With horror industry heavy hitters already in place from the 1970s, the 1980s built upon that with the rise of brilliant minds in makeup and effects artists, as well as advances in technology. Artists like Rick Baker, Rob Bottin, Alec Gillis, Tom Woodruff Jr., Tom Savini, Stan Winston, and countless other artists that delivered groundbreaking, mind-blowing practical effects that ushered in the pre-CGI Golden Age of Cinema. Which meant a glorious glut of creatures in horror. More than just a technical marvel, the creatures on display in ‘80s horror meant tangible texture that still holds up decades later. Grotesque slimy skin to brutal transformation sequences, there wasn’t anything the artists couldn’t create. It Came From the ‘80s is a series that will pay homage to the monstrous, deadly, and often slimy creatures that made the ‘80s such a fantastic decade in horror.
There are very few horror films that manage to bring together a multitude of iconic horror movie monsters, and even fewer that manage to be as ambitious as Waxwork. Written and directed by Anthony Hickox, Waxwork brings together the “eighteen most evil beings,” from werewolves, Count Dracula, the Mummy, zombies, Frankenstein’s monster, the Invisible Man, the Phantom of the Opera, pod creatures, a snake man, even the Marquis de Sade, and more under the clever framing device of an evil wax museum.
Vestron Pictures released this horror-comedy 30 years ago, on June 17, 1988, with subsequent R-Rated and Unrated edition VHS releases following months later. Even decades later, the wacky plot and the fantastic special effects means Waxwork has aged better than most.
Waxwork plays like an anthology, in that the core group of characters fall victim to various wax exhibits in the mysterious wax museum owned by the ominous David Lincoln (David Warner). Stepping foot into any of the 18 exhibits means stepping into an alternate reality full of danger and mortal peril. It’s all a ruse for Lincoln to capture their souls to bring about the end of the world. One by one the group of friends encounter different scenarios with various monsters and often die in gruesome, violent ways.
Written in just a few days, Anthony Hickox’s first feature has one glaring flaw; he waited until the end to film the final battle. The issue with that is that the completion bond people arrived toward the end of production, announcing they were out of money and Hickox had only 24 hours left to complete the final battle. This meant a very abridged final battle that was much smaller than Hickox originally planned. If we’re being nitpicky, another glaring flaw is that the actors playing the wax figures don’t do a very good job of holding still.
Even despite the shortened, chaotic final battle between good and evil, it’s the sense of humor, audacity, and great practical effects that keeps Waxwork just as fun now as it was 30 years ago. Much of that can be attributed to special makeup effects designer and supervisor Bob Keen, and his talented team. The artist, fresh off his role as special makeup effects designer for Hellraiser, turned out an incredible amount of work in Waxwork. Not only did he have a hand in the creation of just about every creature (and there’s an insane amount of creature work here), but he also served as second unit director.
For the werewolf sequence, Hickox requested that Keen model its design after the werewolf from The Howling. His brother, James D.R. Hickox, played the werewolf hunter’s assistant who gets ripped in two by the werewolf. Originally, this sequence came after the vampire sequence. Hickox felt that the werewolf scene did a better job setting up the conceit of the wax museum, and swapped the order of the two scenes in the film. In terms of blood and gore, the switch proved to be a smarter decision in addition to narrative flow. Beginning with one icky dinner party with blood and flesh soup on the menu (that’s made of fruit) that gives way to a showdown that literally paints a white room red with blood, the vampire sequence is a surprise highlight.
Between Keen’s clever designs and the use of public domain monsters, there’s a sort of kitchen sink approach to Waxwork that works like a charm. The end credits say it all about Hickox’s inspirations for his film; he thanks Dario Argento, George A. Romero, John Landis, John Carpenter, Joe Dante, and Steven Spielberg. There’s a clear reverence for horror on display, as well as a self-aware sense of humor. In combination with Keen’s tireless efforts on the special makeup effects, Waxwork remains an all-time underseen gem.