Color, 1997, 98 mins. 8 secs.
Directed by Sergio Stivaletti
Starring Robert Hossein, Romina Mondello, Riccardo Serventi Longhi, Gabriella Giorgelli
Severin Films (Blu-ray & DVD) (US R0 HD/NTSC), One 7 Movies (Blu-ray) (US R0 HD) / WS (1.78:1) (16:9), Image Entertainment (DVD) (US R1 NTSC) / WS (1.78:1)

Wax Mask

Wax MaskThe 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 more directly 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, Wax Maskwhich 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. Wax MaskYes, really.

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 lovely 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 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 2016 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 digital futzing and smoothing, 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 Wax Mask"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 21m51s the scenes featurette (with lots of shots of Wax MaskStivaletti at work) and a 12m31s featurette showing the team at work on the mechanical and makeup effects, both in Italian without subtitles for the occasional incidental conversations.

In 2019, Severin Films gave the film another shot with simultaneous Blu-ray and DVD editions, complete with an insane roster of extras that puts most Italian genre film releases to shame. The big news here for the film itself is the much-needed inclusion of English subtitles for the Italian track, presented here in DTS-HD 5.1 or 2.0 options. It's a real godsend for anyone who's had to suffer through that agonizing English track, which also gets 5.1 and 2.0 presentations here and sounds fine if modest either way. The transfer appears to be from the same scan as the earlier Blu-ray right down to the framing and color timing. Oddly, the black levels are very pale and too bright; however, if you knock the brightness level on your player or display down (by about half), it looks nice.

An audio commentary with Stivaletti and special effects artist Michelangelo Stivaletti, moderated by Severin's David Gregory, is a thorough and engaging account of the film's creation including many thoughts about Fulci, the early use of CGI (on the heels of Stivaletti's peculiar use of it on Stendhal), Hossein's background, the challenges of the mechanical effects, and the state of the industry at the time. Then you get a slew of new featurettes-- most from Freak-o-Rama and pulled from the same in-depth interview sessions and divided up by general subject matter. "Beyond Fulci" (20m38s) is a fascinating portrait of the late filmmaker through the eyes of interviewees Dario Argento, Sergio Stivaletti, producer Giuseppe Columbo, production designer Massimo Geleng, actress Gabriella Giorgelli and the always welcome Claudio Fragasso. There's also discussion about various projects Fulci wanted to make but never realized including a tantalizing Lovecraft adaptation with James Coburn, plus recollections about his well-known medical issues, his "crusty" temperament, memories of his funeral, and his life far outside the hubbub of Rome. Up next is "The Chamber of Horrors" (20m53s) with Argento, Sergio Stivaletti, Coumbo, Geleng, and Giorgelli offering an overview of how the film was mounted in a studio setting and came about through a series of meetings that led to the decision of giving Stivaletti his debut opportunity as a director since the project seemed to be "right up his alley." Then "Living Dolls" (18m54s) goes into the casting process mixing Italian and French actors with Wax Maskcomments from Argento, Sergio Stivaletti, Columbo and Giorgelli, including some interesting thoughts on Hossein as an actor with considerable directing experience under his belt (which also presented some scheduling issues). Sergio Stivaletti goes solo for "The Wax MaskMysteries of the Wax Museum" (15m31s) focusing entirely on the visual effects and the complexity of some of the shots, which might make you appreciate some of the clunkier bits like that first scene. The score takes center stage in "The Waxworks Symphony" (11m23s) with Abeni sitting at a piano explaining how he got his musical training around Europe and embarked on a composing career, complete with a few great little demos of his themes for this project and an explanation of what those choral bits mean. Then Argento, Stivaletti and Columbo return for "The Grand Opening" (10m16s) for a reminiscence about the film's reception at home and abroad as well as its life including some candid comments about the end result and some of its financial shortcomings. Argento expert Alan Jones offers a short but great analysis of the film in "Wax Unmasked" (11m55s) including context for the film during Argento's own output (originating around the time of Phantom of the Opera), the odd connections to Gaston Leroux, a comic book and a planned remake of The Mummy, and an account of the evolving, once hostile rapport between Argento and Fulci that spawned a short-lived partnership of sorts. If you're a newcomer to the film, you may actually want to watch this first as it explains quite a bit about the peculiar final result that ended up radically different from the original plan. Both of the earlier featurettes from the prior release have been carried over, and a third vintage featurette is also added: "On Set with Dario Argento" (4m17s), showing the maestro having fun with Stivaletti and company during the shooting of four scenes. A bonus soundtrack CD is also included -- a welcome gesture as always. The release comes as with a limited slipcover designed by Austin Hinderliter, so grab 'em while you can.


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ONE 7 FILMS (Blu-ray)

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Updated review on September 26, 2019.