BR: Wax Mask / M.D.C. – Maschera di cera (1997)

May 5, 2017 | By

Film: Very Good

Transfer:  Excellent

Extras: Good

Label:  One 7 Movies / C.A.V.

Region: A

Released:  January 31, 2017

Genre:  Horror

Synopsis: Third version of Gaston Leroux’s tale of a mad wax sculptor holds its own against the 1933 and 1953 Warner Bros. classics.

Special Features:  Two 1997 Featurettes (Italian only / no English subtitles): “Backstage Scenes” (22:45) + “Special Effects Scenes” (13:05).




Although Lucio Fulci had maintained a steady output of films during the 1980s, producing some of his nastiest delights – The Beyond (1981) and The New York Ripper (1982) being among the most outrageous – as his health began to falter, the famed Italian horror director was courted by Dario Argento to collaborate on a new film, a project that would hopefully boost Fulci’s emotions and lessen the strain from fragile health.

Whether Fulci would’ve been able to handle another film in his final years is questionable, but prior to his death in 1996, a script loosely based on the story that inspired Mystery of the Wax Museum (1933) and House of Wax (1953) was extracted from Gaston Leroux’s short story “The Waxwork Museum.” Begun around 1994, the screenplay by Fulci, Argento, and Daniele Stoppa (Delirium) was ultimately shaped into an homage to grisly 1950s shockers and ornate period thrillers, and after Fulci’s death, the script was likely rewritten to suit the tastes of both Argento and assigned director Sergio Stivaletti, an effects whiz credited with the wet and bloody mayhem in several Argento productions, including Demons (1985) and Demons 2 (1986).

Stivaletti’s directorial debut is surprisingly solid, never obsessing exclusively on gore, but delivering more than a few grisly moments, and with a huge emphasis on crafting an atmospheric period shocker with elegant costumes, regal architecture, and plenty of heaving bosoms. Sergio Salvati’s cinematography is equally elegant, and this striking HD transfer, taken from a pristine print, glows with saturated colours typical of a 1950s Technicolor shocker.

The story is ostensibly the same from the prior two films: a mad sculptor and his weird assistants murder men, women, and children to create wax friezes of penalties and murder scenes past & present. Instead of a sculptor who exacts revenge on the man who burned his studio for insurance money, Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossein) is a cuckolded husband tossed into a vat of hot wax who survives and like his cinematic predecessors, after sculpting a new face for himself, plots a return to the commercial art scene.

His minions are crooks with a modicum of artistic skills, and his victims are plenty, but he orders his men to leave new costume designer Sonia Lafont (Romina Mondello) alone because she resembles a pure version of his dead, deceitful wife. Little does Volkoff know Sonia is in fact his daughter, but his jealousy and mixed emotions perhaps foster a greater urge to kill and create, ultimately fixating on Sonia when she too deceives him by having a romantic fling with tabloid news reporter Andrea Conversi (Riccardo Serventi Longhi), who uses Sonia to gain entry into Volkoff’s museum and trace a connection between recent killings and the secretive sculptor.

Perhaps to differentiate the production from the two Warner Bros. films, Volkoff’s methodology is more fantastical than practical: instead of encasing preserved cadavers in wax, Volkoff uses a Victorian contraption in his cavernous lair, switching levers which inject Technicolor bubbly fluids into victims that have been strapped into a chair. A kind of Frankenstein meets Jules Verne process, the transmutation from human to sculpture is weird Victorian voodoo designed to visually impress than make any sense: levers move the victim like a puppet for no reason except perhaps to demonstrate Volkoff’s pleasure in already treating his victims as moveable mannequins. The process is equally overblown: after blood is drained, the veins are filled with preserving blue goo, but for some reason the victims are still conscious, even able to move eyes underneath pasted optics.

