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  • nickkarner

Wishmaster (1997)

Being a filmmaker is akin to a bruised and battered soldier shouting "Lemme at 'em!" despite the enemy outnumbering him 100 to 1. Making a movie requires a unique combination of bravado, passion, self-denial, and stupidity. The collaborative process can be astonishingly frustrating. "Too Many Cooks," as Casper Kelly's infamous Adult Swim short states many song, no less. Director Robert Kurtzman, one third of the legendary KNB EFX Group along with co-founders Howard Berger and Greg Nicotero, had only directed one previous feature (The Demolitionist) before he was tasked with shooting, editing, and releasing a film within the tight frame of 6 months. With a limited 33-day schedule and literally hundreds of effects to be achieved, the only way this would be possible was if Kurtzman pulled out all the stops, called in a lot of favors, and gathered like-minded individuals to achieve his twisted B-movie vision for Wishmaster (1997). Fortunately, the number of horror luminaries assembled both on and offscreen was jaw-dropping, and as Visual Effects Supervisor Thomas C. Rainone (Lord of Illusion, Bride of Re-Animator) put it, the film was "a communal effort of depravity."

A killer genie. Really? That’s what you’re going with? What the hell was happening in the late 90’s to prompt Image Organization, a production company releasing such varied properties as Deep Cover, Pin, The Dentist, Dolly Dearest, Spontaneous Combustion, Tommy Tricker and the Stamp Traveller (holy shit, that takes me back), and most terrifying of all, The Peanut Butter Solution, to gather a fuckton of research and hire the writer of three Hellraiser movies to pen an original screenplay? Peter Atkins’ work on the Hellraiser series is respectable, if somewhat imperfect. I don’t dislike Hellbound, but it’s not my favorite of the series. Hell on Earth features a stunning 20-minute stretch of absolute carnage that’s pretty spectacular, but the acting lets the script down. The troubled production of Bloodline unfortunately muddies the waters of judgement, but it’s way better (particularly the late 18th century scenes) than its reputation as simply “Pinhead in Space.” Atkins is a clever writer and while skeptical of the “killer genie” concept, he found the research stimulating and came up with quite a good excuse for exploring a moralist fable about an ancient being who possesses mystical powers and has a sadistically nasty streak.

Like Pinhead and especially Freddy Krueger, The Djinn’s capabilities, although one’s inclination is to call him The Wishmaster, acts as an excuse for Kurtzman and his fellow effects wizards to indulge in their wildest and most gruesome fantasies. While there is indeed a story, and an interesting one at that, the film is practically a highlight reel for KNB. Played with a deliciously theatrical menace by Andrew Divoff (Graveyard Shift, Air Force One), The Djinn’s ultimate plan is to unleash his fellow djinn’s upon Earth and destroy humanity. He can shape-shift by ripping the faces off of his victims and wear their skin, a la Hannibal Lecter. As a genie, he’s pretty much immortal and can do just about anything. Imagine a God who also happens to be a sick fuck and that’s pretty much what you’d get with the Djinn.

I was reminded of Jack Skellington in The Nightmare Before Christmas and his twisted plan for co-opting Christmas. While Skellington’s intentions are basically good, his own warped worldview causes his actions to be terrifying and absolutely incompatible in the traditional sense of what Christmas is. The Djinn however, delights in tormenting these simple mortals and since his only limitation is that he can only use his powers when a mortal makes a wish, he’s both crafty and creative when it comes to dragging a request out and levying ironic punishments. The script is wise to not insist upon a victim having to begin with the words “I wish...” Just saying “I want” or even simply agreeing with The Djinn’s query is enough to trigger an attack. Of course, Aladdin had been released only five years prior, so many people have wondered how Wishmaster would’ve fared had it been released immediately upon the heels of Robin Williams’ iconic Genie. While clearly two very different spirits, the all-powerful nature of both the lovably blue-hued animated incarnation and the sharp-toothed, red-eyed bad boy with the majestic horns share much in common.

