I can't believe I've been writing a film blog
for over 14 months, and still haven't told you about Wax Stamp Movies.
Well, if you've waited this long, you can wait another paragraph. First things first.
I had wanted to see The Wolfman on the big screen, and exactly a month and a day after it was released, I finally did. During that time, the movie had been through several near misses -- one time when I got together with a friend, and instead of going to a movie we watched TV, and another time when I had to cancel a plan to see it with a friend the day beforehand. When that second friend and I rescheduled for this past weekend, it appeared we'd waited too long. The Woflman was in a handful of theaters near my house on Thursday, but had almost completely failed to survive Friday's slate of new releases. We ultimately met at a second-run theater that was kind of equidistant from both of us, where neither of us ever goes, and saw it on a screen that was more like a big flat-screen TV than something you'd expect in the cinema. So when I say I wanted to see it on the big screen, I ended up seeing it on the medium-sized screen.
The reason I'd been so eager to see The Wolfman was because I considered it a genuine, certified Wax Stamp Movie. That's a term I came up with myself, so I better define it for you. A Wax Stamp Movie is any movie that either actually features, or is likely to feature, a piece of correspondence sealed up by red wax, with the stamp of the correspondent punched into the hardening bond. When I say "likely to feature," that gives me leeway to include films that don't literally have a wax stamp in them, but have a production design that's consistent with wax stamps. A production design that loves, nearly fetishizes, period details, such as a quill pens writing on parchment.
Some time ago I identified the wax stamp as emblematic of a style of art direction I deeply cherish. This is not just another way of saying I like period pieces. Actually, I've been somewhat down on your standard-issue period piece lately, asking something more than just highfalutin dialogue and romantic betrayals. Most period pieces are pretty capable when it comes to period costumes and sets, but the Wax Stamp Movie is something a bit more than that. It's a form of art direction that is highly detail-oriented, that would care enough to lovingly show that stamp pressing into that drying wax. It's a moment that drives me crazy -- it's just so satisfying.
So what qualifies as a Wax Stamp Movie, in the opinion of me, the inventor of the concept? Well, let me quickly run through what doesn't qualify, so we can eliminate a lot of candidates that might seem logical:
The Straightforward Costume Drama. By this I am speaking of most movies that are in some way a descendant of Masterpiece Theatre or the Merchant-Ivory tradition. And it's not to say that none of these movies qualify; certainly, there would be some art directors assigned to these projects who'd have an eye for this kind of detail. But this is more to say that such movies do not automatically qualify as Wax Stamp Movies, because then the category would just be too big. Besides, many such films are far more interested in performances than the details of the production design. Rules out: Sense and Sensibility, The Wings of the Dove, The Remains of the Day, etc.
The Fantasy Film. There's plenty in, say, the Lord of the Rings trilogy that might ordinarily seem like the kind of art direction I'm talking about. But these movies already belong to the fantasy genre, so the Wax Stamp classification is not appropriate to them. Rules out: The Lord of the Rings movies, The Golden Compass, Lemony Snicket's A Series of Unfortunate Events, etc.
The Pirate Movie. Ditto the Pirates of the Caribbean movies. They're in the right period of time, but the pirate genre supersedes them. Rules out: The Pirates of the Caribbean movies, Master and Commander: The Far Side of the World, etc.
The Animated Film. There are a number of period-appropriate animated films that would totally count if they were live-action, but the wax stamp effect is specifically a comment on actual props used by actual art directors. Rules out: Beauty and the Beast, Disney's A Christmas Carol, Tim Burton's Corpse Bride, etc.
Asian Wire Work Films. There are plenty of movies that would also qualify here, but I consider their classification as kung fu/swordplay films to supersede the Wax Stamp classification. Rules out: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, The House of Flying Daggers, Hero, etc.
Okay, enough ado! Here are my ten favorite Wax Stamp Movies, ranked not according to how much I like them as movies, but to how well they use the wax stamp-inspired production design.
1) Bram Stoker's Dracula (1992, Francis Ford Coppola). The ultimate Wax Stamp Movie. For anyone who loves this film, the acting of Keanu Reeves has nothing to do with it. It's all about the wax stamps. While there's at least one actual wax stamp in the film, there's also plenty of other good stuff: sugar cubes dipped in Absinthe, people writing letters with quill pens, droplets of blood everywhere you look. This is a wet dream of art direction, and that's why it gets spot #1 on this list.
