FTP: The Wax Mask (1997)

DECEMBER 16, 2023


There’s kind of a heartbreaking moment on the bonus features for The Wax Mask (Italian: Maschera di cera), where Sergio Stivaletti notes that the movie never got a fair shake from horror fans. Not a direct quote because I don’t have the patience to go back and find where he says it (more on that soon) but the gist is “It was never seen as the exciting debut movie from a FX artist they liked – it was always the movie Lucio Fulci was going to make and I replaced him when he died.” And he’s right; you’d be hard-pressed to find a single review or article about the film from the past 25 years that doesn’t practically lead with “This was supposed to be a Fulci comeback movie,” which is unfair to Stivaletti (for those not privy to the history: Fulci died weeks before production was set to begin). The closest equivalent I can think of would be A.I. being directed by Spielberg instead of Kubrick, but it’s not like the ‘berg was making his debut, you know? We trusted him.

But one thing that’s not mentioned as much is, you know, it’s very likely the movie wouldn’t have been very good with Fulci calling the shots, either. At that point he hadn’t made a good flick in over a decade, and the Italian film industry’s decreased interest in horror (Stivaletti notes it may have been the only major Italian horror film being produced at that time, saying they were more interested in distributing American disaster movies of the era) meant that they weren’t afforded the same resources they had access to in the early 80s. With the story being a period piece, I feel it always would have come off as underwhelming at best, and (ironically) some of the film’s only real memorable moments were apparently things Stivaletti added that wouldn’t have been in Fulci’s version anyway.

I mean don’t get me wrong, the movie’s not terrible – at times it’s actually fairly entertaining. It’s just one of those things where the names you see in the credits (in addition to Fulci, who wrote the majority of the script, it was also co-written and produced by Dario Argento) elevate expectations. If you snipped off the opening titles and showed it to someone without context, they’d probably walk away thinking it was a decent enough spin on House of Wax, where a reporter and the museum’s new employee work together to solve the mystery of why those wax figures look so darn realistic and if it has anything to do with a string of disappearances. There are a few gory murders, some goofy mid-90s CGI shots that I find charming now (man did they love their morphing FX back then!), frequent sex scenes with actual nudity (also charming since such things don’t exist anymore), and a fiery climax that gave off low-key Hammer vibes. Nothing too exciting or memorable, but, you know, it’s fine!

That said, it never really looks all that well, which kept me at arm’s length. Cinematographer Sergio Salvati was Fulci’s DP for a number of his classics, but sadly it looks more like Salvati’s later work with Full Moon (including the OG Puppet Master), where everything is over lit and soap opera-ish. Honestly if it wasn’t for the time discrepancy I’d swear it was shot on video, so again I can’t help but think if Fulci had survived I’d have the same issues with it that I do under Stivaletti’s watch, and if anything I give him a little more benefit of the doubt since he’s a first timer whereas Fulci would have no excuse for it to look this phony (with the fact that it’s supposed to be 1912 even harder to buy when it looks like they shot it with something they bought at Circuit City). And as I mentioned, one of the best things in the movie is an out of nowhere Terminator-esque scene where the villain, revealed to basically be a robot wearing human skin, is melted down to his exoskeleton and chases the heroes for a bit as the fire rages behind them all. It’s delightfully batshit, offering the movie the sort of energy that it could have used throughout in order to offset its deficiencies.

Stivaletti, Argento, producer Giuseppe Colombo, and a couple others (none of the lead actors, alas) are on hand for a retrospective documentary that is annoyingly broken into several different featurettes, despite having the same people in all of them. Like I get that they want to pad the bonus features menu (indeed, I was kind of overwhelmed when I first loaded it up), but why not just have each interview separate? They obviously put together a 80ish minute doc and then cut it all up – next time make that “we need more bonus features” call before wasting the time of the editor who saw their work split into chunks. Especially since you kind of have to watch all of them anyway to get the context of what they’re talking about; like one just discusses the cast and even a child could be able to detect that it’s lacking a proper intro and stops suddenly. Also they’re all in Italian with non-burned in subtitles, so you can’t even cheat and fast forward at 2x (while reading fast) to get through them all. There’s a solid interview with Alan Jones about some of the project’s history and reputation, and a vintage featurette of Argento on the set, where it seems there was some Spielberg/Hooper/Poltergeist kinda stuff going on re: who was actually directing at times. And there’s a commentary, which is fine – I was most engaged by the Italian Stivaletti speaking English and occasionally asking moderator/Severin guru David Gregory to translate (“It’s a… word joke?” Stivaletti questions, with Gregory deciphering what he meant: “Play on words”). It’s cute! Oh and somewhere in there (again, if it wasn’t all broken up I might be able to find it again easier) Argento tells a delightful story about the lead actor Robert Hossein hooking up with one of the film’s actresses, only for her husband to catch them. But Hossein, thinking fast, told them they were just rehearsing their love scene and she was naked so she could start getting used to being undressed on camera. Hahahah, what a legend.

