Friday, August 21, 2020

‘Wax Mask’ Blends Classical Horror With Modern Effects Nastiness [We Love ’90s Horror]

The ‘90s often get a bad rap with horror fans. After the numerous successful slashers and creature effects films of the ’80s, the ‘90s offered a different variety of horror fare. Though there were plenty of hits, hidden gems, and misunderstood classics, the ‘90s usually don’t get the kind of love that other decades get when it comes to horror. It’s time to change that.

This week, Final Exam Horror Trivia is hosting a ‘90s-themed game that will involve a friendly wager between myself and my fellow decade columnists, Meagan Navarro and Ryan Larson: the losers have to live-tweet a maligned film that’s chosen by the winner. When the Final Exam Twitter account posted a picture of some movies we can expect questions on, I realized I needed to do some research. And out of those movies, the one I knew I wanted to check out was 1997’s Wax Mask.

The story is a familiar one: a house of wax museum displays recreations of grisly murder scenes, and the proprietor of the establishment, Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossein), seems more than a little suspicious. He has a mysterious infatuation with his new costume designer, Sonia (Romina Mondello), who witnessed her parents be brutally murdered by an unknown assailant with an iron hand. Naturally, the wax figures in Volkoff’s museum are made of actual corpses and this discovery will lead to a few other shocking moments.

There is so much that makes Wax Mask an interesting piece of Italian horror. Notably, it is the final screen credit of master Lucio Fulci. He developed the story with Dario Argento and Daniele Stroppa, but passed away a year before the film was made. Wax Mask is dedicated to Fulci and it’s kind of fascinating how it echoes a more classical tone than Fulci normally displayed in his own directorial efforts. Fulci was going to direct but that duty went to special effects artist Sergio Stivaletti. And yes, the effects work in Wax Mask is likely what’s going to stick in your memory. The different gags with the corpses and the metal-handed murderer are all a total delight. It’s clear that the filmmakers wanted this to be a showcase for the effects work and it certainly is. The final showdown in the blazing wax museum – if you have a wax museum in your horror movie, it’s a rule that it has to burn down – reveals a Terminator-like skeleton to the killer that’s unbearably cool.

But, the really surprising element of Wax Mask is how dedicated it is to feeling like an old-school Universal horror classic. During development of the film, Argento screened both the 1933 film Mystery of the Wax Museum and the 1953 film House of Wax (which Wax Mask is… let’s say, *inspired* by). The beautiful locations and sets are all filmed with awe and admiration. It turns the whole piece away from your usual Italian giallo fare and makes it come across as lovingly classical. The look of the killer is straight off a Neighborhood Watch Design and the whole pace of the movie plays out more like a movie from the ‘30s than the ‘90s. This might lead some viewers to the conclusion that the movie is “slow,” but it’s actually got a measured sense about itself that feels extremely mature for this genre.

And the direction from Sergio Stivaletti is effectively atmospheric. For a feature film debut, Stivaletti shows what he learned from working with Argento for many years. There is a calmness to his direction that hearkens back to the restrained approach of classical horror. That doesn’t mean the movie is tame. There are two scenes involving child victims that are insane and horrifying, and there is some content here that will likely be objectionable to some viewers. That’s often the case with Italian horror and Wax Mask is no different.

If you’re looking for a deeper cut in the realm of Italian horror, Wax Mask is a must-see. It’s got an aura all its own and much more production polish than you might expect. As far as wax museum movies go, it’s a great little B-side after you’ve seen the original Mystery of the Wax Museum and House of Wax. If you dig movies like Tourist Trap and love classical horror, Wax Mask will get the job done.

Now, let’s hope I can nail the Wax Mask question on Final Exam’s ‘90s trivia this week!


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