From the comically gothic text of the opening title card to the Lesley Gore finish, Waxwork (1988) is a veritable cornucopia of horror sub-genres and motifs. Released through Vestron Pictures, Waxwork was a staple of every video store’s horror section, often sporting a “staff picks” sticker and making the seasonal recommendations shelf every Halloween. Not only does Waxwork deliver in almost every category of horror, from werewolves to the psychosexual, but it does so with comical panache and campy performances.
The film pits likable rich twit Mark (Zach Galligan) and goody-goody Sarah (Deborah Foreman) against the leader of a satanic sect (David Warner) whose waxworks function as portals into the lives of the “most evil men who have ever lived” in order to harvest souls and give these evil beings new life. Themes of satanic panic, voodoo, Gothic horror, the supernatural and historical fiction collide and overlap in a web of intertextuality so rooted in B-movie mythologies that its post-modernist aesthetic is rendered as delirious kitsch.
Writer and director Anthony Hickox made his debut with Waxwork and assaults his material with a stylistic verbosity; packing the film with more spectacle than it can seemingly accommodate. Waxwork is pure sensationalism from first scare to the last, ranging from excessive gore to pure slapstick buffoonery. What ought to result in a kind of stylistic whiplash is bound together seamlessly by a cast who seems to have only watched Scooby-Doo re-runs as preparation. Waxwork is escapism unadulterated and without shame.
But in this treasure trove of horrors and 80s excess lies a thematic undercurrent that punishes female sexuality. This is a common trope in horror though it is rarely quite explicit as it is in Waxwork when Sarah is shamed for her masochistic pleasures and then made to choose between rejecting her kink and death. Ultimately Sarah opts for a vanilla life with Mark rather than a BDSM fueled existence with the Marquis de Sade (J. Kenneth Campbell). Likewise the promiscuous China (Michelle Johnson) is punished by becoming the main course at a vampire orgy. These choices clearly indicate that Waxwork is a male fantasy of horror and survival.
Yet, as far as male fantasies go, Waxwork is rather juvenile. One of the less subtle subtexts of the film is Mark’s desire to connect with, emulate, and replace his late grandfather. As Mark is forced further into conflict with the satanists he begins to become more and more like his grandfather while simultaneously locating a surrogate in the occultist Sir Wilfred (Patrick Macnee). Waxwork, though definitely an homage to horror films, is really a story about reprising mid-century masculinist values.