What say you?


Godzilla Minus One (2023)

DECEMBER 3, 2023


Once upon a time, I got invited to press screenings and also went to more festivals, which meant I got to see newer movies before hearing too much about them. Which was great, because I’m (sadly) easily swayed by the hype (or the rumblings) and then end up feeling the opposite way, because my expectations have been skewed in one direction or the other. It’s something I try to avoid as much as possible, but it’s kind of unavoidable, especially when by the time I end up seeing something it’s from buying a ticket to the Sunday night showing of its opening weekend (by which point reviews have been going around for a week or two). But every now and then there’s a movie like Godzilla Minus One, where all the praise turned out to be pretty on the mark.

I should preface the rest of this review by noting that I’m hardly a Godzilla expert, but more of a casual fan at best. I’ve liked most of the ones I’ve seen (not too many; counting the new Monsterverse types I put the total at 12, including this*), but apart from the original and King of the Monsters I wouldn’t say any of them are movies I’d want to watch a second time (even though I have ended up revisiting a few for various reasons). Not that they’re bad movies (well, Emmerich’s is) but it’s just not my thing – I am entertained by them and then kind of forget about them a few days later. So me saying that Minus One might be my absolute favorite of the lot – or at least tied with the original – may not carry as much weight as a die hard aficionado saying as much (and I know some of those types who have indeed declared this their favorite), but hey, it should count for something, right?

Part of why it works as well the OG is because, well, it’s a period piece set around the same time – actually a few years before. Our hero is Shikishima, a WWII kamikaze pilot who is too afraid to carry out his suicide mission and flies to an island where planes are being fixed, claiming a maintenance issue with his aircraft. He’s barely just arrived when Godzilla stomps his way onto the island, killing all but one of the mechanics while Shikishima once again is too afraid to engage in battle. The only surviving mechanic, Tachibana, blames Shikishima for their deaths, and then the poor sod gets an even worse heaping of guilt when he returns to his hometown and discovers his parents have perished in an air raid that might have been prevented if he had committed to his duty as a kamikaze pilot.

It’s an intriguing and utterly messed up take on the “hero needs to atone” story, because basically everyone is mad at this guy for not committing suicide, and he himself feels bad about it. And thus as Godzilla continues to stomp and smash his way around Japan, Shikishima is basically on a path of “I need to kill myself to feel better about all the deaths I might have prevented!”, leaving us in the audience in the odd position of either hoping he continues to be a coward so that he won’t die, or egging on his demise. I kept thinking of the end of Armageddon, when Billy Bob Thornton is basically screaming at Bruce Willis to “push the button!” when pushing said button means killing himself – it’s basically that kind of weird moment stretched out for two hours.

Luckily, it’s not as grim as that sounds. In fact, it’s kind of a charming movie at times, particularly in the middle chunk of the film when it’s essentially Jaws but with Godzilla instead of Bruce. A few years after returning home, Shikishima gets a job on a boat that goes out on the sea to find and deactivate all the mines that were planted in the waters by both Japanese and US military during WWII, only to find G out there as he makes his way back to land. There’s a riveting sequence where they’re trying to use one of the mines they’ve collected to blow him up that is akin to the barrel scene in Spielberg’s classic, and the camaraderie among the four guys on the boat has elements of the Quint/Brody/Hooper dynamic as well. Honestly I would have been just as happy, perhaps even more so, if this was how the rest of the movie played out, with these four guys (each with their own reasons for being there) trying to stop Godzilla before he got back to the mainland, but eventually their boat is proven to be too small for the gig and more military/scientist types come to the rescue for a grander final act.

