[VESTRON WEEK] The WAXWORK Films Showcase Anthony Hickox Deft Blend Of Horror And Comedy

When it was announced that Lionsgate was going to be resurrecting the Vestron line in a series of Blu-rays, the titles that were most exciting to many ’80s and ’90s horror fans was the double feature release of WAXWORK and WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME. The Blu-rays were the first HD treatments for both films and the first official, uncut release of WAXWORK with several gore bits reinstated. To celebrate the release of the films for VESTRON WEEK, DAILY GRINDHOUSE Assistant Editor Mike Vanderbilt and DG contributor Matt Wedge re-watched both films and discussed how they hold up now versus when they first saw them.

Mike Vanderbilt: When did you first see WAXWORK?

Matt Wedge: I’m not sure of the exact year, but it probably would have been some time around 1993 or 1994. Back then, I had a ton of time on my hands and was tearing through the horror sections of three or four video stores. What I remember about WAXWORK was the feeling of pure fun. The high concept and entertainment value made it stand out from a lot of the duds I would run across. When did you first see it? What were your initial thoughts?

MV: As I’ve expressed on the site before, there were very few boundaries in the Vanderbilt household. My mom bought me my first issue of FANGORIA in 1988. A NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET 4 was featured on the cover and WAXWORK was released that June. I must have been aware of the film about then, but I don’t remember watching it until it aired as the Saturday night movie on WPWR Channel 50, a local UHF station I would assume in 1989 or so. I imagine the film didn’t have a long theatrical run, as most horror in the late ’80s appeared to do better on home video than at the show, so I would imagine a quick turnaround to television wouldn’t be unimaginable. I specifically remember being taken by the hand escaping at the finale and the use of Lesley Gore’s “It’s My Party” over the end credits. I certainly rediscovered it when I was 12 and WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME was released. That was about the age I was seriously into Full Moon Entertainment and ate up anything that was horror at the local video store. I think what struck me with both films at that age was how much fun they were and the presence of heroes as well as villains. Most horror films concentrated on the killer, but films where there was a cool, kind of dopey hero appealed to me: Zach Galligan in WAXWORK, Bruce Campbell in THE EVIL DEAD, and Thom Matthews in JASON LIVES come to mind.

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MW: I can’t say that there were absolute boundaries about what I was and was not allowed to watch when I was a kid. Because of her work hours, my mom was not around a lot to monitor what I was watching and my dad had pretty much an iron grip on the TV so I basically watched what he watched–and he hated horror. In all honesty, most of the films he exposed me to were far more inappropriate than a lot of the horror films that were coming out in the early ’80s. From the ages of eight to around twelve, I watched movies like APOCALYPSE NOW, HEAVEN’S GATE, EASY RIDER, TESTAMENT, and other heady, upsetting films that tended to be loaded with grisly violence, harrowing death scenes, and an over-abundance of Dennis Hopper. But when something as relatively tame as Don Coscarelli’s THE BEASTMASTER was next up on HBO, he wouldn’t let me watch it, explaining that it was horror and therefore, too gory. All I could think for the longest time was, “Shit, if Private Pyle blowing his head off in FULL METAL JACKET isn’t too gory, I don’t think I could handle anything worse.”

That’s a long-winded way of explaining why I didn’t dive into horror films until after high school. But I think that was actually good because I came to movies like WAXWORK well after the time I had worked my way through the classic Universal and Hammer horror films. And those films are the ones which writer/director Anthony Hickox is simultaneously paying homage to and spoofing. WAXWORK was one of the first tongue-in-cheek horror films I watched where I felt like I was in on the joke and I responded to that sense of inclusion. At the point when I first watched it, I also had seen enough splatter films to understand that Hickox was trying to update classic horror tropes for young horror fans who had grown up on slasher films, the NIGHTMARE ON ELM STREET series, and the more extreme images of HELLRAISER. Between the fun cast (Galligan is clearly having a blast getting to play a little bit of a prick for a change), the concept, the surprising gore, and the way Hickox switched up styles between the vignettes, WAXWORK earned a coveted second rental from me and became one of those under-the-radar indie horrors I recommended to people.
You clearly started building up a base knowledge of horror at a younger age than I did. Did you lock in on the connections to older horror films in WAXWORK? Did the presence of actors like David Warner and Patrick Macnee bring about any nostalgia for you at the time or were they just familiar faces?

