(R, Live Entertainment, 90 mins., theatrical release date: September 19, 1997)
Nostalgia can be a cruel bitch sometimes.
Wishmaster, or Wes Craven Presents: Wishmaster as it was advertised, was the kind of processed comfort food a 13-year-old gorehound like my younger self had no qualms about scarfing down. Even in 1997, I could tell that the movie was directed by an FX wizard of great renown, written by the man responsible for milking Clive Barker's Hellraiser until the teat broke off and was populated by several "like, omigod!" horror icons for that extra dose of genre-mad glee. Not many pre-pubescent boys can recognize Phantasm's Reggie Bannister with the same kind of enthusiasm reserved for seeing their father come down the chimney clad in an Old St. Nick cosplay.
So what if the movie was met with critical indignancy and led to a string of bland, dread-proof movies (Carnival of Souls, Don't Look Down, They) which ruined the supposedly-legit "Wes Craven Presents" prefix? It was an homage, a throwback, an affectionate display of celluloid longing for the glory days of four years ago, when you had such AFI-worthy touchstones like Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, Warlock: The Armageddon and Leprechaun 2.
Wishmaster is cheeky enough company for those Cheetos-and-Corona-at-midnight blitzes which demand it. But it's also completely transparent if you stare at it too long, and is relieved of its tedium only by some extraordinary splatter set pieces and the reliably nasty twists on the Faustian adage of "Be careful what you wish for, because you just might get it." Monkey's paws seem as lucky as rabbit's feet in this universe.
I'm guessing writer Peter Atkins hit the same snafu Wes Craven did when his Freddy Krueger creation turned as cuddly as E.T. and just as helplessly burlesqued. Pinhead essentially became a "genie in a bottle" baddie by the time the 1990s rolled around, so why not go literal or go home? Thus, Atkins concocted the Djinn, a mythical beast forged from holy fire and doomed betwixt the realms of angel and man. No, I am not rehashing my review of The Prophecy, for Christ's sake.
The Djinn feeds on wishes, or to be more accurate, those poor venal souls who make the mistake of confiding to the Djinn. This happened in ancient Persia, where a monarch demanded to be shown "wonders" and essentially got the Boiler Room bloodbath from Hellraiser III for his trouble. You say bazaar, I say bizarre, let's call the whole thing off, as a valiant sorcerer agrees after forging a fire opal and placing a spell on the Djinn which confines him within the ruby.
Earth, 1997-I need to stop repeating myself-America, 1997: The opal has found its way into the modern world after a drunken crane operator destroys a valuable sculpture. I want to stop right there and basically point out that this particular scene is like a guessing game for genre actors, three in particular essaying the roles of the antiques collector who ordered the damaged goods, the unctuous toady assisting him and the blitzed blue-collar buffoon himself. The best part is that you've got the beginners, intermediate and advanced levels all represented here. I'll spoil but one of them, mainly because he's given the prestigious boxed credit in the opening titles: "And Robert Englund as Raymond Beaumont."
But Englund, that eccentric oxygen tank of a man, is only 8% of this movie, the more substantial pie slice on the chart going to small-screen actress Tammy Lauren in her only leading role in film. Don't let the looks fool you, though, Linda Hamilton she is not. Although Atkins writes her a role as an athletic, independent woman who prefers every cross-gender relationship to be wholly platonic, he also wastes a tragic backstory on Lauren's Alex Ambrose which produces little triumph, and even when Alex is coaching her girl's basketball team, Lauren seems more bored than bold. If this is our plucky heroine, then why didn't Kurtzman bother to land Linnea Quigley, Jewel Shepard, Michelle Johnson, or some other recognizable B-babe who would've warmed to the material better?
Alex works at Regal Auctioneers and is tasked to appraise the fire opal once it arrives at their office. It is she who awakens the Djinn from his ugly sleep and thus inadvertently mind-melds with the creature, reborn after a thermal analysis laser prompts the demonic egg to hatch. But The Djinn needs souls to rejuvenate himself and wastes no time prowling about the city looking for impulsive suckers who require his perverted magic. They don't even have to phrase their requests in the form of a wish, the Djinn does it for them, so he never really strikes a hard bargain:
"Do you wish it?"
The Djinn eventually goes full-on Frank Cotton and slips into the skin of fresh cadaver Nathaniel Demerest, allowing for actor Andrew Divoff to finally shed those full-body Human Gremlin prosthetics. Divoff is a roguish character actor on par with William Sadler, best known for playing all manner of terrorists and tyrants in the likes of Stephen King's Graveyard Shift, Toy Soldiers, Air Force One, and Indiana Jones & The Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. Compared to the debonair villainy of Doug Bradley and Julian Sands, Divoff comes up short as a formidable foe. While deceptively handsome, his bluntly phonetic line deliveries make him sound as intimidating as Katy Perry. Atkins' dialogue, all boilerplate boasts and witticisms clearly indebted to the Cult of Krueger (or Chucky, or the Leprechaun, or even Dr. Giggles), do him no favors. Nevertheless, the grinning, gallant Divoff seems to be having more fun on the job than the perpetually nervous leading lady.
And the token Fangoria Hall of Fame one-offs in the cast all go head-to-maw with the monster, making for some delicious confrontations. Kane Hodder, the most beloved of the many incarnations of Jason Voorhees, lends his own brand of muscle as a security guard for Regal Auctioneers and is duly absorbed into the steel wall behind him. Perennial screen derelict George "Buck" Flower (of The Exorcist, Back to the Future and They Live) gets into a nasty battle of wits with Reggie Bannister's irate pharmacist, all the better for the Djinn to act as the kind of unfair referee seen in many a classic WWF grudge match. The underused but incomparable Tony Todd plays a bellowing bouncer who deep down wants to escape, although not in the way the Djinn allows.
Wishmaster has all the materials to make for a solid genre film, and I won't say Craven's own Scream ruined the ability to appreciate straight-up schlock without prejudice. But this has all the malnourished hallmarks of an also-ran, substituting grisly special effects for gut-twisting suspense, relying on reams of flat exposition instead of challenging the imagination and depending on the kind of exhausted tropes which had been run through the mill even by the late 1980s. You wish Kurtzman and Atkins had better sense than to lean on cliché jump scares, garden variety grotesquerie and tedious lectures on the limitations of the Djinn's dark dynasty (even if they are delivered by wry Jenny O'Hara, of amazingly no relation at all to Catherine).
It's no shock in a film devoid of them that Wishmaster is best appreciated as a showcase for Kurtzman's legendary effects shop, KNB EFX. There are not one but two crowded room massacres packed with showy if shallow evisceration, and in the Grand Guignol equivalent of throwing in the kitchen sink, there's even a random appearance by Jack the Ripper during the finale (see for yourself!). Yes, the scourge of England apparently reanimated by the scourge of Englund, who gets a "Paging Dr. Giger" comeuppance straight out of Poltergeist II: The Other Side.
Even the technical credits fail to live up to expectations of old-school horror, with Nightmare on Elm Street cinematographer Jacques Haitkin and Friday the 13th composer Harry Manfredini on low-budget autopilot. Not a single frame or musical sting is on par with either of those beloved films.
Maybe I'm suffering from lapsed nostalgia, but the truth is that I've seen Wishmaster done better many times before. I gave Dr. Giggles, Warlock and the original April Fool's Day positive reviews, and I thought the spotty Hellbound: Hellraiser II brought out some interest elements in regards to character and imagery. I can even find the entertainment in Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth even after 22 years. Wishmaster, though, doesn't have much going for it in the long run, except to have lazily exploited my wildest wish for a simple good time.
Djinn-Genie, let yourself go!