Wax Mask (US - BD RA)
Gabe revisits the Italian horror movie that was almost an Argento/Fulci team-up...
There's a new attraction in town that's not for the fainthearted. A wax museum that recreates, for the thrills of a paying audience, some of the most gruesome murders ever committed by human hands. A young man makes a bet with his friends that he can spend an entire night in the museum, but he is found dead the morning after. Who is the savage slayer? The police are unable to come up with a reason or a clue to identify the murderer. Weirdly enough, the museum starts featuring new murder scenes as the killing spree increases. Is the metal-clawed killer that haunted Paris years ago, prowling the streets of Rome, looking for fresh flesh and blood? (From One 7’s official synopsis)
As it flourished in the post-WWII era, the Italian film industry worked in genre cycles, such as peplum (sword & sandal) films, spaghetti westerns, gialli, and polizieschi (Euro-crime). Each cycle burned-out faster than the last, culminating in a deluge of gory horror and exploitation films that more or less heralded the end of the pattern. As the 1980s drew to a close, there wasn’t a lot of public interest left and, as the money dried up, the most creative minds of Italian horror faded into obscurity, where they languished until they were rediscovered on DVD about a decade later. During this ‘crisis era,’ only one brand-name filmmaker, Dario Argento, still managed to command major release budgets as both a director and producer. The quality of his output arguably faltered, but he still managed to mastermind Opera (1987) and one-half of Two Evil Eyes (Italian: Due occhi diabolici, 1989), and co-write/produce two of the best pure-horror movies of the era: Michele Soavi’s The Church (Italian: La chiesa, 1989) and The Sect (Italian: La Setta, 1991). Meanwhile, his long-time counterpart, Lucio Fulci, bereft of production support and struggling with poor health, made some of the worst movies of his long career.
The two were not the bitter rivals that their fans preferred to pretend they were, but, according to Argento, there was no “love lost” between him (who mostly ignored Fucli, but expressed resentment for what he saw as mimicry of his signature gialli style) and Fulci (who occasionally bad-mouthed Argento during interviews, often in regards to their Zombi vs. Zombi 2 competition). Still, as Italian horror began to circle the bowl, a fantasy coalition was almost forged when Argento saw a frail, wheelchair-bound Fulci at Rome’s Fanta Festival and decided that it would be in both of their best interests to collaborate on a project. Argento would act has producer and Fulci as director. After considering a remake of The Mummy they eventually settled on doing an modern adaptation of Charles S. Belden’s The Wax Works, itself the basis of Michael Curtiz’ The Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and Andre de Toth's House of Wax (1953). According to Alan Jones ( Profondo Argento, Fab Press, 2004), Fulci and co-writer Daniele Stroppa studied all previous versions of Belden’s The Wax Works, as well as related short stories by Phantom of the Opera author Gaston Leroux ( The Waxworks Museum) and The Golem author Gustav Meyrink’s The Cabinet of Wax Figures), in order to craft a completely new story that would not “contravene copyright control” (a May 1997 Fangoria Magazine article – the only other print info I could find on the movie – only refers to Leroux’s work as a story basis). Given the episodic nature of the final film, this patchwork adaptation makes a lot of sense.
Following many delays (Argento’s post-production work on Stendhal Syndrome, 1996, among them) and some heated argynebts, Lucio Fulci’s Wax Mask was finally set to go before cameras. Unfortunately, the director died in his sleep from diabetes-related complications at the age of 68, on March 13, 1996. The film was deep enough into production when Fulci died that Argento and the other filmmakers decided to press forward, for financial reasons and as a tribute to Lucio (his daughter, Antonella, actually ended up acting as his proxy during some press interviews). Rather than taking up the reins himself or handing them to off to Soavi (the two were apparently not getting along at the time), Argento decided to hire special make-up/visual effects artist Sergio Stivaletti to make his feature debut as a director. Stivaletti had been Argento’s go-to since 1985, when he masterminded the complex physical and optical effects for Phenomena and Demons (which was directed by Lamberto Bava). The project was then renamed M.D.C.: Maschera di cera in Italy (anagrams were very cool in the ‘90s), but the Wax Mask title stuck for English language releases.
It is reported that the most vehement disagreement Argento and Fulci had during pre-production of Wax Mask was the gore quotient. Surprisingly enough, Fulci wanted to dial back on violence in favor of atmosphere and romanticism. Argento, on the other hand, hadn’t hired the ‘Godfather of Gore’ to not exploit his penchant for nasty violence. During his interview (for the aforementioned Fangoria article), Stivaletti admitted that he “felt it was necessary to exploit [his] craft” and reworked the film accordingly. Fulci’s elevated version of the film, which was to “analyze the political connotations of the period setting,” was, for better or worse, turned into a moody special effects extravaganza. Blaming Stivaletti for this would be shortsighted. He inherited a movie with an established aesthetic – one developed by two very opinionated/competitive filmmakers – for his technical expertise, not his director’s vision. By that measure, it is no surprise that the Wax Mask is best whenever Stivaletti is ‘exploiting his craft,’ rather than struggling with historical anachronisms and melodrama worthy of a Hammer-brand horror production. The scenes that are driven by mechanized physical effects ( not hideous digital extensions) are intricately staged, colourfully lit, and cheerfully violent. Stivaletti directed one more feature-length movie, I tre volti del terrore (aka: The Three Faces of Death, 2004) – an anthology throwback to the glory days of Italian horror that was not very good. Since then, he has only directed shorts and episodes for TV, but he continues working in special effects.
