If there’s one lesson to be learned from horror movies, it’s to stay the hell away from people who work in certain professions. Biogeneticists, morgue attendants, night watchmen, camp counselors, and above all else wax museum proprietors are people whose dire karma draws death and dismemberment like cheap motels draw unsightly stains. Nightmare in Wax, starring Cameron Mitchell in a sustainable performance that depletes few acting resources, is a 1969 testament to the dangers of socializing with persons who fall into that last category.
The Nightmare Begins
Movie producer Max Black, who could pass as Truman Capote’s taller brother, announces the engagement of Marie Morgan and Tony Deen, the two stars of his next low-budget fiasco, at a party he’s throwing.
Later that night, Tony is about to step into a lift when mad wax museum owner Vincent Renard injects him with a powerful tranquilizer. Renard is a man of distinctive appearance. He sports an eye patch, wears a Dr. Robert Schuller knock-off robe, and has a burn scar on his face that looks like mauve cake icing.
Three months after Deen goes missing, two cops, Haskell and Carver, drop in on Renard, who is promising the world to a lovely female head sticking through a table top in his waxworks studio. They ask him whether he knows anything about Deen’s disappearance. He says he doesn’t, then shows them Deen’s supposedly wax but disquietingly lifelike head, which is also sticking through a table top.
Renard flashbacks to happier, pre-mauve-cake-icing days when he was in charge of the make-up department at Black’s movie studio and he and Marie were an item. He tells Marie she has to quit working for Black as he can’t stand how the old lech ogles her.
“Nobody does this to Max Black!” the producer bellows after Marie informs him she’s walking. Renard laughs at Black’s melodramatics. As Renard goes to light a cigarette, Black throws a glass of wine in his face, which erupts in flames. But they’re no ordinary flames. They’re magic flames suspended in the air several feet from Renard’s face. Not one to let a bad special effect get in the way of a good flashback, Renard stumbles screaming into Black’s swimming pool to douse the bogus conflagration.
Haskell and Carver speak with Marie, who has a flashback of her own. She visits Renard in hospital. Head wrapped in bandages, Renard sculpts a grotesque clay head as if it were his life’s purpose. He tells Marie to go away. When she refuses he rips off some of the bandages and forces her to gaze upon his empty eye socket. “Look at it! Look at it!” he snarls. “I want you to look at it!” She flees the room in horror. Renard throws the head on the floor, smashing it to pieces, then holds what’s left of it to his bosom and sobs. Sure it was a grotesque head, but it was his head.
Back in the present day–well, 1969–Marie calls Renard on the phone and invites him over to her place. He accepts the invitation. Aroused by the mention of his fiancée’s name, Deen keeps saying “Hello, Marie” until Renard ends the mindless mantra with a tranquilizer injection.
Renard bumps into Black at Marie’s place. Their chance meeting is surprisingly amicable seeing how Black scarred him for life. Marie asks Renard if he would give her Deen’s wax figure. He agrees. But first she must pose for a wax figure he wants to make of her.
Sometime later, Nick, the museum’s gormless caretaker, who spends the entire movie in a Keystone Cop uniform, notices that the wax figure of a young woman is blinking. He tells Renard, who convinces him it was just a figment of his alcohol-impaired imagination. Renard promptly tranquilizes the young woman, giving her strict instructions not to blink, squirm, or shudder without his express permission.
Theresa, a ravishing go-go dancer with an IQ of minus twelve and a major thing for scarred, insane waxworks proprietors, joins Renard for a drink at his favorite discotheque. It was her wax head he was chatting with in an earlier scene. She says she can’t wait for him to complete her wax figure.
Black sends Alfred Herman, the director of his next movie, to the waxworks on a location-scouting mission. Herman recognizes the formerly blinking young woman, who was an actress in a vampire flick he directed. “She’s so lifelike. Hard to believe she’s gone,” he remarks.
“Maybe she isn’t,” Renard says. “Maybe she’s hypnotized—by a maniac.” He explains that by using a combination of certain drugs it’s possible to put someone to sleep and then wake that person centuries later.
Theresa lures Black to the museum on the pretext that Renard is going to unveil her wax likeness. Black collapses after downing a glass of spiked champagne. Renard informs him that he’s about to become one of the museum’s main exhibits.
Theresa asks Renard what he’s going to do to her, now that she’s witnessed his criminal activity. “Kill you,” he replies matter-of-factly. Screeching like a parrot with a migraine, she makes a run for it. He chases her around the museum, then kisses her passionately before knifing her in the gut.
Renard spies Haskell and Carver parked outside the museum. He speeds off in Black’s car with Theresa’s corpse in the front seat. The two cops pursue him. As Black’s car swerves along the darkened city streets, Renard kisses Theresa and professes his undying love for her. He then abandons her in the car and gives the cops the slip on foot.
The following morning a newspaper headline reads MAX BLACK MURDERS SHOWGIRL, even though the cops have yet to charge or question him.
Marie visits the museum to check out Deen’s “wax” doppelganger. Meanwhile, Haskell, deeply suspicious of Renard, sneaks inside. A jittery Nick is too preoccupied with a group of twitching wax figures to notice him.
Renard prepares to make exhibits out of Marie and Black with Deen’s assistance. He commands some wax figures to lend added support.
Haskell makes his move but is overpowered by Renard’s wax zombies.
Black laughs hysterically as Renard is about to lower him into a huge vat of molten wax. His levity infuriates Renard, who lunges at him but misses and falls into the bubbling brew.
Renard wakes to find he was only having a nightmare. Distraught over the shocking events he dreamed, events that seemed frighteningly real, he relives a few of the movie’s many highlights.
Speaking of Highlights
You too can relive them, on DVD. Just be aware that the picture and audio quality is on par with that of a VHS tape fished out of an oil spill.