As the first part of the Deborah Foreman Double Shot, Phil looks at WAXWORK, an In Its Own Universe flick that takes 40s era screwball comedy and graphic horror and never manages to integrate them slightly. And Phil still suggests you watch it. Check out Phil’s review of APRIL FOOL’S DAY for more Foreman Funtime.
WAXWORK is the only horror flick I’ve ever seen in which a character sings Maurice Chevalier’s “Thank Heaven for Little Girls.” I mention this not just because this is one odd event in a horror film, but it’s indicative of what a strange, unique film that writer/ director Anthony Hickox made. At times 1940s broad comedy, at others gory horror, at all times there was no way I could take my eyes off this film. It swings back and forth tonally, and is more than a bit of a mess. But for what it is, WAXWORK is a lot of fun. And that makes it well worth watching.
Take the opening. Rich college kid Mark Loftmore sits at the other end of a very long table from his mother. A plant stands directly between them. As they discuss his caffeine habit among other things, the scene plays out like a black-and-white screwball comedy, in which Cary Grant would have been perfectly suitable to play Mark. Jump to China and Sarah, walking through the neighborhood on their way to school, when they come across a waxwork wholly unfitting in its locale. The curator pops out of nowhere, and issues an invitation for a midnight show, with the order they bring no more than six. When they get to class, sexual tensions build as the jilted Mark discovers China had sex with a football player last night. A few more friends join the group, including Tony, who keeps spewing out, “This man is in pain,” as China rubs it in that she’s screwing someone else. That night they go to the waxwork, where they encounter a midget and a giant, and soon discover that crossing the ropes of the waxworks transports them into the tableaux.
The tableaux scenes are in total contrast with everything that’s come before it. The acting, music and lines like China’s “Can’t a girl get laid around here without being burnt at the stake?” vamped out as from a Howard Hawkes leading lady, all set a comedic tone that’s just plain weird. It carries over to the beginning of Tony’s tableaux with the werewolf, but then takes such a violent turn that is so abrupt, it’s shocking. Once we get to China’s vampire tableaux, all the 40s era comedy takes a backseat to plates of raw meat splattered in blood sauce, a man’s leg shorn down to the bone, and never ending pools of blood. I can’t be sure that the director aimed for a horror comedy, but if so, it fails as one because nothing gels. It’s like Hickox is making two different movies, a screwball comedy and a standard horror flick that he just jammed together, instead of infusing the two organically. The editing doesn’t help; comedy depends on cutting more than any other genre, but Christopher Cibelli lets cuts linger a second or two too long. Conversely, during the final scene, an all-out horror that pits the waxworks’ curator and his monster against an aged family friend of Mark’s and what amounts to the Charge of the Geriatric Brigade, he resorts on a hundred flash cuts; it’s edited so vigorously, it was impossible for me to tell who was whom, and what was going on.
And yet, I like WAXWORK, mainly because it’s so weird. It starts with the casting. As rich kid Mark, Zach Galligan plays things constantly frustrated. He can’t get his morning coffee, his professor busts on him about being late for class, his best girl is now having sex with a lunkhead football player, and then all his friends are dying. And to boot, he was never very good at languages. Through all this, Mark is a bit of a dick, but Galligan is such an appealing actor that he makes Mark sympathetic. Later, when he tries to convince the police to help him save his friends, and ultimately takes matters into his own hands, Mark becomes the nice guy we’d expect from Galligan, here between his two GREMLINS efforts.
As China, Michelle Johnson is the blonde bombshell that any 1980s high school guy would have wanted to date. Her acting here is considerably better than it was in her debut BLAME IT ON RIO just four years prior (though many male fans of that film will likely be upset that there’s not so much as a stitch of film here in which she’s not wearing a stitch of clothing). She’s playful in the role, vamping up lines such as, “I do what I want, when I want. Dig it or fuck off!” to sweet perfection.
As Sarah, Deborah Foreman does exactly what you would expect her to do in a 1980s film: provide a cute, likable character who has 127 facial expressions. The revelation here is just how good she is in her tableaux scene. Taking the whip blows of the Marquis de Sade, she comes to love the pain and doesn’t want to leave when Mark comes to the rescue. Covered in sweat and broken, she brings a vulnerability and desire to the virgin Sarah that informs the character.
Hickox also populates the film with horror stalwarts David Warner as Lincoln the curator and Patrick Macnee as Sir Wilfred, the old family friend who knows the true evils of the waxworks. The approaches the actors take add to the uneven tone, as Warner clearly plays it up as a farce, while Macnee plays it straight, as if they’re performing for two different directors. And though no stalwart, 80s beefcake and Bo Derek co-star Miles O’Keefe brings his very limited range as Count Dracula himself.
Notable are the makeup effects. As with everything else, they’re uneven. Some of them, such as the zombies, are spot on, but the werewolf looks like the retarded cousin of the lycanthropes in Joe Dante’s THE HOWLING. Across the board, though, they’re brutal, including the beheading of a good guy I thought to be safe. Pools of blood are in abundance, so much so that apparently there’s an uncut version of the film that never made it past the censors. If you’re a gorehound and can wade through twenty minutes of screwball comedy, you’ll be well rewarded. But if you choose to fast forward to the first bloodshed, you’ll sorely miss much of what makes the film charming.
WAXWORK isn’t for anyone, but as I said in my intro, it’s a lot of fun. It’s one of those In Its Own Universe films, a Howard Hawkes comedy meets TEXAS CHAINSAW 2 style gore, where the two never come together. But it’s got a likable cast in Galligan, Johnson and Foreman, and it’s irresistibly weird. The girl can certainly get laid around here when I’m in the rare mood for offbeat horror, and she won’t even get burnt at the stake. Even Chevalier shouldn’t argue that.