was lifted and stretched from the classic House of Wax. It is such a great idea. I don't know about you, but anytime I've ever been at a museum and looked at a good exhibit, I find myself being drawn into it, imagining myself in that place. Suddenly I'm one of those soot covered teens with long faces and bleary eyes standing behind a cannon at the Civil War museum. So, someone finally mined that idea into a horror/comedy. Pass the velvet rope and you're part of the exhibit. And they aren't very friendly.
In Waxwork (1988), college friends, preppie Mark (Zach "Gremlins" Galligan), vixen China (Michelle "Blame it on Rio" Johnson), loudmouth Tony (Dana "Twin Peaks" Ashbrook), and virginal Sara (Deborah "Valley Girl" Foreman) are invited to an exclusive viewing of the waxwork that has mysteriously appeared overnight. Creepy proprietor David Lincoln's (David "Time Bandits" Warner) waxwork is a collection of gruesome displays from horror novels, film, and history. After the first night, China and Tony disappear, each falls into a display and is transported into the world (Tony- the werewolf display, China- the vampire). Mark immediately suspects something is wrong and goes to the police. But, only his grandfathers friend, Sir Wilfred (Patrick Macnee) believes him and informs him that Lincoln is a dark master of the occult and the waxwork is one grand spell to bring the evil to life an infect the world.
Now, it had been a long time since I'd seen the enitre film. Upon the Vestron Video title card welcoming me, I got all nostalgic for the good old days of direct-to-video horror. It is much clumsier and cheaper than I'd remembered. Most of the sets are positively cardboard. The finale completely falls apart with badly directed action and veers into some silly moments that feel out of place with the films casual comic one-liners.
But, it is still a very fun film, with a nice balance between true horror (monsters and gore), imaginative atmosphere, and comedy. You get a black blood drooling mummy, a head ripping werewolf, for some odd reason the Marquis de Sade (yet no nudity?- boo!), Mihaly 'Michu' Meszaros, a nice homage to Night of the Living Dead, and Steed himself, Patrick Macnee. In the big book of overpronounced words in film, Miles O'Keeffe as the vampire count saying the words "steak tar tar", ranks just above Cary Grant saying "dandruff" in North By Northwest. It never fails to make me laugh.
Waxwork 2: Lost in Time (1991) begins right where the first film left off and launches into one of the strangest premises in all sequeldom. The waxwork is in flames but Mark and Sara (now played by Monika Scnarre) didn't get rid of a severed hand. The hand follows Sara home and bludgeons her father to death. Sara shoves the hand in a garbage disposal, and, in the next scene, we see her on trial for murder, using the old "a re-animated, evil, severed hand killed my drunken father" bit. Luckily, Mark inherits Sir Wilfred's collection of mystical artifacts. Among them, he and Sara find a compass (which reminds me of the one from "Voyagers") that leads into another dimensional universe. With the idea of going into it and coming back with some kind of supernatural evidence to prove that her story is true, Mitch and Sara blindly jump into a time portal.
It is at this point more sensible viewers will wonder why they didn't just take the time compass to the courtroom and show a portal off to the prosecutor and judge? Well, because that isn't a very fun movie, that's why.
First they are thrown in to the tale of Dr. Frankenstein (Martin "The Krays" Kemp), then separated, where Mitch goes into a 60's paranormal film dimension with Evil Dead's own Bruce Campbell as a pipe smoking ghost expert. Meanwhile, Sara is in a Alienlike universe. Sara, for some reason, is prone into loosing herself in the other world and believing she is whatever character she falls into. Eventually they are transported into a medieval fantasy world where the evil Scarabas (Alexander "Die Hard" Godunov) is dabbling in black magic with the hopes of replacing the king.
Waxwork 2 is a worthy sequel, a little more silly than the first, yet still having some nice imagination. It has a bigger look, features cameos by cult actors, and, once again, fun references to horror standards. As the film cuts between the first two Mitch and Sara stories, the styles are drastically different- shaky, grainy, handheld photography for the Alien story, and classic black and white, complete with long shadows and Haunting-styled sound fx, for the paranormal tale. The brisk momentum of the first half of the film is lost and the film drags when they get overlong medieval fantasy. The finale is a bit of a letdown, but at least it features a double combo reference to Saturday Night Fever and Dawn of the Dead. And, the entire film is worthwhile just for the Campbell cameo where he is in various states of comic pain, like only Bruce Campell can do.
The DVD: Artisan
Picture: Both Waxwork and Waxwork 2 are presented in 1.33:1 full-screen. I'm unsure what the proper ratio is, though they were shot for video and based on the framing it could be a pretty safe bet that this is their intended ratio. The back of the DVD doesn't help because it states both of the films have "Been formatted to fit your screen" and that 1.33:1 is their proper ratio.
Anyway, neither exactly looks fantastic. First of all, they are pretty overcompressed and lost in digitized noise. There is even one moment (around 3-5 seconds) of bad ghosting/trailing right before Tony enters the werewolf exhibit. Waxwork has a lot of wear and tear, especially in the first half of the film. It is pretty washed out and extremely grainy, resulting in a lot of softness, very weak colors, and dull contrast. Waxwork 2 fares a bit better, the blacks are a bit deeper and the color and sharpness are more vibrant. But, these are not transfers those of you who spent $5,000 on their tv's will be very happy to watch. A new 1st generation vhs or watching the films on tv is likely to look as good or perhaps even better.
Now, I am usually a very forgiving reviewer when it comes to image. But, in this case, not only do I highly suspect crisper prints could have been used, I am absolutely certain the transfers could technically be better.
Sound: Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo. The sound isn't fantastic and doesn't help cover up the films low budget. To be more specific, it is the music. Both films were done with synthesizer scores. The problem is, the way the films are mixed, the dialogue tends to come close to being drowned out by the cheesball score. So, it is just a matter of some dull separation, but, once again, these are low budget films. Overall, you can hear things fine so it isn't the end of the world. I just wish the score was seperated more.
Extras: Nothin'... chapter and movie selections, that is it.
Conclusion: The Waxwork films are cult titles horror fans have been itching to see released. As I said, I hadn't seen the first film in years, mainly due to it disappearing from my local video store shelves in the mid 90's. So, Artisan releases them, but on the cheap, barebones, and of very middling image quality. Still, you have to take into account, this is probably all you're going to get for awhile. Sad but true. Well, at least they are inexpensive. I'll give it a hesitant recommendation for really die hard fans. But, casual purchasers should heed the lackluster quality and may want to hold out and just rent the DVD.