There aren't many more nightmarish thoughts than being boiled and preserved in wax. House of Wax did it, and that's a grotesque thought - keeping someone effectively buried alive in some molten liquid and then peeling the outer layer away to reveal the person beneath. But Waxwork is a little different than that, and it's a film that I've waited far too long to see.
Instead of a killer who wants to preserve his victims, Waxwork's villain wants his subjects to become part of an art project, if you will. They join the others in the museum as a character in a scene; once they step into the wax display, they get transported to the world of the scene and then live out the fantasy until they escape or are killed. This surprising element allows Waxwork to play around with genre cliches and classic monsters pulled from popular horror films.
The films begins like a typical '80s comedy about teens and their love interests. There's a goofy, playful humor to the first scenes that reminds of a John Hughes picture circa Sixteen Candles. Needless to say, I loved it. The jokes, the overacting, the sarcastic visual puns, and the obvious jabs at other horror movies are superbly done. And it never feels like Waxwork is doing this by accident; it's so outrageous that it must be purposeful.
That corny humor drops out about the halfway point, however. Once the teens make it into the wax museum, the atmosphere gets pretty eerie. The wax sculptures (at this point they are obviously real people posing, since some are moving) are dark and disturbing, and the fact that every single one of them depicts a gruesome murder gives the heebie-jeebies. And once the kids step into them, Waxwork feels like short Tales From the Crypt segments spliced together.
Since each wax scene is in a different realm, the film gets to try out a lot of props and effects. There are werewolves and vampires, and the Marquis de Sade. Transformations occur, and a gruesome amputation is joked about as a vampire feasts on a raw piece of meat from the victim's leg. The finale is like the Cabin in the Woods of 1988 - there is every type of monster one can think of, with excellent special effects from the makeup department as well as the monster props. It all comes together with a war between monster wax figures and fighters of the evil magician Waxwork Man (David Warner), where things get destroyed and lots of monsters pour forth in a show of what Waxwork could have done as a television show.
The only thing that's really lacking here is a good explanation of Waxwork Man's motive. He's bringing wax creatures to life to end the world; how he does it, and why he does it, is summed up with the succinct message of, "Someone has to!" That's true, but Waxwork could have used a development for the guy. Still, the movie spends enough time with our teen characters, played by Zach Galligan, Jennifer Bassey, Joe Baker, and Michelle Johnson, that we don't really need much of the other stuff as long as we care for the teens.
It's Galligan who takes best actor here, though. He plays everything off with a cool nonchalance that will be mimicked many times by rising teen stars, most notably by Mark-Paul Gosselaar in Saved By the Bell. But everyone does their fair share of work; each wax scene is memorable in its own way, and that's thanks to the short segments that come straight out of anthologies. In short, it all just works.
That's a testament to director and writer Anthony Hickox as well, because the mood and tone is just right. Waxwork doesn't flail blindly at comedy, but it also hits the mark with horror as well. There's just the right mix; and the two opening wax scenes, about a werewolf and vampire respectively, are the most powerful because they capture a really strange ambience.
The film is well worth a watch; it's not a slow-burning candle, either. The wax builds up quickly and continues throughout the film, until the viewer's just about buried alive in the stuff. Then, in the final minutes of the film, it pulls out all of the stops for a tour de force that will leave the audience frozen like a wax sculpture. Last pun - that's a waxwork of art!
Waxwork on Rotten Tomatoes