As previously discussed in the Maniac Cop review, the Golden Age of the slasher genre ran from 1977 to 1993. A key figure associated with the slasher genre is the late Wes Craven, one of the most influential horror filmmakers of all time. If anything, you at least know him for creating A Nightmare on Elm Street and it’s flagship boogieman, Freddy Krueger. While breathing new life into the genre, Craven is also probably best known for ending the cycle (and his franchise) with New Nightmare. Almost immediately after, Craven ushered horror fans into the meta-age with Scream, a game changer upon release that reignited Craven’s career after a few financial duds. Suddenly, Craven’s name could be stamped on any property and it would get immediate attention. This brings us to Wishmaster, a film that could have been the definitive end of the slasher Golden-Age.
Wishmaster is a 1997 film, written by Hellbound: Hellraiser II writer, Peter Atkins, who basically remakes his previous script. At its core, it’s a story about an otherworldly being housed inside a cursed object that grants your desire for a price. The film would also be helmed by make-up effects icon, Robert Kurtzman, who has had his hand in multiple slasher films throughout the 80's and 90's (and wrote the original story that became From Dusk Till Dawn). Both in front of and behind the camera, Wishmaster sports horror hall of fame members left and right, including original Elm Street cinematographer, Jacques Haitkin behind the lens; and Friday the 13th composer, Harry Manfredini, giving, in my opinion, some of his best work. On top of that, we have enough horror icon cameos to fill the Texas Frightmare Weekend: Kane Hodder, Tony Todd, Ted Raimi, Tom Savini, Reggie Bannister, and even ominous narration from The Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm. All these elements should have made Wishmaster the Lollapalooza of horror, the encore performance. What we got, however, was questionable.
The film opens with the crafting of the fire opal, the plot device that houses our villain. We then cut to a text crawl explaining the backstory of the djinn, the demonic con artists who grant wishes for a price. This isn’t your run of the mill genie; this trickster has the end of the world on his mind. The two scenes should have just been combined into one; it’s a shift that doesn’t allow momentum to build. It doesn’t really matter though, as the film opens properly in ancient Persia where the djinn is loose and his demons are wreaking havoc on an emperor’s palace. A bit of a trip out of the gate, but this scene hits the ground running. We have intestines growing teeth and shooting out of torso, snake demons, and a skeleton ripping itself out of its screaming host and going on its own killing spree. This is a scene worthy of a heavy metal video, with Kurtzman’s effects team at K.N.B. EFX on full display. Playing on the emperor’s horror of what he’s conjured, the djinn tempts the ruler to wish it all away, before the prophet, Zoroaster, entraps the djinn within the fire opal, where it is doomed to remain unless brought into the wrong hands. The scene also gives us the first glimpse at the impressive prosthetics work of our titular villain, played by Andrew Divoff.
Cut to the present day where a rich antique collector Raymond Beaumont, played by Robert Englund, is supervising the delivery of a statue he purchased from the Middle East. Though not cast as a villain, Englund gives off a slimy charisma, like the rules don’t apply to him and he likely gets away with things (not something really explored). However, the crane operator, played by Day of the Dead’s Joe Pilato, is plastered on the job and drops the crate on Raymond's assistant, ala Wile E. Coyote style. Raymond is left to mourn his now destroyed statue, as a dock worker notices the opal within, and pockets it for a quick buck. Making the rounds, the jewel finds its way to our protagonist, an appraiser named Alex, played by Tammy Lauren.
The djinn is awoken as Alex breathes life into the opal, but it doesn’t emerge immediately. It breaks free later in a lab when a friend of Alex runs a test on the stone. We get a brief glimpse of the djinn in an infantile state, provided by a pre-Mini-Me Verne Troyer in a pretty decent scene. Slowly returning to power and making his way to Alex, the djinn spends the film interacting with the various cameo line-ups, granting wishes as a way to slowly replenish his power supply. The catch is our slasher cannot act without the victim’s explicit permission. This both works and hinders the film, as we get more insight into the djinn’s seductive mind games and how he lures victims in on wordplay alone, but drags the film for the sake of death scenes that don’t serve much of an impact outside of the gore factor. Don’t worry, though, our lead has psychic visions of these deaths, so she at least feels connected.