As an excuse to unleash hell upon dozens of willing extras, Wishmaster begins in Persia, circa 1127. Phantasm’s own Tall Man Angus Scrimm provides our ominous narration, explaining that while God created angels, “the fire gave birth to the djinn.” His sole purpose is to collect souls and gather his strength and then whoever freed him must be granted three wishes. These wishes must be made very carefully or else The Djinn’s evil brain will go into overdrive and you’ll have a real mess on your hands. Upon the granting of the third wish, his fellow djinn will be freed. Fortunately, a sorcerer named Zoroaster (Ari Barak, Waterworld) knows what’s up and has a plan to defeat, or at least incapacitate, the stubborn Djinn, who refuses to die. This is all well and good, but the real pleasure to be had is from an opening credits sequence where Zoroaster mixes a bit of this and that, mainly blood and powders to form a fire opal. It’s a classically-constructed scene reminiscent of mad scientists at work, but one barely notices the various accoutrement since so many famous names are flashing on the screen.

Wanna talk street cred? The names that pop up here are amazing. Friday the 13th's Harry Manfredini did the music. Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin (the first two Nightmare films, The Hidden, Galaxy of Terror) lends his skilled eye. The editor of Jason Goes to Hell and Jason X David Handman. Obviously KNB EFX is there. And then there’s an executive producer named Wes Craven...don’t know much about him. And that’s just the unseen forces of terror. We’ll get to the onscreen talent in a moment.

The Persian emperor makes a vague wish about seeing “wonders,” and this is all the prompting The Djinn needs to unleash holy horrors upon the minions of the palace. Let’s talk about the effects. It’s very simple. The practical's are fabulous, which is to be expected. A woman’s head transforms into a tree. Some kind of rabid little beastie bursts out of a dude’s stomach and starts gnawing away at his wife’s wrist. In a standout bit, a skeleton rips through that pesky skin covering and goes after its victims. “Why are you wearing that stupid man suit?” One poor schmuck is a goddamn lizard creature with a huge scaly tail. Meanwhile, this being the late 90’s and CGI effects obviously having reached their pinnacle; they decided to sprinkle in some computer-generated imagery...and it’s mostly garbage. Not everything is terrible. A man being absorbed into a stone wall isn’t too bad, but most of the CGI on display here hasn’t aged well, but it appears that this was the only option for some of the macabre ideas the crew came up with.

The real deal though, is the makeup on The Djinn himself. It’s always annoying when filmmakers are obviously trying to obscure their budgetary shortcomings by hiding shoddy effects under the cover of shadows and quick editing. Here, we’ve got a prosthetic job that everyone was clearly pleased with, so we get to see Divoff’s Djinn in full-light, and it does not disappoint. Surrounded by skeletons in robes, the emperor is just about to make his third wish, fulfilling the prophecy, but Zoroaster presents the fire opal and imprisons The Djinn inside it. I take a bit of umbrage with this aspect of the story because much later, The Djinn is using the gem to collect and store souls, so I’m not entirely sure what’s up with this red stone’s capabilities or pro’s and cons, but never mind. Let’s go to the present day - America, to be exact - since that’s what the film tells us, because it’s more budget-friendly.

A priceless statue has been purchased by and transported to one Raymond Beaumont (Robert Englund, from the TV series V...and absolutely nothing else), an antique collector whose name is a nod to the late, great Twilight Zone writer Charles Beaumont. A smarmy Ted Raimi (The Evil Dead) bitches and moans about these blue-collar slobs being reckless with the artifact. You half expect the drunken dock worker Mickey Torelli, played by Day of the Dead’s own Joseph Pilato, to shout down, “I'm running this monkey farm now, Frankenstein, and I wanna know...what the fuck you're doing with my time?!” Pissy attitude aside, he fucks up and the statue is smashed by dropping onto sweet Henrietta (Raimi), revealing the encased fire opal, which is quickly snatched up by smarmy, long-haired dock worker Etchinson (Tom Kendall) and sold at a pawn shop. The shop owner, played by the great impressionist John Byner, brings it to Regal Auctioneers, where the equally smarmy and very wealth-obsessed Nick (Chris Lemmon, Thunder in Paradise and Jack’s son) sees dollar signs and gets his best appraiser (isn’t it always the best?) to check this big, beautiful fucker out.

