Wednesday, November 30, 2016

The Wax Mask (1997)

Original title: M.D.C. – Maschera di cera

The year 1900, Paris. Young Sonia Lafont survives the brutal murder and mutilation of her parents by hiding under a commode. Twelve years later, Sonia (grown up to be played by Romina Mondello) is living in Rome. She’s trying to get a job designing clothes in the city’s new house of wax. Once he’s taken a (creepy) look at her, the wax museum’s (creepy) boss, Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossein), is all too happy to hire the girl, despite her lack of practical experience in her chosen field. One can’t help but think there’s more and worse to the man’s decision than just Sonia’s pretty face – even though she’s certainly a very fetching young lady.

Sonia’s new place of employment, being a wax museum in a horror movie, does of course harbour more than just one dark secret - and would you believe it? The wax figures on show in it may very well contain only a very small amount of wax, and more of a rather more…human ingredient! Might there be a connection to some curious disappearances that started happening in town ever since Volkoff has arrived, or even a connection to the murder of Sonia’s parents? Obviously.

Initially, The Wax Mask was supposed to be a film made by the great Lucio Fulci, even involving Fulci’s old nemesis Dario Argento on the production and story side, but in the end, Fulci died before shooting began, and Argento’s input looks to have been very minor too. The job of replacing Fulci fell to the maestro’s favourite effects man, Sergio Stivaletti, who made his debut on the director’s chair, with very little too follow.

As a director, Stivaletti is no Fulci, not even the late hit or miss Fulci making cable TV movies. It’s not so much a lack of technical expertise – Stivaletti clearly knows more than just the basics of the whys and wherefores of directing – but one of spirit. Particularly the film’s – very pretty in the Italian style created by Stivaletti – gorier sequences suggest to me that Stivaletti is just a little too nice, lacking the curious mixture of nastiness, all-around misanthropy and plain surreal weirdness that made Fulci as great as he was. Given that he’s working off a script made for and in part written by Fulci for Fulci, Stivaletti does of course have little opportunity to find something of its own to replace the Fulci mix, so that the film often feels less like an homage to the maestro made by another great than like a somewhat reticent attempt at copying the maestro’s weaker late period style. Luckily, it’s a weaker attempt at copying the great man made by a guy who actually worked with him, and seems interested in more than just the gory bits of his film.

Consequently, The Wax Mask does feature quite a few good parts beside its problems, too: some of the film’s locations are beautiful and creepy and while Stivaletti could do more with them, he certainly isn’t wasting them; while the violence doesn’t feel quite right – except for the pig attack (don’t ask, just watch) which does feel absolutely wrong/right – it does rise above the gore for gore’s sake style you’d probably suspect from an effects artist by actually having a degree of style, perhaps even a sense of moderation; and the film’s final twenty-five minutes or so are absolutely bonkers in the best Italian horror tradition, with the villain demonstrating his true mad scientist qualifications by turning into more than just your usual horror movie wax museum proprietor, developing a Fantomas-style ability at disguising himself (enabling a wonderful minute or so spent with the good old doppelganger motif), and turning into a thinner version of dear T-1000.

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