Written by: Peter Atkins
Directed by: Robert Kurtzman
Starring: Tammy Lauren, Andrew Divoff, and Robert Englund
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
"Do you have any idea how frustrating it is to have unlimited power, and only be able to use it when some worm asks you for something?"
"No, I can't say that I do. I can't say that I give a shit, either."
"No, I can't say that I do. I can't say that I give a shit, either."
You kind of had to be there to understand why Wishmaster—yes, that Wishmaster—felt like a big deal. While I’m not as critical of the 90s horror scene as most, even I have to admit that ’96-’97 wasn’t the most fertile period. Freddy and Jason had been banished to (development) hell, Myers was in limbo following Donald Pleasance’s death, Chucky hadn’t quite reinvented himself just yet, and the brief post-Scream boom hadn’t quite kicked in. To say there was a bit of void just waiting to be filled by a new icon might be an understatement, and Wishmaster offered that possibility and a whole lot more. It didn’t take the same satirical approach as Scream, but its heart was in a similar place: here’s a horror movie produced by horror fans for horror fans; what’s more, its approach was cut from the bloody, tattered exploitation cloth.
Gimmickry and showmanship ruled the day in the conception of Wishmaster, which essentially promised to be an event based on its cast and crew: not only did it gather horror icons in front of the character, but it also boasted plenty behind it. Where else could you find the likes of Robert Englund, Tony Todd, Kane Hodder, KNB, and Harry Manfredini all together, helping to shepherd a new horror villain with an inventive hook—a killer genie who grants twisted, deadly wishes—to the screen? And what could possibly go wrong, especially with Wes Craven producing?
Well, it turns out that maybe Wishmaster isn’t quite a foolproof plan after all. By no means is it a complete dud, but the hucksterism of its pitch does oversell it just a little bit. Not much is fundamentally wrong with the film’s actual premise, which supposes that the Djinn legends that passed through generations and became fanciful tales about genies were actually based on a much darker, more sinister truth: Djinns were once quite real and quite evil. Emissaries of a netherworld forged by fire (as explained by our opening narrator, Angus Scrimm), their granted wishes came with a hefty price: once a person wakes a Djinn and makes three wishes, they’ll unwittingly unleash a legion of the creatures that will consume the world. This almost happened in the Persian Empire until a sorcerer trapped the evil creature in an opal stone, effectively sealing him away and ridding the world of his evil.
Centuries later, however, American art collector Charles Beaumont (Englund) has secured a Persian statue that now houses the opal stone. When a drunk crane operator (Joseph Pilato, continuing the parade of cameos) drops the crate and smashes the statue, it not only kills a man (Ted Raimi, ditto) but also frees the stone, allowing it to be pocketed by an enterprising dockworker who eventually pawns it off. This turn of events allows the film to finally settle in on its plot: to ascertain the value of the opal, the pawnbroker hands it off to Alexandra and Josh (Tammy Lauren & Tony Crane), a couple of analysts whose computer fries the fucking thing, inadvertently freeing the Djinn (Andrew Divoff). Now, Alex and her three wishes are the only thing standing between the demon and world domination.
Okay, when you put it that way, maybe the plot of Wishmaster—or at least the backstory—is a bit of a mouthful. But still, the general thrust—an evil genie that fucks people up by contorting their wishes into death sentences—is kind of irresistible. There’s more than a little Freddy Krueger guiding the concept: between the rubbery, demonic visage of his true form and Divoff’s sardonic, quip-heavy turn, it’s hard not to see him as an obvious knock-off of the 80s most towering horror titan. Even his death sequences are Nightmare-inspired, as he coaxes anyone he encounters into making a wish that he promptly turns against them in deadly fashion—then he claims their souls to further power the jewel before he can grant Alex’s wishes (Jesus, the more I write, the more convoluted this shit becomes).
But it does move along well enough, propelled by a cheeky, trashy sense of intrigue. There’s not much pretense to it, not when director Robert Kurtzman all but lays bare his intentions to create a showreel for himself and his fellow effects maestros. The opening Persian sequence is an unholy Bacchanal of wicked gore gags and other assorted body horrors that effectively sets the tone: underneath all its gimmickry, Wishmaster is essentially a splatter movie where most of the appeal rests in watching the Djinn unleash some real monkey’s paw shit on his victims, no matter how cornball it gets. For example, an exchange with a security guard (Hodder) ends with the guy cockily taunting the Djinn, insisting that he’d love to see the demon “try to go through” him to gain entry into the building he’s guarding. In return, the Djinn literally melds the guard into the glass door and proceeds to walk right through him, shattering the guy’s guts all over the place in the process.
