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?


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