There aren't a lot of horror movies out there - especially from the glamorous latter section of the 1980s - that manage to bounce around in setting and style like Waxwork does. There are other horrors that bring a lot of different horror standards together - like The Monster Squad, for example - but that film and others of its sort settle on bringing everything together in one world. This film - from writer/director Anthony Hickox - takes a different approach, allowing the viewer to travel into several different horror worlds with several different characters.
The mechanism that allows this freedom is the Waxwork of the title, a mysterious establishment that's run by an eccentric smooth talker (character actor extraordinaire David Warner) and two assistants of extreme heights (one's a dwarf, the other's a good old fashion Lurch from The Addams Family clone). When our six teenage characters - led by heroic Mark (Zach Galligan of Gremlins fame), seductive China (Michelle Johnson of Dr. Giggles) and mousy Sarah (the always amazing Deborah Foreman of April Fools Day) - stumble into the building for a special midnight preview, they suddenly find that the exhibits are actually portals into the horrifying worlds depicted. And, if they're not smart, they might be the next piece of the exhibit.
There are plenty of possibilities allowed by the premise. I'm sure many horror nerds could be disappointed by the lack of time spent on each - references to Jekyll & Hyde, Freaks, Invasion of the Body Snatchers, and other beloved horror films/standards are made mostly in passing - but I think Hickox does a fine job balancing everything he can without letting the film get too bloated. The film does allow us to get up close and personal with some of horror's favorite characters (there are vampires, zombies, mummies, and even a sympathetic werewolf played by Lord of the Rings' John Rhys-Davies), but it's the character who we've seen on film the least that leaves the biggest impact on the viewer.
In the midst of all the supernatural stuff that's going on, the meek and innocent Sarah stumbles (literally) into the world of one of history's most deranged men - the Marquis de Sade. The renowned 18th Century torturer and sadist is played here by veteran character actor J. Kenneth Campbell, whose sinister performance stands out over those of his peers. The interactions between the Marquis and Foreman's character - who ends up getting called a whore like 27 times due to her reactions to torture - provide an interesting human horror, while the character sets up nicely as a villain to stand against Galligan's Bruce Campbell-esque (Guess who would play his grandfather in the sequel?) hero.
With its ability to recreate horror staples and a strong balance between horror and comedy, Waxwork doesn't feel as dated as many of its '80s brethren. The characters don't stand out as anything more than functions of the plot - particularly the Waxwork's evil owner and Mark's occult expert acquaintance (The Avengers' Patrick Macnee) - but when they are realized by actors with the talents of Warner and Macnee they still feel welcome in the film. The interactions between these characters lead directly to the manic climactic battle, and the film doesn't let down by wrapping everything up nicely in the final scenes.
Waxwork would spawn a sequel a few years later, which retained Galligan and Macnee, lost Foreman, and gained Campbell and Die Hard's Alexander Godunov (who naturally takes on a villainous role). While that film's still pretty enjoyable in its own right, Hickox and crew couldn't quite recreate the magic that has kept the first film so close to my heart. Like other '80s cult favorites - think Fright Night or They Live - Waxwork plays off all the viewers' expectations. It's got chills, gore, comedy, action, and even a pretty strong sexual undertone going on throughout the film, which means Waxwork is still a go to "party" horror film for all adult audiences. Check it out.