Color, 1997, 98m.
Directed by Sergio Stivaletti
Starring Robert Hossein, Romina Mondello, Riccardo Serventi Longhi, Gabriella Giorgelli
One 7 Movies (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1)
Color, 1997, 98m.
The heyday of the Italian horror wave had faded away symbolically when director Lucio Fulci died in 1996, leaving behind one unrealized project he was supposed to direct that would have been his sole collaboration with Dario Argento: Wax Mask, an ambitious period piece filled with wild special effects and violent, sexy excesses. Argento and Fulci had collaborated on the script along with Daniele Stroppa, freely pulling elements from Mystery of the Wax Museum (or its remake, House of Wax), Hammer films, and Gaston Leroux's The Phantom of the Opera for a bizarre brew that would've been very unlike Fulci's previous films that decade. Oddly enough, Argento himself was coming off of The Stendhal Syndrome and about to mount his own version of The Phantom of the Opera, so directorial reins ended up going for the first time to Sergio Stivaletti, the makeup and effects genius behind such Argento-connected films as Phenomena, Opera, The Church, and Demons. The film was highly touted in horror magazines and promised a return to the glory days of Italian horror, but the end result proved to be... something else entirely.
As Paris celebrates the start of the 20th century with a fireworks display, a clawed assailant manages to mercilessly slaughter one innocent couple and tear out their hearts, much to the horror of their young daughter. Flash forward twelve years to Rome where that girl, Sonia (Mondello), who lives near a wax museum that's just opened and become the talk of the city. Brothel regular Andrea (Longhi), having evidently never seen Castle of Blood, decides it would be a great idea to wager one of his cohorts to see whether he can spend one cover night inside the wax museum, which soon reveals that its owner, Boris Volkoff (the great actor-director Hossein), is up to something nefarious (and murderous) in his secret laboratory involving vast quantities of wax, abducted prostitutes, and metallic limbs. Of course, that means Andrea and Sonia have to join forces to get to the bottom of the mystery, which claims several more lives before a big showdown in the wax museum. In complete defiance of logic, it also turns into a Terminator imitation in the final minutes.
Baffling but rarely dull, Wax Mask manages to somehow incorporate both the best and worst aspects of Italian horror's later period. The cinematography by Fulci's most famous cinematographer, the wonderful Sergio Salvati, is often wondrous to behold, with the museum sequences in particular almost popping off the screen with vibrant colors and beautiful compositions. The bombastic orchestral score by Maurizio Abeni (a frequent orchestrator for Pino Donaggio) is also plenty of fun, even if it doesn't give Morricone a run for his money. Stivaletti also unleashes a pretty impressive display of grotesqueries and gore including lots of melting wax and flesh, slashed throats galore, and topless women strapped Jess Franco-style in the villain's lair. On the downside, the generic actors bring zero charisma to their roles and the film is regularly hobbled by some truly rancid CGI that looked terrible even when the film opened, especially those opening fireworks and the big museum fire in the finale. The English dubbing is also atrocious, featuring stilted and awkward vocal performances a far, far cry away from the beloved dub tracks of the previous two decades.
Image Entertainment brought Wax Mask to American DVD in 2000 as one of the earliest entries in its EuroShock Collection line, featuring an effects gallery as the sole extra and a borderline unwatchable flat letterboxed transfer filled with aliasing, macroblocking, mushy blacks, and pretty much any other flaw you can think of. (Here's a sample grab to give you an idea.) The film's lukewarm reception led to very few parties stepping up to do any future editions, but One 7 Movies caught everyone off guard when it announced the film for a 2017 Blu-ray release (with really messy cover art). Anyone familiar with the label's past track record (with some DVD titles looking like murky VHS bootlegs) would be understandably skeptical, but it actually turns out to be a pretty solid transfer that skyrockets way, way past the Image release and actually makes the film somewhat pleasurable to watch. The original hyper-saturated colors are quite impressive now with blazing reds and blues in particular faring nicely, and the sleek, burnished look of the cinematography can now finally be appreciated. Some shots have a somewhat odd, processed look with what looks like some traces of either edge enhancement or weird scanning, but it's hit and miss throughout the film and not a colossal distraction. The English dub is presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 options; the former is a lot of fun (especially during the finale) while the latter has slightly stronger bass, so try both and see which one you prefer. For no apparent reason, a handful of lines of dialogue near the end (basically saying "We've got to get out of here!") revert to Italian but were in English on the old DVD. The Italian audio is also presented in Dolby TrueHD 5.1 and Dolby Digital 2.0 options and sounds great, though sadly it contains no subtitle options. That's a particular pity since most of the actors besides Hossein spoke their lines in Italian, and it's a classier and more naturalistic audio track. Extras include a 22-minute behind the scenes featurette (with lots of shots of Stivaletti at work) and a 13-minute featurette showing the team at work on the mechanical and makeup effects, both in Italian without subtitles for the occasional incidental conversations.