“Would You Like a Closer Look?” Self-Deception and Embracing Identity in ‘Waxwork’
Monster mash movies are a longstanding tradition, dating back at least to the ‘40s, with the likes of both House of Dracula and House of Frankenstein. In the ‘60s, things moved into a bit more of a comedic territory with the rise of The Munsters and the classic Mad Monster Party. The 1980s, though, saw a major resurgence for movies gathering the classic monsters together all in one place. There was, most obviously, The Monster Squad. And while it wasn’t a theatrical hit, it has gained absolutely massive cult status over time. Deservedly so, as it was every monster kid’s dream come true. Then, carrying on a bit of that Mad Monster Party energy, there was Transylvania 6-5000. Somewhere buried in the middle between these legendary television shows and minor theatrical hits, there was Waxwork. It can tend to get overlooked in this incredibly specific genre, but it really shouldn’t, because it’s genuinely one of the greats.
It forgoes the “victim dipped in wax” formula you expect from the title for something altogether more fantastical. As the film’s occult expert Sir Wilfred explains, “It’s the entire display that’s haunted, not just the figures.” Stepping over the rope transports you into the world of the monster depicted in the exhibit. Waxwork has a quirky, offbeat style that is entirely its own and is unpredictable in that regard. With the werewolf and Dracula sequences back to back, you think you’re getting an anthology, but things continue to take unexpected turns and expand from there, culminating in a finale that feels truly gigantic for a movie of this size. These are the broad strokes that make Waxwork so endlessly entertaining, but the real success of the movie lies, I think, in its more specific and eccentric details. First among them being that Waxwork almost feels like a film out of time. It modernizes the classic monsters, that seems to be its most obvious mission. When we see things like the terrific werewolf and vampire sequences, these are in part depicted exactly as we remember. They feel plucked out of any school library “Creepy Classics” kind of book, but then they go for the throat, literally. They not only feature bloodshed, but a pretty extreme amount of it. The werewolf vignette sees a man’s head get torn in half. The Dracula scene features a bit where a vampire’s head gets blown up when it’s touched by the sign of the cross, one man’s leg is bitten off by rats, and a vampire bride is impaled on a wine rack. And all of that’s just in the first act.
This combination of throwback/modernization extends to our cast of lead characters as well. While the classic monsters are being updated for the present day, the human leads are almost going in the opposite direction. These characters are in college and, for the most part, seem like normal enough kids of that age, but they often talk like they’re in a ’40s film, if not earlier. It’s a stylistic touch, of course, but almost makes sense in context. If they’re out of touch it’s because they’re all, with the exception of Sarah, incredibly rich. The wealth is most obvious with Mark, who gets “us vs. them” lectures from his mother and has his butler sneak him smokes. His mother’s infantilization of him (“when you’re a big boy”) also factors in, I think, with how Mark’s age is tough to interpret, but that also extends to the other characters. These kids are explicitly in college, but act very much like they’re in high school. That could, in some way, be seen as a clever play on the ‘80s penchant for casting teenagers with actors well into their twenties. While not as overtly stated as Mark, China and Tony are clearly from basically the same economic background as well. The only one of their group that isn’t a rich kid is Sarah, something that’s explored much more in the sequel, granted, but is still evident enough here.
As quirky as Waxwork can be, these eccentric flourishes don’t come out of nowhere, and I think help a great deal in setting up some of the major character arcs of the movie. Yes, these are modern kids who talk like they’re plucked from any other ‘80s monster movie one moment and then sound like they’re in a 1940s serial the next, but these are endearing stylistic choices. That “out of time” element partnered with the elite socioeconomic status presents these characters as being largely out of touch, which in context, definitely makes sense. It’s particularly true for Mark, who is clueless, vain, unable to hold onto his relationship with China because he’s unable to communicate what he wants, because he genuinely doesn’t know what he wants. As much as his mother talks down to him like he’s a baby, Mark kind of is a little boy, at least at the beginning. He’s stubborn and throwing a tantrum because he didn’t get what he wanted (China) while only later that night admitting that he didn’t even want her that much. His growth is very much about embodying that age-old trope of becoming a man, but much more interestingly than that, it’s about learning to communicate and learning what’s actually important to him, because at the beginning those desires are entirely superficial. There are prominent themes of self-deception in Waxwork that Mark as our protagonist both represents and almost stands in opposition to, as he is genuinely clueless as to who he is.