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MV: I don’t think I fully became aware of the power of David Warner until recently, I mean, this is a guy who has appeared in at least two STAR TREK films as two different characters.

I did like the kind of old school meets new wave concept of the film, mixing classic movie monsters with kids who dressed sharp, smoked, and just seemed cool to me as a youngster. I still can’t figure out if they’re in high school or college. When I revisited the film in my twenties, the notion of a modern take on classic horror held much more weight. It’s interesting though, while Hickox is definitely attempting to retell classic horror tales in five-minute doses, the tone always remains singular. I never get the vibe that he’s attempting Universal horror here or Hammer horror here, its all decidedly Hickox. I loved the villains matter of fact conceit that somebody has to end the world as well as the underground league of heroes. I also credit WAXWORK with kickstarting my pervert tendencies with the Marquis De Sade sequence.

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I certainly remember revisiting WAXWORK when the sequel was released in 1992. My mom was always good for renting the original as well as the sequel, just to make sure we were up to speed. (I remember her also doing this for PHANTASM when PHANTASM II came to home video). WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME came out around the time I started renting videos for myself and I definitely remember it being at a sleepover in my parents’ basement. By that point my friends and I were seriously into THE EVIL DEAD and the appearance of Bruce Campbell was a pleasant surprise. I always enjoyed WAXWORK II but felt it was actually a little too silly and suffered from a severe lack of Deborah Foreman.

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MW: I agree that the feel of WAXWORK is singularly Hickox’s tone. But I still felt like there was enough flavor of the films he was referencing to recognize when he was going for a Hammer or Universal feel. Hell, he even managed to tap into that “stiff British upper lip” attitude of films like ZULU in the goofy mass battle scenes that end the film, but still kept his tongue firmly in cheek.

 

I rented WAXWORK II: LOST IN TIME right after watching WAXWORK and I remember enjoying it. But upon re-watching it for VESTRON WEEK…let’s just say that it sounds like you dug it more than I did. There were several issues with the film that made it suffer in my view. There was of course the re-casting of Deborah Foreman’s role (And really, doesn’t every movie without her suffer from a “severe lack of Deborah Foreman?), the tossing aside of the first film’s clever premise in favor of a time/dimension travel story that got way too convoluted, and a sagging second act where it bogged down as the heroes are trapped in the realm of Alexander Gudonov’s sadistic villain.

Side note: Did it feel like Sarah’s (Foreman in the first film, Monika Schnarre in the second film) interest in kink in the Marquis De Sade sequence and the Medieval section of WAXWORK II came dangerously close to slut shaming at times? I understand these movies were made almost thirty years ago, but still…

In my look at SUNDOWN: THE VAMPIRE IN RETREAT, Hickox’s follow-up film to WAXWORK, I talked about how it seemed like he had bigger ideas than his budget could handle. That again feels the case with WAXWORK II. Instead of fully exploring the clever hook at the center of his premise, he goes off on any number of tangents that bog the film down and spread the resources too thin. Where the cheapness of the sets in the first WAXWORK made sense in the way it helped that film call back to the artificiality of the older films it was referencing, it hurts WAXWORK II since the change in the premise is supposed to have the audience believe that Mark and Sarah are actually trapped in the past and not a wax museum stand-in.

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I feel like a hypocrite since I usually fault sequels that gives the audience the exact same as the first film, but in a weird way, that’s what I wanted out of WAXWORK II. Most of the fun that I had with it was early in the film with the moments that felt like the first WAXWORK (the ghost story with Bruce Campbell, the ALIEN inspired sequence, the FRANKENSTEIN vignette) and the final duel between Mark and the villain in the third act as they skipped through different horror movie scenes while continuing their sword fight. These moments had the sense of fun of the first film where the bulk of WAXWORK II was too plodding.

Am I being too hard on the second film? Did you like the changing of the premise between the first and second one? Do you think I’m being too hard on Hickox for being overly ambitious instead of scaling back?

MV: As far as the concept of slut shaming in the WAXWORK films, I think Hickox found the right balance, mixing the right amount of a teenage girl’s lurid curiosity and at the same time making the villain dangerous.

