WAX MASK (1997) Blu-ray
Director: Sergio Stivaletti
One 7 Movies

One 7 Movies has released on Blu-ray WAX MASK (M.D.C. – Maschera di cera), the 1997 Italian horror outing from producer Dario Argento, directed and co-written by Sergio Stivaletti, co-scripted by Daniele Stroppa, and starring Robert Hossein, Romina Mondello, Riccardo Serventi Longhi, Gabriella Giorgelli, Umberto Balli, Valery Valmond, Gianni Franco and Aldo Massasso. Originally intended by producer Argento as a life-saving comeback project for the ailing Italian “Godfather of Gore,” director Lucio Fulci, WAX MASK was eventually helmed by special effects master Stivaletti, earning some respectable reviews from international critics for its old-timey luridness married to state-of-the-art gore effects. A few interesting—if completely incomprehensible—extras aren’t the draw for this Blu release; rather, it’s One 7’s restored, pristine HD 1080p 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer that wows you with Stivaletti’s beautifully produced little horror.

Paris, December 31st, 1900. A cloaked assassin, literally armed with a metal claw, viciously slaughters an Italian couple, twisting off the hand and ripping out the heart of the husband...while the victims’ unseen daughter watches it all underneath an armoire. Twelve years later, the daughter, gorgeous Sonia Lafont (Romina Mondello, TV’s HIGHLANDER, DEATH, DECEIT & DESTINY ABOARD THE ORIENT EXPRESS), is now an aspiring artist, applying for a job as assistant costume designer for the new wax museum opening up in Rome. Immediately taken with the beauty, the museum’s owner and sculptor Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossein, THE VAMPIRE OF DUSSELDORF, I KILLED RASPUTIN) hires her, but all is not right with the intense Volkoff, nor with his creepy assistant, Alex (Umberto Balli) who enjoys sadomasochistic sex with beautiful blonde whores like Giorgina (Valery Valmond)...while unknowingly being observed by his sweaty boss. Callow young gentleman Luca (Daniel Auber) knows Giorgina well, too; after a paid session, he’s off to spend the night at the wax museum, on a dare from a friend. When he’s found frightened to death the next morning by Inspector Palazzi (Gianni Franco, RATS: NIGHT OF TERROR, LADY CHATTERLEY’S PASSIONS 2: JULIE’S SECRET), the suspicions of photo-journalist Andrea Conversi (Riccardo Serventi Longhi, SYMPHONY IN BLOOD RED, THE THREE FACES OF TERROR) are aroused...although suspicions not alone are aroused when Andrea spots the luscious Sonia, hoping to use her to score an interview with Boris. Will Sonia discover what the mystery is at the wax museum, with or without her top on?

Looking over the history of WAX MASK, its seems most peoples’ interest in it stems from what’s not in it: the “almost” historical collaboration of producer Dario Argento (DEEP RED, THE BIRD WITH THE CRYSTAL PLUMMAGE) and director Lucio Fulci (A LIZARD IN A WOMAN’S SKIN, DON’T TORTURE A DUCKLING). Apparently Argento, moved by the physical decline of his rival Fulci in the early 1990s, sought out the down-on-his-luck director/screenwriter for a collaboration, in the hopes of buoying Luci’s physical and emotional well-being. The two eventually settled on remaking Warner Bros.’ HOUSE OF WAX, with Fulci penning the script and helming it. According to reports, financing problems and Argento’s own busy career sidelined the project right up until Fulci died, with Argento passing on himself directing WAX MASK in favor of special effects whiz Sergio Stivaletti (THE DEVIL’S DAUGHTER, CEMETERY MAN). Reports vary as to how much of Fulci’s work (from Argento’s story) actually remains in Daniele Stroppa’s (CONVENT OF SINNERS, DIRTY LOVE) script (sounds like none of it), with Argento and Stivaletti ditching Fulci’s intended atmospherics for an uptick in WAX MASK’s hardcore gore.

