ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Robert Freese contributes to many different magazines, zines and websites such as Videoscope, Rue Morgue, Drive-in Asylum, Grindhouse Purgatory, Horror and Sons and Lunchmeat VHS. (His most recent piece, about the 80’s video distributor Super Video, can be found here). He also co-hosts the Two Librarians Walk into a Shelf podcast so he has an excuse to expose library patrons to ninja and slasher films.
Our story begins at a posh Hollywood soiree where head of Paragon International Pictures Max Black announces the start of a new movie starring hot young talents, Tony Deen and Marie Morgan, as well as their engagement.
After the party, on his way home, a shadowy figure assaults Deen and injects him with a concoction that puts him in a state of suspended animation. We are then whisked to the Movieland Wax Museum, where tour guide Nick walks patrons from one famous display to another.
Detectives Haskell and Carver arrive to ask curator Vincent Renard about the recent disappearances of other Paragon stars. Renard doesn’t have any information that can help their investigation, but he agrees it is weird that each one of them disappeared shortly before the unveiling of his newest display dedicated to those same Paragon stars.
We learn in a flashback that at another Paragon party, Marie Morgan told Max Black she was quitting the business to marry Renard, who, at the time, was Paragon’s top make-up artist. Enraged, Black throws a drink into Renard’s face just as he lights a cigarette. Renard’s head bursts into flames. He staggers blindly outside and jumps into the pool. Authorities write it off as an accident. The “accident” leaves Renard disfigured and missing an eye.
Renard reconnects with Marie, regardless that Max does not want her associating with him any longer, and eventually convinces her to “pose” for him.
You don’t have to be the savviest horror film fan to connect all the dots here, but Nightmare in Wax is still a total delight. If you were a kid when you first saw it, it no doubt scared the snot out of you. The premise of a madman injecting his victims with an agent that renders them motionless, then keeps them docile with hypnotism, is potent nightmare fuel. But just like quicksand, another terrifying concern that blossomed in many of us in our adolescence, the premise of such an outlandish plan disintegrates into itself when adult logic is applied. (I mean, certainly some sounds would be coming from their bodies, escaping gases, stuff like that, right? Possibly, tears running out of their never blinking eyes and maybe some kind of skin discoloration as they go longer without actual food and water, but I’m being a killjoy now.)
In and of itself, Nightmare in Wax succeeds because it was produced only to creep out drive-ins patrons looking for some cheap thrills, and then later the same viewers surfing for late night TV chills. It’s a fine example of exploitation that runs with its absurd premise and delivers the required thrills fans of such an entertainment desire. It is not really gratuitous in any way as its most gruesome moments are suggested, keeping the proceedings in PG rated territory but not dulling their impact to shock and disgust. It exists and delivers on the same level as the Creepy and Eerie horror comic magazines that were popular at the time. Never really scary, but blackly fun and offering simple morality tales for a young audience. It offers just the right amount of gruesome entertainment for a fun night at the drive-in with friends.
Cameron Mitchell stars as Renard and he is absolutely wonderful. This is the Cameron Mitchell fans most love: the crazy, cackling, carrying around a dead body and talking insanely to it during a high-speed police chase to the pier in Santa Monica Cameron Mitchell. (For myself, I love this Mitchell performance more than his similar psycho role in The Toolbox Murders.)
Anne Helm is great as Marie, but she fails to make Marie completely sympathetic, especially since she only agrees to pose for Renard if he gives her a bust of Tony Deen, who she is still madly in love with. (When he finally has her trapped, there is a bit of joy on the part of the audience when Renard cackles, “If I can’t have you the right way, I will have you another way.”) Berry Kroeger had been making pictures since the early forties and is perfect as the slimy little toad Max Black. (You do feel joy when Renard is torturing the creep.)
There is a slew of familiar faces in the cast, among them Al Adamson regulars Scott Brady as Detective Haskell and John “Bud” Cardos, looking an awful lot like Sam Rockwell, as Detective Carver. Hollis Morrison is a hoot as Nick, especially when he thinks he is hallucinating. Morrison worked throughout the sixties but tapped-out soon after this film with a final appearance on the TV show McCloud. This was one of character actor Virgil Frye’s earlier films and Ken Osborne appears briefly as a bartender, following up with appearances in Blood of Dracula’s Castle, Five Bloody Graves, and Hell’s Bloody Devils before directing the outstanding western Cain’s Cutthroats in 1970.
Written by a true master of exploitation, Rex Carlton delivered a gruesomely good ride that exploits the premise for all it is worth. Carlton also wrote the film that was released on a double bill with Nightmare in Wax, Blood of Dracula’s Castle, a film as equally fun. The two films ran together as an amazingly successful double feature for years. Carlton, unfortunately, did not live to enjoy the success of the films he wrote. He took his own life soon after Sam Sherman and Al Adamson lost the rights to Blood of Dracula’s Castle, some speculating that he owed the wrong people money for a loan to get the films made. (Posthumously, the two films raked in an amazing pile of dough for distributor Crown International Pictures, and they played multiple double bills, triple features and dusk to dawn shows well into the seventies. Another Sherman/Adamson film he scripted, The Fakers, went on to theatrical success as Hell’s Bloody Devils. Earlier in his career, Carlton wrote the absolutely bonkers exploitation classic The Brain that Wouldn’t Die.)
Director Bud Townsend began his career in TV and then moved into features. He continued making films released by Crown International Pictures well into the eighties. From a historical perspective, the film offers a glimpse of the long lamented Movieland Wax Museum as it existed just prior to being sold to Six Flags. It depicts a moment in time that will forever exist in this film. Quaint as wax museums may seem to some, when they are gone there is definitely a sense of loss by those of us who enjoy such activities as posing for pictures with wax effigies of stars and characters from the past. More than living up to its title, Nightmare in Wax is a darn fine spook-show. It’s cheap and clunky, but it just might creep you out a bit. If anything, Cameron Mitchell’s over the top performance makes it more than worth a watch. The Gorehouse Greats Collection presents the film in a widescreen format and is by far the best copy I’ve seen available, between other budget releases and streaming.