Sunday, June 15, 2014

The Wax Mask / M.D.C. – Maschera di cera (1997)

The last film Lucio Fulci ever worked on, The Wax Mask, was supposed to have been the grand collaboration between Fulci and Dario Argento, had it not been for Fulci’s tragic death some few weeks before filming was to begin. The project came about after Argento had approached Fulci at a 1994 film festival in Rome and suggested they work together on a new film.* This was more of a sympathetic gesture from Argento who had intentions of reviving the spirits of an ailing Fulci in a wheelchair, who, at the time, had not worked on a new film in years.* The two were never the best of friends, as Argento always thought Fulci imitated his filmmaking style (the separate camps weren’t only with the fan base it would seem).*

Differences aside, they mutually agreed upon recreating House of Wax with Fulci directing.* Along with Daniele Stroppa (The House of Clocks), they wrote the script for The Wax Mask, an alternate take on the wax museum myth that doesn’t necessarily feel like a remake of House of Wax (1953), even if it is.*

With Fulci’s death occuring shortly before filming (out of respect, Argento paid for the funeral arrangements), the project was temporarily put on hold before Argento offered the directorial duties to effects maestro Sergio Stivaletti, who had already been working on special effects for the film.* Stivaletti, actually having long been hoping for a directorial debut, accepted the position with only two weeks to work out pre-production (casting, locations, etc.) before shooting began.*

According to the book Profondo Argento: The Man, the Myths, & the Magic by Alan Jones, Stivaletti did somewhat revise Fulci and Stroppa’s original screenplay, giving it more of an alchemy theme.* The exhibited wax-encapsulated corpses, as seen previously in House of Wax (1953), were replaced with wax victims with an even more disturbing state of being, a nice edgy alternate take.

The Wax Mask was intended to be an extremely modern film with a classic gothic horror style, and to this end it succeeds. It is often, and understandably so, compared to Hammer horror films, due to its period gothic style, but with its gratuitous but still essential heavy gore FX and use of colorful, contrasting lighting on dark sets, a la Suspiria and Inferno, there ends up being something a lot more Italian about it.

I wasn’t too crazy about the digital effects, which were considered highly modern for the time, but they appear dated today, and not in a charming way. The practical effects still hold up, though. As an Italian horror film in the ‘90s, not only are the gore elements satisfying and imaginative, Stivaletti’s application of practical effects is impressive and more technically accomplished in comparison to some of the film's more schlocky Italian horror predecessors in the ‘80s.

The symphonic soundtrack is total ‘90s Hollywood, which does fit with the material, but I wouldn’t have minded something that stood out more, something a little catchier, with a familiar theme I can recall and hum. Don’t get me wrong, it’s good, but at this moment, I can’t remember any themes to the soundtrack.

What harms the film the most is the unfortunate dubbing, which makes certain actors unfairly appear terrible, more so since they can get rather loquacious. This is nothing new with a dubbed Italian film, of course, and I’ve become a huge fan of dubbing, particularly from the legendary, recognizable voices in Nick Alexander’s dubbing team, but here it’s a big distraction, especially to those who are not used to it and will likely find themselves snickering.

The film’s moody, gothic ambiance and style does shine through as a superficial attraction, and yet the dynamic story and its continuity do succeed rather well (at least I thought so), barring some pacing problems. Viewers are left in the dark for a large portion of running time with regards to the opening flashback crime scene of a violent murder aftermath in Paris and its connection to characters in present day Rome: Sonia Lafont (Romina Mondello), who witnessed the brutal murders as a little girl from a killer with a mechanical hand, and Boris Volkoff (Robert Hossein) the wax museum curator, an elegant gentleman who’s also a monster on the inside, both literally and figuratively. The pieces of the puzzle do come together coherently, and somewhat predictably, before leading into an entertaining and dramatic fiery climax that’s like Argento’s Inferno meets The Terminator. As much as I love twists, there is a last minute twist that doesn’t make much sense and probably shouldn’t have been included, because it ends up making it very difficult to draw a conclusion. It was almost as if it was trying to meet some kind of twist quota, which can be counterproductive if every twist does not add to the experience.

Fortunately, the set pieces in the wax museum and the secret basement do not disappoint and are half the fun. Cinematographer Sergio Salvati revives the classic Italian horror colorful lighting palette, making the inside of the museum look and feel like something out of Suspiria. Being that this is a wax museum movie it shouldn’t be too surprising where the idols in the museum are sourced from, but there is an added disturbing spin to the wax works (A similar idea was used in House of Wax (2005)).
The Wax Mask also has that fetishistic Eurocult sleaze factor that does feel very ‘70s. When the narrative transports from Paris in the past to present day Rome, we end up in a brothel full of lascivious prostitutes entertaining men. The text on the screen reads “Rome, 12 years later” and a voice-over amusingly repeats the text, as if we can’t read; it’s probably for dramatic effect, but it comes off as a little silly and unnecessary, an example of some of the misguided quirks that hurt the viewing experience a little.

I do still love this movie. All in all, The Wax Mask is good, but sometimes slow, fun that’s not without its flaws. However, it seems to have the general label of “recommended to Italian horror fans only.” Is this like saying Italian horror fans are different, and non-Italian horror fans are normal and therefore will most likely not get it and need not bother with such foreign nonsense? Sounds snobbish, but probably...

© At the Mansion of Madness 


* Jones, A., (2004). Profondo Argento: The Man, the Myths & the Magic. Fab Press

Today begins the second annual Ultimate Gore-a-thon 2014 – Another Splatterific Extravaganza, hosted by our partner in crime Blood Sucking Geek!!! Follow these awesome sites for a week of gore-centric mayhem:

90s Horror Movies

Blood Sucking Geek 

Candy-Coated Razor Blades 

Craft Fear 

The Info Zombie 

Love Horror 

Midnight Cinephile 

Movies at Dog Farm 

Slasher Studios 


Wide Weird World of Cult Films 


  1. You had me at "Eurocult sleaze factor". Actually you had me long before that, but you know, it helped, lol. It would have only taken a couple of those images for me to want to see it.

    I can't believe I've never seen this one, considering its tie to Fulci, so I'll definitely be seeking it out in short order. Excellent write-up, and all the history is awesome, thanks for that!

    1. No problem, JD. I hope I can keep up the momentum for the other two articles I have in mind.

      Given its history and the names associated with it, The Wax Mask would make an easy sell, and though I might’ve sounded a little snarky in my closing statement, it’s true that this film probably isn’t for everyone. Some love it and others feel disappointed, expecting more considering the story behind it. It’s still a beautiful film, though.

  2. "Foreign nonsense" like this is mana from Heaven (or Hell?). This actually sounds as though it could be a prime candidate for a slot in the next live Movies At Dog Farm event. As JD noted, I'm a little ashamed of myself - given its pedigree - that I've never seen it. You do a fine job of contextualizing the movie with the info about its history, which just piques my interest further. Bravo!

    1. Thanks, Brandon! Divulging this movie’s pedigree does hype it up, and I do believe it covers the quota of what would be expected from something with Argento and Fulci’s name attached to it, but it probably isn’t as great as it should be. It’s very technically accomplished, yet it’s lacking in certain areas that has caused it to not be as memorable as one would expect.