China is almost the opposite, which only makes it that much more obvious that she and Mark are wrong for one another. She knows exactly who she is and exactly what she wants and while she’s just as oblivious as Mark is to the world around her, she just doesn’t care. She lives by a mantra that she succinctly states as, “I do what I want, when I want, dig it or fuck off.” Sarah, meanwhile, is somewhere between the two. She’s the most sheltered, but the most observant, and that probably has a lot to do with not coming from the same superficial status quo as her friends. She’s also intimately aware of herself in a much less publicly stated way. Whereas Mark undergoes a significant growth in this movie, Sarah undergoes a sexual awakening. It’s a surprising thing for a film as wacky as Waxwork to dwell on and it unfolds in bits over the course of the running time, but it is one of the most fascinating, powerful things about the movie at the same time. In some ways, and to many people who watch it, this sexual subplot can seem out of place, but it really isn’t.
After all, nearly every single character in Waxwork has a degree of self-deception going on, and for each one of them, it’s something that they confront in the respective wax exhibits they are eventually sucked into. For some characters, it’s not quite as explicit or as deep. The briefly glimpsed Jonathan, for example, is an alpha male football stud who turns out to be a secret Phantom of the Opera geek. Then there’s Tony, the first of our heroes to fall victim to the waxwork. Other than his cool and aloof personality, there’s not a ton of information we’re given about him. Except that he’s given up partying (something he’s done before) and is clearly someone who used to party pretty hard when he did, as evidenced by his offhand quip about getting acid in his drink again. He dresses nice, respectable and for most of those early scenes is the guy who tries to provide a level head, especially to the heated exchanges between Mark and China. In that respect, it makes sense that he encounters the werewolf. Within that cabin, as much as he bizarrely and casually assumes he’s been hypnotized, he is forced to confront something purely animalistic and totally antithetical to the image he is so strongly trying to present. And when he falls victim to the werewolf within the waxwork, he doesn’t just get killed, he becomes one himself. As much as he may have tried to repress that id, as cool and unaffected as he tries to come across, much as he wants to distance himself from that, in the end, it wins.
China, our next victim, seems to step into a world totally befitting her sensibilities. After all, Tony entered the werewolf exhibit accidentally, going in for his lighter. China, on the other hand, goes into the Dracula exhibit on purpose, solely because she seems stricken by the wax figure of the Count. Then, she finds herself in a beautiful castle, the dinner guest of a wealthy Count and his aristocratic family and for her, this appears to be perfect. It’s a pretty classical kind of “too good to be true” scenario. Granted, China really should at least stop to question that she just stepped into another world.
The self-deception here, though, is that she thinks this is where her strength comes from. That sense of class, that need to be the center of attention, the arrogance that derives from that, it’s pretty clear from the first act that China thinks this is what makes her her. Unlike most victims in Waxwork, China actually undergoes a bit of a journey in the span of her short vignette, unexpectedly—but very refreshingly—tapping into the survivor, potentially even hero, inside of her. When the vampires reveal themselves, China is quick on her feet. She nearly escapes. A girl who only minutes ago had been perfectly content to be dressed in an expensive gown, catching the eye of a luxurious prince is a short time later covered in blood and brandishing a chair leg she’s turned into a wooden stake. She’s China the Vampire Slayer. And she nearly survives. She takes one out by blowing up his head and impales another on a wine rack, that’s a great start for a first time vampire hunter. Sadly, she doesn’t make it. As soon as she locks eyes with the Count again, she’s under his thrall, and that’s that.