Ugh, 90’s rock music accompanies a spirited tennis match between the best damn appraiser in the business, Alexandra Amberson (Tammy Lauren, The Young and the Restless) and geo-physicist and permanent “friend zone” resident Josh (Tony Crane, The Big Easy). He wants to be more than just a tennis partner, but Alexandra’s not interested. This doesn’t stop her from asking him to check out the stone, which he dutifully does because he’s desperate to tap dat, but the hilariously huge and inconceivably sophisticated laser...thing he uses to check it out ends up freeing The Djinn. It’s never entirely explained why Alexandra breathing on the stone makes her the master when it's very likely the pawn shop owner might’ve done that and technically Josh is the one who busted him out. I’ll give the movie this much. I didn’t expect Josh to get taken out, let alone by a slimy, baby version of The Djinn played by future Mini-Me Verne Troyer, but there you go. Again, not so sure what the deal is, but it appears that The Djinn needs a few victims just to get back to his normal form before heading off to charge the stone and get those sweet ass wishes off of Alexandra.

What follows is basically a bunch of glorious filler. While Alexandra tries to suss out the origins of the stone and what it has to do with these djinn creatures, The Djinn indulges in what he does best: granting wishes that severely fuck up the wisher’s day. This is where having the best effects artists in the business comes in handy. He blinds a Justin Guarini-looking med student and then Divoff gets to flex his dramatic muscles as Nathaniel Demerest after getting himself a fancy new face off a particularly handsome corpse. The decision to give Demerest two different eye colors is a subtle but effective touch which makes all of Divoff’s close-ups off-putting.

He purchases a fancy ass suit and comes onto a very attractive shop clerk (Gretchen Palmer, Red Heat, I Got the Hook Up). It’s fun to watch The Djinn react to the world around him, particularly his observation that beauty has remained “a constant.” He offers her eternal beauty, and boom. She’s a creepy mannequin.

In his quest to track down Alexandra, he arrives at a police precinct and grants a talky detective’s wish for a very-guilty man to get caught “dead to rights.” He obliges him by having the gentleman-in-question blow away several co-workers and even rip off the chin of one poor sap.

Noted tough guy, prick, and the most famous actor to play Jason Voorhees, Kane Hodder, shows up as a security guard who gets in The Djinn’s way. This is the first time we witness the basic flaw in his powers. Hodder wishes for him to go away, so he starts to head off, but he’d also “love” to see him put up a fight. This results in a disappointingly awful CG effect in which Hodder gets absorbed into some glass doors. It’s unfortunate that a skilled stunt performer like Hodder couldn’t’ve had a more substantial, grandiose death. Atkins once again brings an unpredictability to the fore by having The Djinn grant Nick’s wish for one million dollars not by causing him harm, but rather by having his mother sign a one-million-dollar insurance form and then promptly exploding her airplane. It’s a blackly comic moment.

Still, if there’s one scene, besides the explosive finale, that’s worth mentioning, it’s a scene not so much for its makeup effects, which are still quite good, but for its highly profane and I suspect improvised dialogue. Distinctive character actor/writer/pre-eminent interpreter of hobo life George ‘Buck’ Flower plays, what else? A homeless man. Phantasm’s Reggie Bannister pops out as a pissed-off pharmacist and the following exchange takes place:

Homeless Man: You left customers in there. That's not a very good way to run a business.

Pharmacist: Don't you tell me how to run my business, you're a fucking bum!

Homeless Man: Well, you don't tell me how to run my life! You're a fucking prick! I'll talk to whoever I want to! You don't own this fucking sidewalk!

Pharmacist: You wanna know something? I do own this fuckin' sidewalk. You wanna know why? Cause I pay fuckin' taxes!

Homeless Man: Fuck you!

Pharmacist: No, fuck you!

Homeless Man: I hope you die, you sack of shit. I hope you die, and I hope you float down the gutter, so I can fuckin' piss on you! You big, bald-headed baboon! Miscarried afterbirth of a Chinese gang-banger! Educated idiot!

It’s pretty fabulous and The Djinn indulges Flower’s wish by giving Bannister cancer, which manifests itself as giant, pulsating sores on his face. A blurred but very obvious Tom Savini rushes in to help.

All of this carnage is presented in a relatively tongue-in-cheek manner. Not particularly scary, but a whole lot of fun. One bit of dialogue that must be pointed out is when a child whom Alexandra coaches basketball to runs up and horribly delivers the following: “Stillness, Miss Amberson! That’s how I did it! Stillness!” It’s like having Abel Ferrara ram a power drill through your ears. Although Tammy Lauren is obviously supposed to be acting exhausted, her reaction to this young actress's awful delivery comes off more as “get the hell outta here, kid.” Still, much of the dialogue is quite literate, and the scenes between Alexandra and a sassy folklore teacher played by Jenny O’Hara (Mystic River, Transparent) are a joy to listen to. She’s feisty and full of spunk and delivers a mountain of mystical expository dialogue with grace and humor. Her name-drop of Barbara Eden and Robin Williams is especially appreciated.

