Poor, poor Lucio Fulci. He spent the first half of the ’90s ill from his fight with diabetes; his last film Door into Silence, came out in ’91. Longtime rival Dario Argento offered an olive branch for the two to work on a project together; they wrote a story (and Fulci crafted a screenplay), but sadly Fulci passed away in March of ’96 before production started. But horror is persistent, and after Argento had FX maestro Sergio Stivaletti step behind the camera, the world was given Wax Mask (1997), a gnarly yet elegant period piece that manages to pay tribute to not only the fractured madness of Fulci, but Hammer as well. Now it can be yours with a glorious 4K transfer and a treasure trove of goodies from the upstanding citizens of Severin Films.
If one was to drag the ’50s Hammer films kicking and screaming across the floor and dropped them off in an Italian extrava-grossout, Wax Mask is what you would get. A lot of venerable Hammer class along with a not-so-subtle helping of Italian gore and nudity may seem like strange bedfellows; however, Stivaletti manages to stitch it all together fairly seamlessly, even if Fulci’s script (along with a rewrite from Daniele Stroppa) offers him an uphill battle at every turn. As with much of Italian horror, this is all part of the charm.
Paris, 1900: a husband and wife are murdered by a mysteriously cloaked person with a robotic hand. The killer doesn’t see the young daughter under the bed who is witness to the bloodbath. Cut to 12 years later, and that little girl Sonia has grown into a beautiful young woman (Romina Mondello – To the Wonder) who goes to work at the brand-new wax museum run by Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossein – Shadow of Evil).
Sonia works for Volkoff, and when a brothel client is found dead from fright in the museum, the police are called in to investigate, proffering a love interest for Sonia in the form of Andrea Conversi (Riccardo Serventi Longhi – The Three Faces of Terror). Soon, the couple uncovers Volkoff’s dark secret as to how he gets his exhibits so lifelike, and the ties to Sonia’s past…
Wax Mask is a film I had avoided for years, mostly due to its troubled history and partially its scarce availability; with this new release from Severin, the chances are very good that re-evaluations will begin pouring in, and rightly so.
There’s an elegance, an old-fashioned whimsy to Wax Mask that I wasn’t expecting, but was completed delighted by; the beautiful set and costume design plus the sharp cinematography by Fulci stalwart Sergio Salvati (The Beyond) give the film a touch of class far removed from zombie-infested islands or cheapjack Terminator sets.
Which isn’t to say that Wax Mask is Downton Abbey, good heavens no; I’m remiss to say that PBS would never show immolations, limb removals, and the like, even during a pledge drive. (“With your $100 donation, you’ll receive the Wax Mask DVD and this adorable blood-splattered tote bag.”) Stivaletti doesn’t skimp on the red—if you believe blood can’t penetrate a three-piece suit, boy do I have some bad news for you. Granted, some of the work is iffy, but it’s all practical and most definitely plentiful.
As with any Italian horror, the screenplay always beckons scrutiny, probably from the same folks who watch Bugs Bunny and say, “As if that could happen.” The screenplay is usually not the foundation for Italian horror, but rather one ingredient in a pot mixed vigorously. And sometimes those story carrots pop up to the top, and sometimes they don’t. The plot is actually pretty linear (with not-atrocious dialogue) until the finale, when the carrots are thrown out. Let’s just say that steampunk robotics plays a part, and that the only thing missing is industrial hammer and tong musical cues. Wax Mask is a celebration of horror, and especially of Fulci; I can’t imagine the man himself turning out anything less demented and glorious.
Severin Films have really loaded up on special features for this long-forgotten gem:
Look, I’m only one wee man, so I haven’t been through everything here… yet. But I can say that the audio commentary between Stivaletti and his son is informative and fun and all of the extras in which producer Argento is featured will not disappoint; his conflicted history with Fulci is legendary. The rest I will savor over time. There’s just so much.
Wax Mask is the swan song that Lucio Fulci never got, but in many ways he still roams its halls; it’s there in every drop of blood and fostered through every bizarre sight and sound. A voice that profound can never be silenced.
Movie Score: 4/5, Disc Score: 4.5/5