Waxwork Double-Feature Blu-ray Review (originally published 2016)
Inside the wax museum, a group of teenagers are aghast at the hauntingly lifelike wax displays of Dracula, the Wolfman, the Mummy, and other character members of the Horror Hall of Fame. Each display is perfectly grotesque, yet each is missing one thing....a victim! Admission to the Waxwork was free, but, now, they may pay with their lives! One by one, the students are drawn into the settings and attacked by the bloodthirsty creatures. Now, they are part of the permanent collection. (From Vestron’s official synopsis)
Anthony Hickox’ career took a pretty steep swan dive into obscurity as the 1990s came to an end, but, for a time, he was perhaps the most underrated B-filmmaker in Hollywood. None of his movies are what I’d call great and none of them are outrageously original (except maybe Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat, which is his best and most fully realized film, 1990); yet, his first six movies looked slick, featured creative violence, and were much funnier than the bulk of his STV/limited release horror competition. As the son of Theatre of Blood (1973) director Douglas Hickox and Lawrence of Arabia (1962) editor Anne V. Coates, filmmaking was in his blood (his sister, Emma E. Hickox, is a very successful editor, who just this year cut Jon Lucas & Scott Moore’s Bad Moms, 2016).
Waxwork was his debut and it tells new audiences all they need to know about his comic book style, his sense of humor, and his affection for classic Hollywood tropes. A pseudo-reimagining of Paul Leni & Leo Birinsky’s 1924 silent film, Waxworks (German: Das Wachsfigurenkabinett), Hickox’s version approaches the anthology horror custom from a different angle by placing precedence on the wraparound segment instead of the tableau pieces. Because the characters are reused throughout the standalone adventures and understand their plight as victims in a horror story, it’s more like short series of episodes from a television series (fun trivia: apparently Hickox is, as of this writing, still trying to develop a Waxwork TV series). It’s a fun idea that keeps the parts connected while paying homage to a broad range of horror traditions. The problem with this model is that there’s not a lot of time to fully appreciate each of the tableaus on their own merits (especially in the case of the vampire sequence, which is the best piece of the whole movie). Too quickly, we’re taken back to the by-the-numbers wraparound segment. Hickox’s version of college comedy is a bit dopey, but his characters are likeable enough and his dialogue has a delightfully nerdy, while including loads of references to outdated pop culture and intellectual concepts that were of zero interest to teenage audiences in 1988. His pop sensibilities and his all-star cult cast – Zach Galligan, Deborah Foreman, Dana Ashbrook, David Warner, et cetera – apparently made the geekiness palatable, because Waxwork was a big enough hit to spawn a sequel.
Waxwork was released at a time when the MPAA was especially strict about on-screen violence, so, even though the gore was relatively lighthearted, several seconds were trimmed from the vampire sequence to ensure an R-rating. Vestron released both R and unrated cuts on VHS, which was still pretty unusual at the time. When Artisan Entertainment debuted a DVD version (as a double-feature with the sequel), it was cropped to 1.33:1. In fact, all releases were cropped until Lionsgate finally released an anamorphic 1.85:1 disc in the UK. Unfortunately, it was the R-rated cut. That means that this 1.85:1 Blu-ray is more than just an HD upgrade – it’s the first home video availability of the unrated version in widescreen. The image quality is similar to the previous Vestron Collector’s Series releases in that it is much better than an SD version, but still somewhat problematic. There aren’t any DNR issues (like the ones seen on the Chopping Mall transfer), but there is considerable telecine scanner noise (as seen on the Blood Diner transfer). This often appears like film grain while in motion, except for a few instances where the noise actually stops moving and sits statically on top of the footage. This leads to problems for textures during expansive shots – though Hickox & cinematographer Gerry Lively also use soft focus and wide-angle lenses, so the details have probably never been all that sharp. While haloes are slight, there is mosquito noise along some edges, especially when bright reds are contrasted against black or dark blue. Actual film damage artifacts are minimal. The biggest offender is a bit of warping that crops up at the end of some of the reels.
The film is presented in its original stereo sound and preserved in uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. The dialogue can be a bit inconsistent in terms of volume and clarity from scene to scene, either because the filmmakers were fixing problems with ADR or because Lionsgate was working from multiple sources. Whatever the reason, it’s not a big deal. The sound effects are over-the-top, as if every one of them were added in post, which fits the material. The stereo field is regularly engaged wherever action is concerned. Roger Bellon’s music reminds me a lot of the better than average scores Richard Band used to record for Empire Pictures releases. He mixes genres well and switches between poppy electronic tunes and classical themes, depending on what serves each sequence.
Commentary with Anthony Hickox & Zach Galligan – The director and star share their memories of the film in this charming commentary. For much of the track, Galligan acts as moderator/interviewer and does a great job keeping the discussion on the rails. Hickox is delightfully self-deprecating – something Galligan counteracts by regularly praising his compositions.
Isolated score/interview with Roger Bellon – The composer discusses his music with Red Shirt Pictures’ Michael Felsher in what basically amounts to a commentary track with musical interludes.
