Set in Rome of 1912, a newly constructed wax museum, under a mysterious alchemy artist known as Boris Volkoff, stirs controversy with the showcasing of the world’s most grisly and notorious murder scenes. Two brothel customers’ debate result in the one challenging the other to spend the night at the curated museum of horror without having an ounce of fleeting fear. The next morning, the man has been found, apparently keeling over in fright, and the police are baffled, but something more sinister is afoot when Sonia, a young costume designer with a horrific past as the sole witness in the gruesome death of her mother and father in Paris 1900, becomes employed at the museum to costume the wax figures and faints when the scene of her parents’ brutal death is recreated as the museum’s new showpiece. Sonia and a reporter closely examine the museum when more people begin disappearing off the street, people who have ties with the beautiful costume designer, and learn the waxed creations are much more underneath their plastic-lifelike skin.
Before his untimely death, the Godfather of (Italian) Gore, Lucio Fulci, had been cooperating on a semi-quasi remake of Vincent Price’s 1953 thriller “House of Wax,” based on the Gaston Leroux’s novel, alongside fellow iconic Italian horror director Dario Argento (“Suspiria”) in a comeback collaboration for Fulci, but the entitled “The Wax Mask” film was evidently delayed partly in because of Fulci’s death. “The Wax Mask” was handed over by Argento, who was producing, to special effects guru Sergio Stivaletti (“Cemetery Man,” “The Church”) and months after Fulci’s death, a finished product shared very similar traits to the Godfather of Gore’s style craftily blended with more modern approaches to filmmaking was released to the public. Though tailored more toward the interests of gory special effects, Stivaletti’s 1997 film is dedicated to Fulci with the implementation of many of the director’s popular trademarks, including closeups on various eye expressions and zoom-ins on gore and the weapons before their fateful strikes, while also basking in strong bright colors in the midst of shadowy cinematography that’s typical of the giallo genre.
In such a crimson world, an elegant performance by Romina Mondello, who stars as the orphaned Sonia, has the Rome born actress bring beauty, innocence, and charm to the macabre that harbors contrasting arguments against undermining marred antagonists and she provides a breath of aesthetic liveliness amongst a narrative that surrounds itself in capturing beauty in inanimate wax figures. “Cemetery Without Crosses'” Robert Hossein embraces the enigmatic museum curator, Boris Volkoff, with struggling internal black aspirations that involve his recently acquired employee, Sonia, and Houssein is able to turn off and on that switch of longing and menacing, playing the hand of the character superbly to keep audiences guessing his true intent. Volkoff’s faithful assistant and exhibit creator, Alex, embodies creepy and morbid attributes wonderfully contributed by a relatively unknown Umberto Balli. The trifecta cast sells the ghastly science fiction that slowly builds toward the transformation of “The Wax Mask” from classic giallo to sensational mad science Gothicism with a boost of euro trashiness that’s more relative to the work of Jesús Franco or Joe D’Amato. Riccardo Serventi Longhi (“Symphony in Blood Red”), Valery Valmond, Gabriella Giorgelli (“The Grim Reaper”), and Gianni Franco (Dario Argento’s “The Phantom of the Opera”) round out the cast.
Stivaletti’s toolbox of special effects celebrate in the practicality that escalates when the cloaked killer’s metal claw literally rips terror through the hearts and souls of characters, but the glossy composite imagery thwarts realism and cheapens the already cheesy Euro horror with a laughable fire set ablaze and a slew of lampoon electricity while half naked women are strapped to a barbaric mechanized chair. The cut-rate composite won’t ruin a guilty pleasure viewing and won’t blast apart an arguably respectable adaptation of Gaston Leroux’s novel, but the script, co-written between Argento, Fulci, and “The House of Clocks'” penning collaborator Daniele Stroppa, does pull from other, interestingly enough, inspirations that one wouldn’t think would be genre compatible. The action-packed finale of James Cameron’s 1984 pre-apocalyptic, time-traveling cyborg blockbuster, “The Terminator,” makes an unexpected appearance with an endoskeleton villain donning some familiar and memorable moments from one of the greatest sci-fi films of all time.
“The Wax Mask” greatly resembles Italian horror cinema from the 1970s and 1980s spawned in the late 90s, a superb feat for a director more aligned in vocational special effects, but the jaded historical background accompanying the film places a stain on whether Lucio Fulci had much to do with the project at all. Much is speculated that Argento and Stroppa re-wrote Fulci’s original script after his death, removing much of Fulci’s atmospheric flair and adding more gore, but in the end, “The Wax Mask” instabilities are overshadowed by great practical effects, an engaging storyline, and a roster of flavorful characters. The One 7 Movies and CAV Distributing Blu-ray release is presented in 1080p. The widescreen 1.78:1 aspect ratio is the not the original 1.85:1 aspect ratio, but doesn’t constrain the image. The MPEG-4 AVC codec emits a bit of shakiness under the compression, suggesting a lower bitrate, but the One 7 Movies’ release is the best, sharpest looking transfer of the original source material with natural coloring on skin tones, vibrant shades of various colors, and shadows being exquisitely black. Four audio options are available from the English and Italian Surround 5.1 tracks to the English and Italian Stereo tracks with no accessible English or Italian subtitles in the static setup menu. Extras are slim with a handheld camera behind-the-scenes that’s solely in Italian. “The Wax MasK” is an ambitious Gothic hybrid horror that cements the memory of Lucio Fulci, pleases the gore of Dario Argento, and showcases the talents of debut director Sergio Stivaletti.