Argento’s influence on the script is most evident in the tabloid reporter who uses his relation with Sonia to acquire information, much in the way nosey reporter Gianna Brezzi (Daria Niccolodi) badgered and wooed murder suspect Marcus Daly (David Hemmings) in Deep Red (1975), and the lengthy sequence in which Andrea develops his images from glass plates in a darkroom, using photographs to find proof of deceit and murder much in the way a doomed photographer discovers a hidden detail in Cat o’ Nine Tails (1971).

The film’s provocative leanings encompass a father longing to revisit love through his daughter before infidelity poisoned his life, an assistant named Alex (Umberto Balli, in the second of only two films) whose childhood beatings mandate rough sex play, plenty of brothel scenes, and the killing of children. On the downside, the scenes are largely restricted to a handful of locations, and the wax museum set is quite limited, lacking the sprawling exhibits in the Warner films.

There’s also an utterly pointless chase sequence in which Sonia is chased, snatched, and almost fed to pigs – although she’s clearly traumatized by the event (and bears horrible scars on her arms), it’s forgotten by morning, with Sonia chipper again. The finale is equally nonsensical, with Stivaletti turning unstoppable Volkoff into a T-800 monster with an iron-shielded heart, and a ‘twist’ that’s ludicrous based on the mayhem that preceded the fiery demise of the museum and its sculptors.

The use of primordial digital effects borders on rotoscoped animation, but it kind of works, making Wax Mask feel like a late 1950s production – the desiccation and human-to-wax figure transformation unfolds like morphing stills from Lifeforce (1985), but the fires that ravage the museum are too early CGI. What tempers these flaws is the superb production and lighting design, and Stivaletti’s use of gliding camera movements instead of shock cuts. Even moments in which the screen tints or bleeds red adds to the film’s retro feel.

Wax Mask was previously released as a non-anamorphic English dubbed version by Image, with a basic gallery of production stills. In what’s a classier release for One 7 Movies, the Blu-ray sports a excellent HD transfer with minor compression in some dark fades. English and Italian dub tracks appear in 2.0 and 5.1 versions, but there’s no English subtitles for the superior Italian dubbing; the English voice work is pretty tinny and often detracts from the performances, and strangely there are two moments when Italian dialogue is substituted in both English tracks: when Sonia is rescued by a detective, he speaks to her in Italian; and in the finale when Volkoff and Alex fight amid fire, a few shots suddenly have Italian exchanges.

Most of the effects work is pretty solid, but there are some glaring gaffes: the use of actors holding death expressions as wax figures (or as the dead man in the opening killing) aren’t still enough, and in the finale where Alex is supposed to be on fire, the clarity of the Blu-ray reveals a less convincing mask on the stunt performer whose face is not on fire whatsoever.

Maurizio Albeni’s score is part synth-orchestral, and is surprisingly elegant, treating the story as an operetta with full choral and orchestral thrust. There are no contemporary rock, disco, or electronic fusions, making this rare score by the prolific conductor quite a treat.

In place of the limited stills gallery, One 7 Movies has added rare behind-the-scenes footage shot by Stivaletti and his makeup team during film. The bonus material is quite substantive, but it’s all in Italian and lacks any English subtitles. Lastly, the 94 mins. running time on the sleeve is incorrect; the film is the uncut 98 mins. version as previously released by Image.

Stivaletti’s other directorial efforts include The Three Faces of Terror (2004), L’invito (2013), and a segment in the anthology shocker The Profane Exhibit (2013). His TV credits are I’l velodi Waltz (2009) and Fear (2014).

Wax Mask formed one of the last film in which Argento functioned as formal producer and contributing scenarist, having shepherded successful productions for Lamberto Bava (the Demons diptych) and Michele Soavi (The Church, and The Sect).

Lucio Fulci’s legacy as a director and scenarist leading up to Wax Max was chronicled in Mike Baronas’ affectionate 2008 documentary Paura: Lucio Fulci Remembered.



© 2017 Mark R. Hasan



External References:
Editor’s BlogIMDB  —  Soundtrack Album — Composer Filmography
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Category: Blu-ray / DVD Film Review

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