Bad films need love, too Part I: Waxwork

Bad films need love, too… and you know what? When you give them a chance, they’ll love you back. Today’s offering is 1988’s Waxwork, directed by Anthony Hickox.

A waxwork museum randomly appears on an American suburban street and its proprietor is David Warner, billed as ‘Waxwork Man’. In a dubious American accent, he engages with a couple of supposed schoolgirls, played by women old enough to know better, and invites them to a special midnight show.

The opening in particular is laden with strange, spoken aloud inner monologues, featuring slightly clumsy contextual information for the audience’s benefit. The characterisation so eccentric that the initial dialogue makes you feel like you’re watching a David Lynch movie. It’s one of those films you think is aware of its own stilted awfulness, but at times you start to doubt your own judgement.

When the young gang of friends (four or five of them, I don’t know, I’ve just watched it for the third time and they still all look much the same and they keep moving around) enter the waxworks for the first time, they are ushered into a foyer where they wait awkwardly for their evening’s entertainments to begin. The door then soundlessly swings open, seemingly by itself.

“Sh*t, it’s the old door opening by itself scene” exclaims one of them, in knowing reference to the genre. The camera then reveals that the door has in fact been opened by a tuxedoed little person, and the feeling that we might be watching a lazily made Lynch film continues.

And so our young group of teens peruse the exhibits. The waxworks are quite obviously played actors trying not to breathe too hard or wobble too much, but that’s okay. As soon as the unwitting victims stray into the waxworks exhibits, they enter the storyworld being depicted in them, new personas, costume changes and all.

Tony (played by Dana Ashbrook) is the first of the friends to be sucked into one of the waxwork exhibits. His immersive experience takes the form of a werewolf encounter, featuring John Rhys-Davies delivering some joyful ham-acting as the werewolf.

Next up is China (Michelle Johnson) who wanders unwittingly into a Dracula-eque tableau. This section is most notable for the best ever delivery of the phrase, “Steak tartar… ah yes, steak tartar”, as well as the moment where China’s persona is reunited with her fiancé, tied to a table with his leg whittled away. Evidentially, that’s where the steak tartar came from. There’s also the lovely moment where the vampire brides, during a showdown in the cellar, are impaled on champagne bottles and corks explode through their undead bodies.

China and Tony’s friends, Mark (Zach Galligan, best known for playing Billy in Gremlins) and Sarah (Deborah Foreman) realise they have gone missing, eventually, and approach a disillusioned chain-smoking Inspector Roberts for help. Robert’s highlight is when he is snooping around the museum and takes a sample of one of the figure’s skin; presumably to reassure himself that it really is just made of wax. Trying to get a victim’s waxy piece of cheek into an evidence bag deftly with his pocket knife, he gives up and just chucks it in by hand.

When the Inspector fails to assist in any meaningful way, Mark’s asks his wheel-chair bound Godfather Sir Wilfred “Call me Wilfie”. It’s truly lovely to see Patrick Macnee (John Steed of The Avengers to you) in this tongue-in-cheek role, which is less Austin Power’s Basil Exposition and more The Rocky Horror Picture Show’s Dr Scott. Sir Wilfred reveals that the waxwork owners are in possession of eighteen objects, which once belonged to eighteen different corrupt wrong-uns, each of whom now must claim a soul in order to for some sort of ritual to be complete (it’s explained very quickly and the finer details are glossed over). Anyway, what Wilfie foretells is, “The voodoo end of the world” – and clearly this needs to be stopped, by preventing those exhibits who have not yet claimed their victims from doing so.

The DVD for Waxwork proudly states that it is an eighteen certificate which “Contains strong bloody violence, some sexual.” The violence? Exploding vampires, trodden on heads, someone being unconvincingly ripped in half, ancient Egyptian mummies dribbling black juice onto people’s faces. The special effects are dodgy; it is the fact that it these gory spectacles have that plastic eighties falseness that make them unsettling. The “sexual” being referred to on the DVD cover is the mousy, withdrawn Sarah’s foray into the wonderful world of the Marquis de Sade (who is far more charming and pirate-like than Quills, or actually reading anything the Marquis wrote, would have us believe). This set-piece marks the start of the film’s glorious finale.

This film only gets better and better as it goes on. To explain more would be to spoil so many treats you have coming your way. I haven’t even had time to mention my favourite character, Jenkins, Mark’s butler, who turns out to be a little more than he appears, or the German lecturer at the teen’s school, complete with his uncontrollable Dr Strangelove hand.

In a moment of fourth-wall smashing, tongue-in-cheek knowingness, David Warner as The Waxwork Man coolly mutters in the audience’s vague direction, “They’ll make a movie about anything these days.” And thank goodness they will. You can’t help but think that the final scenes must have influenced Night at the Museum somewhere along the line, and round off the entire film’s imaginative storytelling (that’s not a kind euphemism, it really is imaginative). Weighing in at 93 minutes, Waxwork is a good length; it’s certainly over before you get restless enough to look at your watch. By the time the odd choice of end credits music is blaring out, “It’s my party and I’ll cry if I want to” , you will be spontaneously having a bit of a dance, even if you’re not totally sure why.

I was delighted to discover that this film has a sequel, Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992), and with the same writer/director, Galligan reprising his role as Mark and Patrick “John Steed” Macnee back as Sir Wilfred. Clearly this unwillingness to let go of Waxwork and ride its legacy like a comet’s tail by making a sequel four years on, is testimony to its greatness. I hope to be watching and reviewing this film very, very soon. I’ll bet you can’t wait.

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