Zach Galligan

Waxwork (1988, Anthony Hickox), the unrated version

Waxwork has a distressing lack of charm. It ought to have some charm. The first act has its cast of young college students–whose college set seems to be a high school–speaking in some affected pseudo-fifties teen melodrama dialect. It ought to be sostaggeringmewhat charming. It’s not, but it ought to be.

Most of the problem is writer-director Hickox. He doesn’t direct his cast–answering the question, why wasn’t Zach Galligan a bigger star–because without direction, he’s way too slight. Even with an obnoxious, “quirky” character, Galligan makes no good impression. Though his costuming in the second half of the film doesn’t help much.

The first act is all character setup on the And Then There Were None cast. Galligan is a rich kid who speaks in dubitably accurate synonyms–see, quirky–only it stops once he gets to high school. Sorry, college. Michelle Johnson and Deborah Foreman are–inexplicably–friends with Galligan. Johnson’s the one note tramp, Foreman’s the one note virgin. Johnson has just thrown over Galligan for some other guy, which is fine since Johnson and Galligan have no chemistry. No one in Waxwork has much chemistry.

Dana Ashbrook is the last of the main cast members. He’s not good but still somehow likable. He tries with Hickox’s script; no small attempt. He’s just playing some guy who smokes a lot. He’s got no romantic connections or dialogue quirks.

They end up at David Warner’s creepy suburban wax museum for a private midnight show and discover things aren’t what they seem. The exhibits are portals to horrific worlds, leading to an overcooked werewolf–more a were-rabbit–and Miles O’Keeffe’s mind-numbingly atrocious rendition of Count Dracula. At the same time Hickox is flopping with his characters, it’s clear he does have some ideas. O’Keeffe’s Dracula has this terrifying dinner sequence where his victims-to-be have to prove their worth. Until it gets gory, Hickox and editor Christopher Cibelli ratchet up the tension.

Even at Waxwork’s worst, Hickox always manages to get tension. Maybe because the first couple encounters in the wax displays are just unending failures of the victims to escape. If any of Hickox’s scripting or directing ineptitudes came through campy enough, their contrast with the effective tension might be enough to get Waxwork its needed charm. Shame they don’t.

Of course, there’d still be the other problems to surmount. Like Roger Bellon’s score. The overtly melodramatic music–presumably at Hickox’s request–doesn’t match the actors’ performances or Gerry Lively’s pragmatic but flat photography. As a director, Hickox doesn’t have the ingenuity to pull off Waxwork at its budget. His crew displays occasional competence, but they can’t make up for Hickox’s shortcomings.

There are occasionally excellent shots–particularly with Johnson’s trip of terror–with no clear responsible party. Well, not Hickox. He doesn’t recognize their effectiveness, so maybe it was Lively with the photography or even Cibelli with the editing. Those shots only come in the first half. The second half, when its effective, is always through the tension.

Given the bad writing, it’s hard to gauge the performances. Johnson’s the best of the principals. Foreman’s got a weak story arc–involving J. Kenneth Campbell’s pirate version of the Marquis de Sade–but even without, she doesn’t make much impression. She and Galligan are ostensibly in a romance subplot, only with a negative amount of chemistry. Ashbrook does his best with the script; he’s great on his terror trip.

Aside from Miles O’Keeffe, who should be so bad he’s funny (but it doesn’t work out), the worst performance is from Charles McCaughan. He’s a “Miami Vice” attired suburban detective. He’s terrible. It’s not entirely his fault–he’s a clown–but he’s still terrible.

Patrick Macnee shows up in the second half in an ill-advised cameo.

Waxwork ought to be charming. Turns out Hickox’s idea of charming is having a buffoonish Nazi-loving professor. So no charm. And once it becomes clear Hickox’s actual successes with tension aren’t going to add up to anything, Waxwork’s a slow melt through its runtime. Decent effects work though. Shame Lively doesn’t light it better.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Anthony Hickox; director of photography, Gerry Lively; edited by Christopher Cibelli; music by Roger Bellon; production designer, Gianni Quaranta; produced by Staffan Ahrenberg and Eyal Rimmon; released by Vestron Pictures.

Starring Zach Galligan (Mark), Deborah Foreman (Sarah), Michelle Johnson (China), Dana Ashbrook (Tony), David Warner (Waxwork Man), Charles McCaughan (Inspector Roberts), Miles O’Keeffe (Count Dracula), J. Kenneth Campbell (Marquis de Sade), and Patrick Macnee (Sir Wilfred).


Gremlins 2: The New Batch (1990, Joe Dante)

Gremlins 2 might be one of the more absurdly funny films ever made. Much of it relies on the viewer laughing at him or herself laughing at the film. My wife claims her occasional giggles were in response to my laughter, not the film itself. I just read Dante wanted it to be a spoof of itself, of the idea of a Gremlins 2 and it’s incredibly successful.