Ultimately, Alexandra does come face-to-face with The Djinn, in a scene preceded by him assuming O’Hara’s form by tearing her face off, and as he puts it, “the shit hits the fan.” Logic admirably rears its head in this script as she does what anyone else would do: wish for The Djinn to destroy himself. This is accomplished by a gunshot to the head, which immediately heals. He’s immortal, so no dice.

Next, she lamely decides to use her coaching skills since the WNBA is only a few years away, so she wishes to know him. He takes this as an opportunity to transport her into an enclosed world resembling the inside of an artery where the various wishers we’ve encountered are being horribly tortured and a freaky little dog creature chases after her. She wishes herself out and now she has to save her useless sister, whom she saved from a fire as a child. This is supposed to serve as some character-building for Alexandra’s character, but it’s fairly obvious and clunky.

The Djinn tortures her as she speeds to Beaumont’s party where her sister is hanging out and we’re treated to one of the best scenes of the film. Candyman himself Tony Todd shows up as a bouncer. What’s his name, you gorehounds might ask? “The name’s Valentine. Johnny Valentine.” You might also be wondering what his job is on this fine evening. That’s simple: “Keeping assholes out of parties.” Each scene featuring these horror icons are brief but distinctive, giving them around 2-3 minutes of screen time and some truly fun moments before being dispatched in increasingly bizarre ways. Valentine ends up being transported into a Houdini-inspired water tank, trussed up in a strait-jacket.

The Djinn crashes the party and gets Beaumont to make a wish, which is ostensibly to party like it’s Persia 1127. Here is when the effects work goes all-in and it’s mostly magnificent. Yes, there’s some awful computer effects, like a woman’s hand melding with her champagne glass, but most of it is an absolute joy as The Djinn strolls through the party while his victims rush about. At least when the glass lady shatters, her remains cause one-half of a dude’s face to fall off. Sharp-eyed horror enthusiasts will spy the Pazuzu statue from The Exorcist amongst Beaumont’s treasures and its stone tentacles snake out to tear into some guy’s face. Sentient piano wires whip out to decapitate an uncredited Robert Kurtzman. A few folks get set on fire, a scene which was cleverly shot with two cameras to both capture the flaming man’s flailing and his subsequent jump through a window. Englund has a big fucking parasite crawl out of his mouth.

In one of the most inspired moments, all of the stone statues impressively come to life and attack. One of them looks like Shredder. Some more KNB folks show up to try and take them out, but bullets are useless. Howard Berger gets his face caved in with a spiky mace. A painting that’s presumably of Jack the Ripper comes to life and slits a guard’s throat. It’s just endlessly inventive and joyously anarchic.

Alexandra’s sister gets trapped inside a painting like it’s The goddamn Witches and she finally agrees to make her final wish. That is, after she’s delivered the line “You vicious son of a BITCH!” by speaking every word normally until practically screaming “Bitch!” Tammy Lauren isn’t terrible in this film, not by a long shot, but her delivery tends to be a little on the odd side. Still, she’s a smart cookie, because she wishes Mickey Torelli wasn’t drinking on the job when the statue arrived. It’s pretty fucking clever and obviously The Djinn is capable of altering the space-time continuum because he gets sucked back into the opal and all of the statues explode all around him, an effect which ended up melting a few cameras and causing the production to close down for a day.

Everything goes back to normal and Alexandra is interested in boning Josh all of a sudden. Inside the statue, which is known as Ahura Mazda, which must be some sort of car god, The Djinn waits...and maniacally laughs at the end, although I don’t know what the hell he has to laugh about. His dog is going to need to be walked and that gem stone’s gonna start to smell bad real soon.

The film did relatively well, considering its low budget and three sequels were produced, with Divoff reprising his role one more time for the wild Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies (1999) before leaving the series after his own script for the second sequel went unproduced. His performance is somewhat underrated here. He finds a balance between menace and ham acting. The rest of the cast are made up of C-list actors who do their job admirably and it’s a great deal of fun to see these horror icons get decent scenes to play out of makeup. In the end, Wishmaster is a showcase for the effects department and that’s what makes it an outstanding, if unbelievably silly, B-movie treasure.


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