Welcome to Freaks of Nature, a monthly column devoted to creature features of all shapes and sizes. This includes eco-horrors, kaijū, cryptids, and everything else in between. If a film features a beast who strikes terror in the heart of man, I’ll be there, bestiary in hand and ready to bask in all that monster glory.
While wax museums aren’t exactly hotspots these days, their intrigue is eternal — having your wax likeness put on display for the world to see is about as close to immortality as you’ll ever get. And when a house of wax literally springs up overnight in a small town in Anthony Hickox’s 1988 movie Waxwork, visitors get a chance to peek at eighteen of the most frightening figures in history without the risk of harm. Well, that’s what they think, at least.
Although the story is set in a nondescript American suburb, filming largely took place in Los Angeles. Something Zach Galligan (Gremlins and Gremlins 2: The New Batch) noticed immediately while reading Hickox’s script before ever agreeing to join the project, though, was the dialogue — it sounded a tad too British. Then when he and his future castmates saw the dated wardrobe and sets, they all couldn’t help but ask questions. Galligan’s character was done up so he looked very posh — coiffed hair, buttoned-up shirts, fitted stovepipe jeans, and a blazer for every occasion — and to remind audiences he’s not your average college kid. Meanwhile, his costars seemed like characters out of a movie filmed in the sixties. The anachronistic aesthetic was confusing for the actors, but Hickox assured them things would soon make sense.
As Zach’s character Mark innocently races off to class that morning, his friends Sarah (Deborah Foreman, April Fool’s Day) and China (Michelle Johnson, Death Becomes Her) are the first to spot the mysterious wax museum that has essentially appeared out of nowhere. Beyond a white picket fence is the ominous venue — the exterior shots are from a real-life, 7-bedroom house located in Hancock Park, L.A. — where our characters eventually become lost to time or victims of unspeakable horrors. Sarah and China meet the reticent caretaker, David Lincoln, played by David Warner (The Omen); the illustrious actor didn’t come cheap so all his scenes had to be shot within two days. After Mr. Lincoln invites them to a midnight showing at the Waxwork, the women hurry off to meet the rest of the film’s players.
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Fast forward to midnight and our gang of preppy miscreants takes David Lincoln up on his offer. They enter the Waxwork without realizing what awaits them beyond each of the eighteen exhibits’ stanchions — anyone who steps past the ropes is instantly transported into whatever grisly scene is on display. For poor Tony (Dana Ashbrook, Return of the Living Dead Part II), he’s thrown into a dark European forest (really Griffith Park) where he encounters John Rhys-Davies’ character, a man who is in the throes of lycanthropy. Tony is on his way to becoming a werewolf himself before he’s quickly killed off by a pack of hunters. The werewolf sequence in Waxwork is notable because it signals the movie’s shift towards gore and splatter; unsuspecting audiences at the world premiere at Mann’s Chinese Theatre were completely caught off guard during Tony‘s scene. Bob Keen’s effects here include a man being torn in half by a werewolf modeled after the one created for The Howling by Rob Bottin.
Mark and Sarah walk through the museum floor in search of their missing friends, including China who is now trapped in a Gothic castle with a brood of hungry vampires. After she forces herself to eat a bowl of flesh and blood under the scrutinizing eyes of her ghoulish hosts, she’s thrown into what’s considered the film’s “bloodiest scene ever” (Fangoria # 78). China enters a torture room where a man, whose left leg has been stripped down to the bone, encourages her to fight the incoming vamps. The room being completely white enhances the utter bloodiness that the MMPA was so opposed to; a vampire physically picking at and victim’s mutilated leg along with Michelle being doused in blood was all frowned upon. The fervent censorship resulted in rated and unrated cuts back when Vestron first released the movie on VHS.
According to Hickox, a later scene where China‘s jock boyfriend Jonathan (Micah Grant) is sacrificed to the Phantom of the Opera exhibit, the specter himself was intended to be no other than Friday the 13th icon Jason Voorhees. For legal reasons, the Camp Crystal killer had to be replaced; the dialogue left intact between Jonathan and David makes more sense in light of this revelation. With Tony and China also nowhere to be found, Mark is understandably concerned. He delivers this news to a detective named Roberts (Charles McCaughan), who in turn brings audiences up to speed on how many people in total are missing so far since the Waxwork moved in: thirteen. And according to further exposition, there are eighteen exhibits because Lincoln is hoping to bring the eighteen murderous subjects back to life by offering souls to their wax effigies. Now, due to the similarities in both films’ stories, Hickox actively avoided seeing The Monster Squad that was released the previous year. Of course, Fred Dekker and Shane Black’s movie is sanitary when juxtaposed with Waxwork.
Following Inspector Roberts‘ own disappearance after checking out the Waxwork himself, Mark and Sarah are each absorbed into two different displays. Foreman, who won over the director with her part in Valley Girl, delivers a vulnerable performance as the Marquis de Sade‘s (J. Kenneth Campbell)’s willing victim. The subplot, awash with heavy shades of sadomasochism and misogyny, is a tonal hiccup in the horror comedy, but it also showcases Hickox’s lascivious tendencies as later seen in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth. As for Mark, he’s dropped into a Night of the Living Dead homage that had to be partly filmed in reverse to pull off several kooky special effects; Galligan also dyed his hair blond so that it showed up better in the final cut. Despite the segment being shot in black and white, however, Vestron requested the film’s zombies be faster than the slow Romero ones.
At last comes the lively, if not inelegant, conclusion highlighted by an unforgettable monster melee. Hickox had planned something far more ambitious — a time-jumping swordfight between Mark and the Marquis was meant to be the center of attention with the monster brawl happening in the background — but the movie ran out of money and the studio shut down production. Luckily, the idea was revisited in the straight-to-video sequel Waxwork II: Lost in Time. In lieu of the temporal swordplay, the exhibits’ evil subjects all come to life and do battle with the main characters as well as a mob of angry town residents. This unrehearsed montage of chaos and violence was shot in one day with little design and direction; it all feels like a happy accident in spite of Hickox’s personal disappointment.
A handful of favors, a talented cast, and a resourceful crew all made Anthony Hickox’s directorial debut possible. The movie, which reads like a soft anthology, didn’t quite turn out the way the director had intended, but it remains a childhood staple for every one of its faithful fans. The film thankfully found great success on home video, and its very existence means a lot to enthusiasts of practical effects and cheesy monsters. Although Waxwork hasn’t aged perfectly in all respects, its more definitive attributes continue to lure us back, time and time again.