The film is very much a product of its time. There are Die Hard references (both in the film, with Gizmo heading into a duct, and out–the single setting of an office high rise), there are references to classic films, there are references to not so classic films. Where Gremlins 2 is particularly strange is in the corporate branding. Besides the Looney Tunes opening–to celebrate Warner’s anniversary–there’s a big Batman reference and then the Warner Bros. logo shows up tattooed to a Gremlin. It’s strange, but I guess Warner really did establish itself differently back then (I still remember the Warner Bros. store catalogs with their Batman, Gremlins 2 and “Murphy Brown” goodies).

It all combines to make the film a strange experience, since movies dedicated to making the viewer laugh out loud–not just smile–are difficult. But Gremlins 2 takes it a step further, practically requiring moderate film literacy.

The film relies heavily on its actors–John Glover being the most outright fantastic. Glover doesn’t do a Donald Trump imitation (his character’s a mix of Trump and Ted Turner), instead just goes crazy in a way only he can–one of Glover’s best scenes is one of his simplest. He walks around his office, bored, until he decides it’d be fun to do a memo. It’s great.

The rest of the supporting cast–Robert Prosky, Christopher Lee, Dick Miller, Gedde Watanabe and especially Robert Picardo–are excellent as well. Only Haviland Morris, with an over-affected performance, is lacking. Zach Galligan, who starts out more in the center, is good… even as his character takes a backseat to the wacky Gremlins. Phoebe Cates has a few good scenes, but she’s absent even more than Galligan. They literally get her lost in the building and forget about her.

One of Dante’s great achievements with this film is his handling of the sets. He directs the chaos in the hallway scenes like it’s an old B picture, but these scenes match perfectly with the rest. The exterior scenes–Galligan and Cates walking home, Miller fighting the flying Gremlin outside–all look exceptional. But those interior scenes are even better. Then, with the musical number at the end, Dante makes Gremlins 2 into the greatest Muppet movie (on acid) ever.

The script’s good a lot of great one liners, but what really sets it apart is when Cates is telling a Gremlin-to-be to be careful around the kitchen, she and Galligan don’t have the money to replace broken appliances. It’s a strange, wonderful detail and just makes Gremlins 2 more singular.

3/4★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Dante; screenplay by Charles S. Haas, based on characters by Chris Columbus; director of photography, John Hora; edited by Kent Beyda; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, James H. Spencer; produced by Michael Finnell; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Zach Galligan (Billy Peltzer), Phoebe Cates (Kate Beringer), John Glover (Daniel Clamp), Robert Prosky (Grandpa Fred), Robert Picardo (Forster), Christopher Lee (Doctor Catheter), Haviland Morris (Marla Bloodstone), Dick Miller (Murray Futterman), Jackie Joseph (Sheila Futterman), Gedde Watanabe (Mr. Katsuji) and Keye Luke (Mr. Wing).


Gremlins (1984, Joe Dante)

Okay, I don’t get it. How did Zach Galligan not succeed as an actor? He’s not astoundingly good or anything, but he’s incredibly likable. From his filmography, it looks like he just disappeared… Anyway, I watched Gremlins because I haven’t seen it in ten years and, I don’t know, I thought Blockbuster was sending me the special edition (they didn’t).

What’s incredible about Gremlins is that it’s a special effects spectacular, back when they knew how to make them. I watched this film and constantly wondered how they did the models, the moving faces, the puppetry (I assume it was puppetry). That feeling is incredible today, because I never feel it anymore. At best, it’s something like Hellboy–watching the ‘making of’ documentary and being surprised they didn’t just use CG.

But Gremlins isn’t just odd because it’s visually interesting, it’s also interesting–and amusing–because they made it to amuse the audience. There is no reality in the storytelling–the Gremlins know pop culture references within an hour of birth–and once you let it go, Gremlins is amusing. A lot of it doesn’t work. For example, the connection between “gremlins” in machines to the Gremlins of the title, that’s all forced. It’s not funny enough either, though I saw the second one before the first, and I think they got that one right.

Oh, and I love how all the characters seem to meet just before the film begins. Presumably, since it’s a small town, everyone would know how Phoebe Cates’ dad died. No one does. It just doesn’t work that there’d be these young stars stuck there with no other young people around… the small size of the town really limited that aspect of the film’s “reality.” It gets the quotation marks because I’m not sure they cared about reality too much. You can’t force a purely amusing film–Gremlins writer Chris Columbus has been trying to do that again for twenty years–so it’s an admirable feat.

I’m trying to think if there’s anything I forgot… Hoyt Axton is really good… I think that’s it….

1.5/4★½

CREDITS

Directed by Joe Dante; written by Chris Columbus; director of photography, John Hora; edited by Tina Hirsch; music by Jerry Goldsmith; production designer, James H. Spencer; produced by Michael Finnell; released by Warner Bros.

Starring Zach Galligan (Billy), Phoebe Cates (Kate), Hoyt Axton (Rand Peltzer), Frances Lee McCain (Lynn Peltzer), Polly Holliday (Mrs. Deagle), Keye Luke (Grandfather), John Louie (Chinese Boy), Dick Miller (Mr. Futterman), Jackie Joseph (Mrs. Futterman), Scott Brady (Sheriff Frank), Harry Carey Jr. (Mr. Anderson), Corey Feldman (Pete), Glynn Turman (Roy Hanson) and Judge Reinhold (Gerald).


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