WAXWORK II does falter under the weight of the film’s climax. Both movies work better when the characters are traveling throughout horror films of the past, be it via the wax museum or through the portals of time. LOST IN TIME certainly picks up steam when they end up in DAWN OF THE DEAD, if ever so briefly. I think getting Mark and Sarah out of the waxwork and into the time travel was necessary to make WAXWORK II not more of the same. In hindsight WAXWORK II is both not as much fun as the original and ultimately too silly, too slapstick. The original balanced that tone much more impressively; I do think you’re being too hard on Hickox for his ambition. You and I watch plenty of trash that settles for the middle of the road. I agree with your assessments of the cheapness of the sets, but I’d rather see a filmmaker like Hickox swing for the fences and just miss than simply play it by the numbers.

One thing I love about WAXWORK II is the matter of factness with which Mark clears Sarah of the charges. He gets the hand by accident and everyone in the court simply accepts it.

MW: That DAWN OF THE DEAD bit is my favorite moment in WAXWORK II. Hickox does a great job of matching the look of the film with the costumes, setting, and film grain. I had forgotten about that moment when I re-watched it recently and literally cheered when it happened.

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I agree that it is usually better for a sequel to push the story forward rather than just try to repeat the first film. Like I said, I feel like a hypocrite when I complain about the change in premise between the films. I just feel like Hickox loses track of the tone as he switches from waxworks to time travel. The film goes too slapstick and loses track of the horror elements. And I do think I’m being too hard on Hickox. After my last response, I immediately felt bad for dogging on his ambition out-reaching his budgets. I still had fun in fits and starts with WAXWORK II, just like I occasionally had fun with Hickox’s uneven SUNDOWN. Given the choice between those two films and the generic mainstream genre offerings over the last decade, I’ll always take LOST IN TIME and SUNDOWN over DRACULA UNTOLD or I, FRANKENSTEIN any day of the week. I think I was just reminded of how much potential Hickox had after WAXWORK and how he never really lived up to that first film’s high. It’s a disappointment to me as a fan.

I did question the goofy logic at the heart of Mark’s plan: Maybe we can find something to clear Sarah’s name by going through this time portal? Lucking into the hand and presenting it as evidence felt a little like Hickox acknowledging that the MacGuffin of the trial was an incredibly silly plot device. The audience doesn’t care why they’re going through time, they only care about the adventures they get into while they do so.

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I’m glad that I re-watched both WAXWORK films and SUNDOWN. While only the first one holds up to exactly as much fun as I originally had with it, all three were good reminders of a time when indie genre filmmakers did try to come up with clever, high concept ideas instead of grabbing an iPhone and running out to the woods to shoot yet another zombie film with their friends.
Any final thoughts?

MV: WAXWORK for me is one of the great cult-classics of the VHS era that hasn’t been oversaturated by Johnny-come-latelys. It always makes my list of favorite horror flicks as it’s, much like FRIGHT NIGHT, a film for the fans, by a fan. It also may be where my love of Peter Pan collar dresses began. Its sequel is subpar, but doesn’t skimp on the imagination. Hickox’s HELLRAISER III: HELL ON EARTH is my favorite of the HELLRAISER films and I think it’s a damn shame that he didn’t get a chance to put out more original horror fare. His deft mixture of comedy, gore, and horror is everything I looked for in films, particularly in my adolescence. Ending thoughts on your end?

MW: Maybe I need to revisit HELLRAISER III. It’s been a couple of decades since I watched it and I don’t remember it doing too much for me.

I don’t have any real final thoughts so much as little ideas that have occurred to me while having this conversation, but I didn’t bring up. Things like it was fun to see Zach Galligan get a decent part and run with it. I feel like that guy got a bad rap as the “bland dude who was constantly upstaged by Gremlins and colorful character actors.” Also, I was surprised to realize just how ahead of their time film nerdy these movies were. When both WAXWORK films came out, making super specific references to past films felt fresh and wasn’t the storytelling crutch that it is now. ??I guess my final takeaway from this little trip down VHS memory lane is that I have a definite nostalgia for this kind of indie genre fare back when it took a little more money to get things right. For as much as I complain about the cheap feel of some of the sets, Hickox (and his peers at the time) still took the time to get real actors, effects crews, and veteran cinematographers/editors. You can feel the additional care that necessarily had to go into making a movie that was shot on 35mm film. Weirdly, for films that were gory, silly, and a little snarky, I got the warm fuzzies from watching the WAXWORK films again.

MV: HELLRAISER III is the silliest of the series, that’s why I dig it.

Jon Abrams

Editor-In-Chief at Daily Grindhouse
Jon Abrams is a New York-based writer, cartoonist, and committed cinemaniac whose complete work and credits can be found at his site, Demon’s Resume. You can contact him on Twitter as @JonZilla___.
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