In fact if I had one minor complaint about the movie, it’s that the waterbound climax lacks the same kind of tension a land-driven one would provide. Sure, the crew of the two big battleships (plus Shikishima in a fighter plane) is at stake, but one of the things about the movie is that he keeps getting bigger, and that scale is hard to judge when he’s just surrounded by water instead of people and buildings. I also find myself puzzled in this sequence, as he appears to be just standing in the water in many shots but the plan involves using the two ships to tie a massive weight belt around him and sink him to the bottom of the ocean below, so he can’t be touching the ground where he is. I guess he’s just really good at treading water? All that said, it’s worth it for their plan B, which is that if sinking him to the bottom doesn’t kill him (from the pressure), they will remotely trigger some inflatable things on the same belt that will make him skyrocket back up and basically kill him from the bends. Again, I haven’t seen all of these movies, but of the ones I HAVE seen, the method of stopping him has never been from something Thom Yorke sang about back when he could still write coherent songs.

The other thing that the water prevents is G moving around with as much force, which is a bummer because he is legit terrifying in this one. The opening sequence with the mechanics is actually full on scary in ways that giant monster movies rarely are – the original Jurassic Park might be the last time I found myself really tensed up from a giant monster scene, as it really delivers on him being a MONSTER as opposed to a force of nature of some sort. Like, yeah, one swing of his tail can knock over a building and kill hundreds, but there’s something far more unsettling about him seeing a person and eating him or deliberately using that same tail to swat him hundreds of feet through the air and let him die when he lands. And by keeping the movie’s giant monster population to just one (another thing it has in common with the original), it avoids any kind of “Well he’s more of an anti-hero because we need him to stop this other monster” angle that too many others rely on, though I understand that the series would get quite stale if it was just “Godzilla is here/back, we have to stop him!” every time. It's a double edged spiky tail.

Naturally, as is always the case despite some erroneous claims to the contrary, a hefty portion of the movie is devoted to human drama, though as with Godzilla himself the material is well above average. Shikishima is a sympathetic hero and his relationships with the other characters are just as compelling as any of the effect-driven scenes. He has a neighbor who lost her children to the air strike and blames him for their deaths, though she slowly warms to him as he does his best to care for a survivor named Noriko, who is caring for a baby (Akiko) whose parents also died. It’s endearing to watch this little makeshift family come together, and I also enjoyed the strained relationship he has with the other guy who survived the opening island attack. Shikishima feels enlisting this man to help him fix the plane he needs to take out Godzilla will help make up for his cowardice then, and so the other man is given his own dilemma: help the man he despises, or do nothing and risk more deaths from the actual threat? So many of the ones I’ve seen have had rather corny human elements (the love triangle in Raids Again comes to mind, or the dull business dealings in Mothra vs Godzilla), so I liked that not only were these more interesting, but actually tied into Godzilla as well. It’s not that they have to put aside their differences to stop him – he’s the root cause of their differences in the first place!

Oh and the music is terrific. I damn near cheered when the main theme really kicked in at a key point during the climax. It was like the “Brothers in Arms” cue in Fury Road in how pumped it got me for the already exciting action on screen.

Honestly, unless you demand a certain number of buildings to be destroyed in these things, I don’t know how you can walk away disappointed with this one as long as you understand that these movies are always at their best when they have compelling humans on the ground that Godzilla stomps upon. Sure, it’s not as destructive as some others (including Shin Godzilla, which was also well received but I found rather average) and those accustomed to the monster brawls might be taken aback by the lack of another kaiju for him to fight, but it’s clear everyone involved wanted to truly get back to what made the original such a classic, and (quite impressively) giving it a modern spin despite the period setting. It really just works on all levels, and I suspect will be the go-to influence for any number of series entries over the next few decades. And I’m stoked it was given a proper US theatrical release, something that’s eluded the series for quite some time (Shin was given a limited release in art house theaters, and Godzilla 2000 was a recut version); since it’s been successful I hope the trend continues from here on out. It should always be just as easy to see the big foreign films here in the US as it is for them to see Marvel and Minions movies there. What say you?

*The others being the original, Raids Again, King Kong vs, Mothra vs, vs Biollante, Emmerich, 2000, Shin, and the three WB/Legendary ones.


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