It is here where the film starts to have problems. We see a crucial scene where Alex discusses the tragic event of saving her sister, in a terrible house fire that claimed the lives of their parents. She still carries the guilt of this tragedy, and as a result has kept everyone in her life at a distance. Survivor’s guilt is something we have seen before in horror, but the audience learns of it in passing, through exposition. And it’s just presented in a flat, shot-reverse-shot close-up, and doesn’t leave room for investment. Adding insult to injury, the film then gives us a decent nightmare sequence where Alex sees her sister screaming from the window of the burning house (and the djinn can see this as well). This wouldn’t be such a problem if these nightmares were established earlier, or even in the scene right before said exposition.
As this is going on, the djinn takes on a more human appearance as a way to get closer to Alex. So, for a good portion of the film, our slasher is out of make-up. He is just Divoff, the actor. It comes off as a bit of a cop out, seeing as we’ve already gotten used to seeing the djinn in full make-up, and it makes the audience aware that the five-million-dollar budget was stretched thin (those bookending set pieces don’t come cheap you know). Plus, slashers are normally better suited to unknown actors who bring out their talent behind the mask or make-up. Divoff, at this point, is well known for portraying villains in films such as Toy Soldiers and A Low Down Dirty Shame. The same year as Wishmaster, Divoff played the scene stealing henchmen in Air Force One, the fifth highest-grossing film worldwide in 1997. An illusion has been shattered and we’re left to watch the actor just play the actor. As engaging as Divoff is as the djinn, it loses its momentum during this third of the runtime.
It isn’t until later in the film where Alex and the djinn finally encounter each other, when Alex visits the home of an anthropology professor. This character is introduced when Alex is tracking the origins of the opal. However, prior to Alex’s arrival, the djinn has made a victim out of the professor and is now posing as her. All criticism of the build aside, this leads to a well done Hitchcockian “bomb under the table” scene where the audience is on the edge of their seat waiting for Alex to clue in to the horror she’s stumbled upon. It’s the best acted scene in the whole film. After finally revealing itself, the djinn appoints Alex the bearer of the three wishes that will lead to his freedom (as stated in the origin story). This is a pretty heavy weight for our final girl to bear. After wasting the first two wishes, and not keen on making a third one, Alex hightails it out of there, forcing the djinn to raise his bet. He goes after Alex’s sister.
This leads to the climax where the sister is conveniently at a party hosted by Raymond, and the djinn gets a do-over of the opening scene. Death scene set pieces ensue with CGI glass explosions, statues of ancient warriors come to life, and the director himself gets an impressive decapitation. It doesn’t hold a candle to the opening, but it reiterates where this film wanted the money to go. Cornered, and faced with a rock and a hard place decision, Alex makes her final wish, that the crane operator wasn’t drinking on the job that fateful morning. Cleverest cop out ever, the entire conflict is negated, the Persian statue remains intact, and the djinn is sealed within to bide his time until the sequel.
Wishmaster is an example of a film where you can have every positive element available, but it doesn’t work unless you actually use them. The inclusion of various horror icons can be seen as passing of the torch, but their inclusion plays more like “featured vocals.” And what we’re mainly seeing outside of the cameos are the conflicting lead choices. Besides having Divoff out of make-up for a chunk of the film, there’s also the under direction of Lauren’s Alex. This is the only starring role for Tammy Lauren, who outside of a sparse filmography has primarily been a television actor. The real highlight of the film is the stellar practical effects that still hold up over twenty years later, made all the better in comparison to the 90's New Line Cinema era CGI. What was meant to be the final slasher ended up being forgotten, just like the plot overall.
Wishmaster did have three sequels that were released made-for-TV, and later direct to video, further condemning it to obscurity. Divoff would only reprise the djinn for the first sequel and a different actor was used for the remaining entries. Wes Craven would only produce the first entry, and would later release Scream 2 almost three months later, furthering the meta-age of slashers. From there, newfound interest peaked in the forefathers of the sub-genre, leading to new entries and later the age of New Millennium Reboots. Stuck within all of that, is Wishmaster, a slasher film with a concept that didn’t quite break its barrier, but decades later could stand a comeback vehicle. With lesser-known horror being independently remade, like 2014’s The Town that Dreaded Sundown and the re-imagining of Rabid, it might be time for Wishmaster to finally have its day. Until then, that opal is still trapped.
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