Even the police officer, Inspector Roberts, who comes in pretty much in the middle of the movie, has at least a shred of that self-deception going on. When Mark first goes to the police station, this guy is the most movie cop you’ve ever seen. Everything is a cliche, he’s got no identity beyond the job, he’s focused only on the work, which is admittedly, a lot. After all, the victims we see in this movie are the tail end of the disappearances in this city since Mr. Lincoln moved his waxwork in, not the beginning. When he goes to investigate the waxwork, he pauses at the mummy exhibit, noting that he’s always been fascinated with Egyptian history, which is certainly not what we expect him to say in that moment. As someone who has only spoken in movie cop phrases up to that point, it’s the first actual interest we hear him express. He sounds almost like a kid spotting a dinosaur skeleton at a museum. This guy is so the typical workaholic, “married to the badge” cop that even his personal interests and hobbies take a backseat, so that when he eventually meets his end at the hands of the mummy, he is literally being murdered by the nerdy passions he’d attempted to snuff out. Looks like they got him first.
And then there’s Sarah. For most people, in a movie filled with Dracula, the werewolf, the Mummy, the Phantom of the Opera, and so many classic movie monsters, the Marquis de Sade sticks out like a sore thumb. But in the larger context of what each of these exhibits represents to the characters that step into and fall victim to them, he really doesn’t. This one’s just the most explicit, because Sarah’s desires are the most explicit. She’s taken with de Sade from the moment she lays eyes on him that first night in the waxwork. More than that, she quotes the man. She’s stepping into this with prior knowledge. Her self-deception is really only hesitation. She’s the virgin of the group, the most repressed, the most “innocent,” in outdated, puritanical terms. Waxwork does a great job of subverting the virgin trope, tired even by that point in the ‘80s, by turning Sarah’s repression into a very thin mask for her own specific sexual tastes. Sarah has a whole arc of admitting, acknowledging and eventually indulging her BDSM kink and who better to represent that and make it a reality than the Marquis de Sade?
Even beyond just that, there’s a difference between Sarah’s time in the wax exhibit than the others, and that’s that Sarah is an active participant in her display, even when presented with death. When she has indulged her fantasy, when she has been whipped by de Sade to the point that she is actually about to die, she is still begging and pleading with him to do it. This sexual awakening has been building through the whole movie. She is aware from the first moment she lays eyes on de Sade of her own sexual interests, but she has never acted on anything. Now she has been so repressed for so long that once she’s had a taste she is literally willing to die to ride out what she has only dreamed of, fantasized about, but never indulged. It’s an extreme reaction, without a doubt, but not ultimately too surprising for someone who is getting their first taste of something they’ve been craving for that long. It’s so extreme that the film even suggests that Sarah has become hypnotized by the exhibit, despite the fact that that did not happen with any of the other characters. Everybody remained exactly who they were after they stepped over that rope and into the world of the exhibit and there’s no reason to believe Sarah would be any different.
Mark clearly refuses to believe this, too. He insists that the way she’s acting isn’t really her, that the place has taken hold of her mind, and he’s clearly disgusted by her. This isn’t that surprising either. His vanilla attitudes have been clear from the beginning, as has his evident disgust toward sexual agency, starting with China and ending here with Sarah. And as much as he does grow over the course of the movie, that’s clearly never something he quite gets over.
Waxwork culminates in a battle royale slapped together at the last minute because production ran out of money, that ironically makes the film feel much more expensive than it actually is. Sarah and Mark fight their way through a sea of monsters and resurrected dead friends and it’s a perfect spectacle, the best possible note to go out on for the kind of late night monster mash that this movie is. While it might be a deeper, more clever and altogether more involved movie than people give it credit for, it’s also a quirky, campy, weird little romp, an almost jarring hodgepodge of tones and styles. Yet despite all that, it absolutely has its own distinct flavor, which is something it carries throughout the entire runtime, and that is no doubt a testament to writer/director Anthony Hickox. I love that it actually manages to be all those things at once. Most movies could not get away with nor live up to the tagline “More fun than a barrel of mummies.” This one does. I don’t know what could possibly be a better testament to its success than that.
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