The Making Of Waxwork (24:05, SD) – This vintage behind-the-scenes featurette is rather extensive and includes loads of cast & crew interviews and raw, on-set video footage.
The Waxwork Chronicles (1:22:17, HD) – An extensive retrospective documentary that is broken down into six parts:
Museums & Portals – Hickox, editor Christopher Cibelli, producer Steffan Ahrenberg, FX supervisors Steve Hardie & Bob Keen, production assistant Paul Martin, and Galligan discuss the events that brought them together (it was a car accident in Hickox & Ahrenberg’s case), developing the film with Vestron, basic filmmaking processes, cutting the vampire scene for the MPAA, Bellon’s score, losing time/money to shoot the big climax, and the film’s release.
Through the Looking Glass – This second part covers the production of the second film, including recasting Deborah Foreman’s character (she and Hickox had been a romantic couple and broke up between movies) with Monika Schnarre, moving away from the horror tone of the first movie, and trying to deliver a ‘bigger’ sequel on a smaller budget. Interview subjects include all returning cast & crew, along with Schnarre, art director John Chichester, and FX artist Paul Jones.
An Eye for Detail – A look at the cinematography, mix-and-match visual inspirations, special effects, and general comic book style of the two movies. Waxwork II actor Bruce Campbell shows up as an interview subject here and appears again in later featurettes.
Mark’s Magic Ride – Galligan discusses being cast in the series and developing the Mark Loftmore character.
Faces in the Crowd – This is a casting featurette for both movies. Dana Ashbrook, Christopher Bradley, J. Kenneth Campbell, David Carradine (they must have shot this a while ago…) join Galligan, Schnarre, and Campbell for the interviews.
Blood and Wax – The final featurette covers the special effects processes for the two films. The interviews are augmented with a decent amount of raw behind-the-scenes video footage.
Waxwork II: Lost in Time (1992)
Having escaped the fiery destruction of the original Waxwork, Mark (Zach Galligan) and Sarah (Monika Schnarre) face another grueling ordeal in Waxwork II, when Sarah is accused of murdering her stepfather. Fleeing through the doors of time in a desperate search for proof of her innocence, the two lovers find themselves caught in the eternally recurring battle between good and evil. Together, they must stop one of the most powerful and demonic figures of all time – Lord Scarabus. (From Vestron’s official synopsis)
The second and, as yet, final entry in the Waxwork franchise, subtitled Lost in Time, dials back on the horror and cranks up the comedy (it’s still pretty violent, but the gore is satirical enough that they didn’t have any MPAA troubles this time). There is extensive Sam Raimi inspiration here and not just during the goofy scenes where severed hands attack people. The energy levels, the speedy camera movements, and the pure slapstick outrageousness, extended severed hand attack sequence – not to mention an appearance by Bruce Campbell himself – all reek of Evil Dead 2 (1987) homage. This is all the more amusing when one notes that Lost in Time was released only three months after Raimi’s third Evil Dead movie, Army of Darkness (1992). It’s not as conceptually clever or charming nerdy as Waxwork, but Lost in Time is the technically superior film, which is saying a lot, because it had an even smaller budget and shorter shooting schedule. The production values are more impressive, the special effects are more ambitious, and the episodic storytelling is better balance (with the obvious genre favourites out of the way, Hickox is able to broaden his spoof to Robert Wise’s The Haunting (1963), Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979), and Kevin Reynolds’ Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (1991), for some reason. With this in mind, Lost in Time may actually represent Hickox at the height of his filmmaking prowess. Really, it is its ties to the first movie that hold it back, because Hickox’s dialogue and actor direction had also improved since the original Waxwork. With a more substantial budget and an original, more focused screenplay about time travel adventures, it may have been a minor classic. As is, it’s best to accept it on its own merits.
Waxwork II: Lost in Time has never been released on digital media as a solo feature. It has always been attached to the other movie and has never appeared on any home video format in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, so this 1080p Blu-ray debut is a pretty big deal. It is also the superior of the two transfers. This time, the issue of telecine noise is slight, consisting mostly of slight vertical streaks. Otherwise, the grain appears relatively natural, instead of snowy or discolored. Hickox and returning cinematographer Lively still emphasize softness, so there’s no escaping a certain degree of fuzziness. Details are somewhat flat and some of the edges still have aliasing issues, but the colors are more vibrant, the details are sharper, and elements are more neatly separated. The original mono sound is, again, presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 and is a slight upgrade over the first movie’s soundtrack, simply because there is an increase in outrageous sci-fi/fantasy sound effects. Dialogue is still relatively well-centered, despite the lack of a discrete center channel and stereo enhancement is well-constructed. Schiff’s music is still pretty great, though the lower budget seems to have kept it from getting the same fully symphonic boost as the first movie. The synthesized accoutrements just aren’t as impressive.
Commentary with Anthony Hickox & Zach Galligan – Director and actor return for more anecdotes and production stories. This track sounds a bit less ‘prepped,’ but ends up being even more information. I had intended on only sampling sections of it for the sake of time, but ended up listening to almost the entire thing, because it was so amusing.
Isolated score/interview with Roger Bellon – The composer again discusses his music with Michael Felsher.
Music Video (3:50, SD)