2) Sleepy Hollow (1999, Tim Burton). Before Tim Burton became evil, he made one of the wax stampiest movies ever in Sleepy Hollow, even though it may not contain an actual wax stamp. Everything else about the production design contains high doses of that mentality: loving close-ups of Ichabod Crane scrawling words with his quill pen is just the start of it. Over the course of this list, you'll see plenty of blood and guts mixed in with the art direction of these films, and Sleepy Hollow certainly qualifies.
3) Perfume: The Story of a Murderer (2006, Tom Tykwer). Tykwer's many detail shots of perfume being made are what qualify him here. One of my favorite things about Tykwer's movie is his attention to detail, which also includes intimate shots of the sources of the various smells the protagonist experiences with his over-developed olfactory capabilities.
4) Dangerous Liaisons (1988, Stephen Frears). Frears' film might just be another costume drama -- albeit an excellent one -- except for the fact that I specifically noted that some of the correspondence that's a central part of the film is conducted on wax-sealed paper. Mmm mmm good.
5) From Hell (2001, Allen & Albert Hughes). And now we're five for five on movies where blood is spilled. I think it was the Hughes' approach to these sprays of arterial blood that caught my attention, plus all the time Johnny Depp spends in the opium den. This Hell is Wax Stamp Heaven.
6) Marie Antoinette (2006, Sofia Coppola). People have argued that Coppola's follow-up to Lost in Translation is nothing but production design. They might be right, but I still love the movie, maybe all the more so for that fact. Coppola's film is gorgeous and decadent. If I had to choose one moment to stand for the rest, which makes it qualify for this category, it's the montage of desserts to the tune of "I Want Candy." Scrumptious.
7) Elizabeth (1998, Shekhar Kapur). I haven't seen this since it was in the theater, so I'm hard-pressed to remember details. But I remember the production design as vibrant and colorful. There had to be a wax stamp in there somewhere.
8) The Brotherhood of the Wolf (2001, Christophe Gans). This was a weird movie -- weird in a good way. It was like a mixture of a costume drama and a wire-work kung fu movie, with a monster thrown in for good measure. Oddly enough, the scene in this film that really made me consider it a Wax Stamp Movie was not one of the costume drama scenes, though that kind of art direction was certainly present in those scenes. It was a scene where the characters practice their marksmanship on pumpkins, and the pumpkins splatter in a wonderfully artful way.
9) Quills (2000, Philip Kaufman). I don't remember Quills very well, but it had the right production design for it.
10) Mary Shelley's Frankenstein (1994, Kenneth Brangah). This film gets the last spot because, really, it's not a very good movie. But I always considered it kind of like the little brother of Bram Stoker's Dracula, and not only because the author's name was listed as a possessive in the title. If Branagh did anything right in that film, it was give it the Wax Stamp production values I know and love.
Sorry, Wolfman. You don't make the list. The Wolfman does qualify as a Wax Stamp Movie, don't get me wrong. But it ended up being so inept that it just didn't belong among my top ten.
Here are some other titles I considered but did not include, either because I didn't consider them good enough, or could not remember the production design well enough to give it my Wax Stamp of approval, or thought the art direction was close, but not quite Wax Stamp:
Topsy-Turvy (1999, Mike Leigh)
Amadeus (1984, Milos Forman)
The Crucible (1996, Nicholas Hytner)
Gangs of New York (2002, Martin Scorsese)
Les Miserables (1998, Bille August)
The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc (1999, Luc Besson)
Moulin Rouge (2001, Baz Luhrmann)
Oliver Twist (2005, Roman Polanski)
The Phantom of the Opera (2004, Joel Schumacher)
Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street (2007, Tim Burton)
The Red Violin (1999, Francois Girard)
The Prestige (2006, Christopher Nolan)
Movies I might have considered if I'd seen them:
The Count of Monte Cristo (2002, Kevin Reynolds)
The Libertine (2004, Laurence Dunmore)
The Other Boleyn Girl (2008, Justin Chadwick)
Sherlock Holmes (2009, Guy Ritchie)
The Duchess (2008, Saul Dibb)
In my haste to write this relatively quickly, and without re-watching the movies in question, I hope I've communicated some of what I mean by a Wax Stamp Movie.
And if I have, let me know what other Wax Stamp Movies I should be exposed to. Because I take no greater pleasure at the movies than seeing a customized stamp sink its way into a freshly poured puddle of red wax.