Much of Wax Mask’s success lies in Sergio Salvati’s fantastic cinematography. For those that don’t already know, Salvati was a vital part of Fulci’s team throughout the best years of his career, beginning with the atmospheric spaghetti western Four of the Apocalypse (Italian: I quattro dell'apocalisse) in 1975 and including nearly all of the maestro’s Gothic horror films. The two went their separate ways after House by the Cemetery (Italian: Quella villa accanto al cimitero, 1981), Salvati worked for Charles Band’s Empire Films, where he ensured that a number subpar movies looked brilliant. Wax Mask would’ve marked the first Fulci/Salvati team-up in more than 15 years. Stivaletti utilized Salvati’s skills and his familiarity with the late director’s work to make a relatively Fulci-esque picture, though the effort tends to match lesser films, like Aenigma (1987) and Demonia (1990). Fans expecting a return to the halcyon days of City of the Living Dead (Italian: Paura nella città dei morti viventi, 1980) or The Beyond (Italian: ...E tu vivrai nel terrore! L'aldilà, 1981) would be disappointed. A number of scenes also exhibit Argento trademarks, like black gloves and floating, steadicam P.O.V. shots, spawning an unruly mix of styles that comes dangerously close to actually working out. Still, if one manages to separate the promise of Wax Mask from the final film, Stivaletti’s homage is respectable and the ambitious, comic book charms outweigh the boring, repetitious qualities of most post-’80s spaghetti horror.
As far as I can tell, there were five different DVD releases of Wax Mask. Four of them – from Image in the US (as part of their EuroShock collection), Dragon Entertainment in Germany, Starmedia/Futurefilm in Scandinavia, and Film 5000 in the UK – were non-anamorphic and misframed. One disc, from CVC in Italy, was reportedly anamorphic and framed in the appropriate 1.85:1. This release marks the film’s Blu-ray debut and comes from One 7 Films (itself an offshoot from the ruins of Mya), who are mostly known for their Euro-horror/sleaze DVDs. This seems to be the company’s first Blu-ray, so there isn’t any quality precedent set just yet. Hopefully, this 1.78:1, 1080p release marks the first step in an evolution, because, well, there are some problems.
I assume that One 7 was handed an HD master from the Italian studio and, as is usually the case, the results are mixed. The good news is that, unlike the majority of problematic, Italian-born transfers, this one does not have problems with scanner noise artefacts. The bad news is that whoever mastered the images leaned too heavily on the DNR and sharpness. This creates waxy textures (pun possibly intended), an utter lack of film grain (aside from the climax, for some reason), shifting gradient blends (similar to the banding effects one would see from a 720p transfer, only more wiggly), and, most distracting, sharpening artefacts (edge haloes, hot spots, et cetera). This results in a movie that was shot on 35mm looks kind of like it was shot on early digital cameras, instead. This is not entirely unusual for late-’90s Italian releases – see also: the various SD releases of Dario Argento’s Phantom of the Opera (1998). These issues are not deal-breakers, especially considering the quality of the various DVDs availale. Contrast/gamma levels appear accurate, allowing Salvati’s camera to languish in deep, pooling (perhaps slightly crushed) blacks without neglecting important shapes and details. Colour quality is quite vivid, which is important, considering the outlandish and eclectic palette.
Italian B-movies/exploitation films were shot without sound for a very long time and, following that, were usually shot in English, before being dubbed into Italian, because English-language movies would sell better in other countries. Unusually, Wax Mask was actually shot in Italian before being dubbed into English (and other languages) for international release. One 7 has offered both the Italian and English 5.1 mixes in uncompressed Dolby TrueHD as well as compressed stereo options (which we’ll ignore for now). The viewer’s choice in track will depend on their tolerance for really bad dubbing and their ability to understand Italian, because, guess what? There is no subtitle track. Badly dubbed English track it is, then. Oh, by the way, there are two or three instances where I guess no dub was available? Without warning, the actors revert into Italian for a few seconds. This is most obvious during the climax, where the blazing, bassy fire sounds were apparently too loud for the English language crew to contend with. This section also features some electronic buzzes that were likely unintended. Wax Mask was an early digital sound production for Italy, so the good news is that the mix is especially aggressive at times. The romantic score, by Maurizio Abeni, borrows and adapts classical cues and elevates the material a bit, despite being constantly overused.
- Backstage Scenes (22:45, SD) – Raw behind-the-scenes footage from Stivaletti’s own stash. No subtitles are available here.
- Special Effects Scenes (13:05, SD) – More raw footage taken specifically to chronicle the development of the effects work.
Wax Mask is a sloppy, often unintendedly silly film that, while entertaining, still pales in the shadow of what it could have been, had Lucio Fulci been able to make it – especially considering the Dario Argento-sized budget (about $2 million) and expert cinematographer Sergio Salvati behind the camera. This Blu-ray has some huge problems with DNR and edge enhancement, not to mention the lack of English subtitles to go along with the optional Italian soundtrack, but it is still superior to the even rougher and very OOP DVDs.
* Note: The above images are taken from the Blu-ray and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Gabriel Powers
This product has not been rated
Release Date: 31st January 2017
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: Dolby TrueHD 5.1 English and Italian; Dolby Digital 2.0 English and Italian
Extras: Backstage Scenes, Special Effects Scenes
Easter Egg: No
Director: Sergio Stivaletti
Cast: Robert Hossein, Romina Mondello, Riccardo Serventi Longhi, Umberto Balli, Gabriella Giorgelli
Genre: Drama, Fantasy, Horror and Romance
Length: 98 minutes
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