“They’ll make a movie about anything nowadays.”
There were a LOT of low-budget horror movies released in 1988, good and bad. You had movies like They Live, Child’s Play and Phantasm II on the shelves alongside stuff like Howling IV, Slugs and Ghoulies 2. All I’m saying is that when you went to the video store you had an even chance of ending up with something like Killer Klowns from Outer Space or Blood Lake instead.
I don’t remember what other films we rented with Waxwork (we always rented a few, in case there were any real stinkers), but I remember being pleasantly surprised. It looked cheesy and cheap (and to be fair – it WAS cheesy and cheap), but it had David Warner in it and that guy from Gremlins (Zach Galligan) and it was fun, something sorely missing from the slasher flick ripoffs I was used to seeing. It reminded me in some ways of a Full Moon picture, like Puppet Master or Demonic Toys (and I think for years I thought it WAS a Full Moon release and not a Vestron Video film).
I liked it enough to rent it a few times. I also immediately rented the sequel, Waxwork II: Lost in Time, when it was released. That film doesn’t quite hold up to the original – though I still love the sequence with Bruce Campbell – but I give some slack as it also had an even smaller budget (and, sadly, no David Warner). Though it’s been a long time since I’ve seen Waxwork, I still have fond memories of it, and I was happy to see it available for streaming.
Waxwork is streaming for subs on Amazon Prime as well as free on Tubi (with ads). It can be rented or purchased from most of the usual online places. Vestron released a Blu-ray double feature of Waxwork and Waxwork II: Lost in Time back in 2016 and I’m sorely tempted to track down a copy just for the commentary.
Mark (Zach Galligan), a wealthy college kid, and his friends attend a private showing at a mysterious new wax museum. The primary mysteries are: what the hell is a wax museum doing on a suburban residential street and why does the owner, David Lincoln (David Warner), dress like a low-budget Willy Wonka? The wax figures themselves are pretty realistic, though. Enough to make you want to take a closer look…
Okay, so let’s get this out of the way: Waxwork is a cheaply made film. I mean, sets that look like a high school stage play cheap. The ‘wax’ figures are visibly moving/breathing at times. The epic final confrontation looks like a bar fight in a local ‘haunted house’ attraction. Never has a character been so adamant about HOW MUCH THEY NEED CAFFEINE. None of this matters, because Waxwork is also full to the brim with humor, gory set pieces, great makeup effects (by Bob Keen, who also did effects for Nightbreed and Event Horizon), and love of – and appreciation for – classic horror movies.
While director (and screenwriter) Anthony Hickox didn’t have a lot of money to work with he makes the most with what he does have. Instead of having the wax figures come to life (or be wax-covered victims) he uses each display as an opportunity to put the characters INTO the scene. So wise-cracking Tony (Dana Ashbrook, a couple of years before Twin Peaks) stumbles into a remote cabin where a man (John Rhys Davies) is about to turn into a werewolf. And school ‘vamp’ China (Michelle Johnson) finds herself a guest of a certain bloodthirsty count. Each scenario is handled well and there are some genuinely gory and unsettling moments in between the laughs (the white-tiled basement scene in the vampire sequence manages all three at the same time).
The alternate realities – part of a plan by Lincoln to bring eighteen of “the most evil beings” into the real world where they will… I dunno, form a band or something – are a way for Hickox to pay homage to his favorite classic horror films, with mummies, killer plants, zombies, Frankenstein’s monster and the Phantom of the Opera all making appearances. In addition to these fictional creations there’s a display devoted to the Marquis De Sade (J. Kenneth Campbell) that proves particularly enticing to ‘good girl’ Sarah (Valley Girl’s Deborah Foreman).
Hickox came by his love of cinema honestly, as his parents have deep roots in the field. His father, Doug Hickox, directed one of my favorite Vincent Price movies – Theater of Blood – and his mother, Anne Coates, was a film editor who won an Oscar for Lawrence of Arabia. It’s that love of the source material and a tongue firmly planted in cheek that makes Waxwork rise above its budget. Even small moments – like the way Lincoln comforts the enormously tall butler after chewing him out for killing a policeman – contribute to the sense of weird fun.
The one down note is the ending, which was very much rushed when the money ran out. An extended chase/battle sequence through multiple time periods (the subject of the sequel) was truncated to a mad brawl between the forces of darkness and… a bunch of random guys. (There’s a backstory about Mark’s grandfather, artifacts of evil and a group lead by Sir Wilfred (Patrick Macnee), but it’s not exactly well fleshed out.) It’s sad to see everything degenerate into a punch-up after we’ve had things like a Howling-inspired werewolf tearing a guy in half.
The Bottom Line
Waxwork is an enjoyable rubber-reality horror film that manages to elevate itself above its budgetary limitations with great effects, decent performances a good sense of humor, and a love of horror films. It’s a just-plain-fun film with enough going on that you’re never bored and always entertained.