I suppose that scene captures the essence of Wishmaster well enough—it’s dopey as hell, and you can’t help but roll your eyes at it. But for some dumb reason, I can’t completely dismiss it either—it’s probably because it scripts all these goofy scenes with such reckless, tacky abandon. Saying there’s never a dull moment in Wishmaster is a bit of a stretch, but there are very few of them—hell, at one point, I involuntarily chuckle at Alex screaming “fuck you!” into her phone when the Djinn calls her because, like most of Wishmaster, it’s so earnest and overdone despite its somewhat limited resources. I can only appreciate the effort, even if it’s very easy to imagine this concept being done more effectively on a bigger budget.
Because that’s sort of the catch here: as cool as its entire premise is, Wishmaster doesn’t quite live up to it. Even though it did have a wide theatrical release (that saw it stay in theaters for all of three weeks, according to Box Office Mojo), there’s a distinct direct-to-video vibe to the whole thing, and it never quite shakes how hokey it is. It’s apocalyptic in scope, yet most of the movie revolves around the Djinn harassing one woman, and it never escapes its threadbare trappings. Wishmaster seems to herald a bold new icon, but it’s all so silly that you can never seriously consider adding him to the pantheon of the true greats—not that this stopped anyone from trying to make it happen with three sequels.
As such, the film leans on the established icons and familiar faces to carry the day. Given that they all appear as cameos (even Englund, who only appears for a few sequences), it’s brazen exploitation, not unlike the tried-and-true drive-in tactic of advertising big name actors that barely appear in the films themselves. Here, it has an extra, almost ironic layer of intrigue since it involves guys that became fan favorites because of such films, so it’s hard to be too mad at the approach. If anything, Wishmaster not only echoes the appeal of earlier monster mashes, but also anticipates the excitement surrounding the likes of The Expendables and The Avengers, two franchises that exist to capitalize on an audience’s desire to gather familiar faces together. Granted one of these (hint: the one with all the spandex) does it better than these others, but I can’t imagine Wishmaster would be any better without seeing Englund, Hodder, Todd, etc. classing up the joint, however so slightly?
To be fair, Wishmaster does have a little more going for it beyond the cameos. Divoff’s devilish performance—especially in the humanoid Nathaniel Demerest persona—is a delight at every turn. In the makeup, he’s more or less a Freddy knock-off; out of it, he’s so shamelessly sinister that he’s not so suave so much as he’s an unrepentant asshole—and I kind of love it. Say what you want about Wishmaster, but Divoff’s Djinn could have easily carried a franchise, if only because he’s so goddamned silly. Likewise, I can’t stress enough how outrageously fun the gore effects are—with Wishmaster, you come for the famous on-screen names, and you stay for the incredible work that was done behind the scenes. Given Kurtzman’s effects background, it’s no surprise that he at least delivers a wall-to-wall visual feast, from the production design to the creature effects. The film opens with that outrageous Persian sequence and climaxes with an even more unreal karo syrup and latex-fueled mayhem. When one of the first shots involves a Harryhausen-inspired stop-motion skeleton wreaking havoc, you sense that these guys are here to show off.
Guilty pleasures are bullshit: you should never be ashamed of enjoying something, and Wishmaster is a prime example. By very few objective measures is this a “good” movie—and yet I’m not afraid to admit I’ve watched it a ton of times since it was released twenty years ago, and I suppose it more or less holds up now (which in this case means it’s about as stupidly fun as I recall). I have an odd fondness for it, maybe because it hails from this weird, nebulous era—it was the dying days of VHS, as DVD would emerge over the next few years and signal a personal shift towards owning movies instead of renting them. For whatever reason, I always associate Wishmaster with VHS since that’s how I first saw it, and it was probably among the last batch of new release movies I would have watched on the format.
None of this is to imply that Wishmaster gets a pass due to nostalgia; it does, however, explain why it’s hard to separate it from its context. I was just young enough to be taken in by its gimmicky charms, and the world had yet to figure out that the “Wes Craven Presents” branding didn’t exactly guarantee quality, so for a brief moment, this dumb movie about a killer genie offered a glimmer of hope to a genre trying to shake off its doldrums. It’d be easy to say that its premise—one’s greatest wish is turned into a nightmare—reflects its eventual reception, but that’d be going too far. Besides, that’s the sort of barb you save to lob at the likes of Wishmaster 3.
Vestron Video is celebrating the 20th anniversary of Wishmaster with a limited edition collector’s set collecting the entire franchise on Blu-ray. Stay tuned for coverage of the entire saga in the near future.
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