Gothic horror is alive and kicking in “Wax Mask,” a luridly entertaining return to the style of Britain’s Hammer productions of the ’60s, replete with the requisite ingredients of death, dismemberment, cardboard characters, unsubtle acting, suspense and a soupcon of sex. Directed by Italian f/x maestro Sergio Stivaletti, this turn-of-the-century terror tale has been heavily sold in Europe, Asia and Latin America, and should scare up its share of nostalgic genre fans, especially on video.
Pic is at least the third screen scarefest derived from Gaston Leroux’s “The Wax Museum,” previously filmed by Michael Curtiz as “Mystery of the Wax Museum” in 1933 and by Andre de Toth in the 1953 3-D version “House of Wax,” starring Vincent Price.
Dedicated to cult schlock-horror helmer Lucio Fulci, this latest incarnation originally was developed by Dario Argento and Fulci as the latter’s return to work after a six-year absence. After Fulci’s death in March ’96, the project was inherited by Stivaletti, who makes his directing debut here. Along with his extensive effects work over the past 15 years, Stivaletti also has served as second-unit director on pics by Italo frightmeisters Argento, Lamberto Bava and Michele Soavi.
Paris-set prologue shows a blood bath taking place while the year 1900 is being rung in. A cloaked figure with a steel claw for a hand butchers a couple in their bed while an infant girl looks on unobserved. In Rome 12 years later, cocky young Luca (Daniele Auber) accepts a bet from fellow clients at a brothel to spend the night in the local wax museum, where history’s most gruesome murders are faithfully reproduced. Spooked by the figures, Luca dies, ostensibly of heart failure.
Intending to cash in on press attention following the death, museum curator Boris (Robert Hossein) plans a series of macabre new tableaux. The lifelike quality of his creations is achieved in a secret laboratory, where the veins of human victims are flooded with chemicals to keep them immobile but alive.
His assistant, Alex (Umberto Balli), rounds up fresh models, and Boris hires troubled young Sonia (Romina Mondello) as the museum’s costumer. But the girl’s memories of her parents’ murder in her native Paris are rekindled by the barbarous exhibits. Meanwhile, the French police commissioner (Aldo Massasso) who investigated the New Year’s Eve carnage and an enterprising reporter (Riccardo Serventi Longhi) who becomes Sonia’s lover both dig for information.
The focus leans heavily toward effects-driven sequences, especially in the closing act. A guiding hand with the actors appears to be missing, particularly behind the rather wooden Mondello. Characters are two-dimensional. While Hossein’s fiendish but not soulless artist-cum-scientist makes a toothsome protagonist and Balli supplies a suitably malicious henchman, the remaining bunch could have used more color.
Still, the mix remains a highly enjoyable salute to cheesy vintage horror, with chills underscored by Maurizio Abeni’s thundering, portentous music. Budgeted at under $1.25 million