Whatever its pedigree, WAX MASK turns out to be an enjoyable period horror romp, with its excesses of production design and gore special effects far outweighing missteps in storyline and performance. Giallo enthusiasts won’t be surprised to see Argento plugging in recognizable genre conventions, including a gloved killer(s), frequent p.o.v. shots of the killer(s) in action, a largely ineffectual copper working the case, memory flashbacks that are key to resolving the crime, and of course, beautiful women killed in spectacularly gory fashion. WAX MASK’s turn-of-the-century period flavor is enjoyably mashed up with 1990s horror gore, as rich young men visit whorehouses where they discuss the newly-found subconscious, and madmen spend hours with pen and ink, drawing intricate anatomy studies in big heavy books while talking about science and art achieving perfection...before we see hearts ripped out by JULES VERNE MEETS THE TERMINATOR robots (I kid you not). By the time you’re trying to figure out which killer killed which victim and why, it doesn’t matter anymore because you’re pleased with the nice switch on the old HOUSE OF WAX gimmick (this time, the victim mannequins are kept horribly alive and rigid with a mysterious serum, rather than the old way: corpses covered in wax), and gorgeous actresses like pant-worthy Mondello have been strapped nude and struggling to operating tables.

Style trumps substance in WAX MASK—not too terribly surprising when looking at a lot of meat-and-potatoes Italian horror. For a pittance of a budget (reportedly under $2 million...lira? Dollars?), production designer Massimo Antonello Geleng (CANNIBAL HOLOCAUST, THE ADVENTURES OF HERCULES II) and cinematographer Sergio Salvati (THE BEYOND, CRAWLSPACE) create a rich, opulent look that mixes pulpy, lurid comic book colors during the museum and kill scenes (that laboratory set, with the big boiling tubes of colored water and the elaborate Victorian machinery, looks like WALT DISNEY’S WONDERFUL WORLD OF HAMMER), with a lush, almost Visconti-like shimmer to the outdoor scenes and a few of the more chaste sex scenes (beauty Mondello looks insane partially nude, and very dirty blonde Valmond ain’t no slouch, either).

It’s a shame first time director Stivaletti’s amateur hour handling of the actors is further hampered by the atrocious English dubbing and some dubious casting choices (creepy Longhi looks like one of the villains, not the “hero”), but there are enough pleasures in WAX MASK’s look and particularly in its special effects/kill scenes, to forget those hiccups. Stivaletti opens with a grotesquely animated dog corpse (an amusing nod to the most notorious chapter in Fulci’s directorial career), and then keeps the audience jumping with one solid kill scene after another, from the little urchin’s death at a lake folly (the entire screen turns red from the killer’s p.o.v.), to a child’s autopsy in a huge, spooky white brick catacomb, to Sonia’s retrieved memory of her father’s death, complete with hand twisted off, cut throat pumping arterial blood, and his heart pulled out and skewered like a shish kabob (even the now outdated visual effects, such as Georgina’s embalming scene, are done with a twisted panache). Everyone seems to have a problem with the finale’s TERMINATOR robots. Of course they make no sense whatsoever, but quite frankly, they’re introduced in such a ridiculously straightforward manner, the effect is delightfully goofy—not a bad way, on the whole, to describe WAX MASK.

WAX MASK’s Blu-ray HD 1080p 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer looks sensational (from what I’ve read, a previous DVD release was a nasty, washed out letterboxed version). You often read in these reviews that colors “pop” in a nice transfer, but here they really do, considering the movie’s comic book production design. Skin tones are varied and realistic, grain is super-tight, blacks are inky, and I saw absolutely no artifacting or compression issues. Very nice. Now...the audio. Hey, the English dub Dolby TrueHD 5.1 mix has a lot going for it, including some sweet separation effects during the kills, and a pretty wide sonic scape (the Dolby Digital 2.0 version isn’t as nimble, but it feels slightly heavier, more solid). The big problem? As mentioned, the dubbing is terrible, so if your original plan—as was mine—was to go to the Italian mixes (same configurations), you better have handy that Italian Berlitz course. No English subtitles. So, you’re stuck with that awful English dub. The same, sadly, goes for the two extras here, including a collection of on-set "Backstage Scenes" (22:43) and "Special Effects Scenes" (13:05), all of which look pretty cool...but are largely unintelligible unless you speak Italian. Pity, that. (Paul Mavis)