What makes a movie so bad it’s good? What elevates a film that’s kinda terrible into the rarefied ranks of cult fame? The movie gods hold the true secret of that alchemy close to their popcorn-filled chests, but the magic formula has rarely been so perfectly executed than in 1997’s Wishmaster.
It’s important to approach Wishmaster knowing that it’s really two films in one. There’s the film itself, a gory fantasy that tells the story of an ancient djinn who’s released into modern-day California. Then there’s the meta-film, which is more or less a horror-comedy — stuffed full of winks and nudges at genre fans, with cameos galore, character names that pay homage to horror writers (hat-tip to screenwriter Peter Atkins), and the above-the-title endorsement “Wes Craven presents.”
The fact that Wishmaster is directed by veteran special effects artist Robert Kurtzman also means that there’s no shortage of spectacularly gruesome visuals, deployed with such enthusiasm that things like believable performances and logical storytelling sometimes get pushed aside. Of course, the movie’s ridiculousness is often its own reward, and you kind of get the feeling that most everyone involved was aware of that.
After a little bit of exposition (narrated by Phantasm’s Angus Scrimm) contextualizing the evil we’re about to witness, we open in 11th century Persia as a djinn demonstrates his powers in the most awful way, via what appear to be mostly practical effects. (Forget what you think you know about benevolent “genies” from Aladdin and I Dream of Jeannie, the script tut-tuts in a later scene; the real-deal creatures are brutal, terrifying, and obsessed with world domination.) A man fuses with a wall, another man transforms into a snake while moaning “help usssss,” a woman claws out a man’s intestines, a snarling skeleton rips its way out of a man’s body… it’s outrageous carnage everywhere you look. And this is all within the movie’s first scene.
Though his reign of terror is cut short by a quick-thinking court sorcerer, who seals him into a giant opal, you know that dastardly djinn will be breaking out of his jeweled prison at the first opportunity. That doesn’t come until hundreds of years later but is a remarkably quick endeavour once the stone is accidentally dislodged from a statue being imported by a wealthy collector of religious ephemera. (It’s dropped thanks to a tipsy dockworker played by Day of the Dead’s Joseph Pilato, who smashes the great Ted Raimi right out of the movie.) The antiques hoarder is played by Freddy Krueger himself, Robert Englund; the character’s extensive collection includes a likeness of Pazuzu from The Exorcist, and the camera lingers just a beat longer on it to make sure we noticed. Oh, we noticed!
Wishmaster has a detectably cheesy underlayer that really makes it feel like it should have been made in the 1980s; there are a few too many scenes where characters are just sitting around, dramatically smoking cigarettes. It also makes good use of one of my favourite well-worn horror tropes: when supernatural funny business starts happening, the main character connects with someone who’s able to tell them exactly what’s happening. Think Vincent D’Onofrio’s professor in Sinister, or Rosemary’s friend Hutch in Rosemary’s Baby.
However, that knowledge usually doesn’t help the character avoid whatever bad stuff is coming to them — it sure doesn’t help Alex (Tammy Lauren), the unlucky appraiser whose too-vigorous polishing of a certain cursed gem awakens one very sinister spirit. “Forget what our culture has made of the djinn,” Alex learns from the conveniently in-the-know Professor Derleth (Jenny O’Hara). “In the old writings, the djinn is everything that we have ever feared. An utterly inhuman race of beings that mean us harm. Older than our oldest history, more powerful than our worst imaginings, and driven by an ancient and endless malevolence.”
While Alex — whose hobbies include tennis and coaching middle-school basketball, which means that yes, Wishmaster contains multiple sports scenes — is trying to puzzle out why she’s suddenly under psychic attack from a random djinn, the djinn himself (Andrew Divoff) is busy altering his appearance from demon dude to smarmy tycoon type after helping himself to a new face at the nearest morgue. He doesn’t waste any time reigniting his trail of destruction; as long as he can get a person to express any small wish or desire, he can twist it into something well beyond what they intended. And he often does it just to fuck with people.
A pretty shop clerk (Gretchen Palmer) who agrees it would be nice to be beautiful forever is transformed into a mannequin; Alex’s boss’ casual utterance about becoming a millionaire means his mother dies in a plane crash immediately after signing a life insurance policy; and a cranky pharmacist (Phantasm’s Reggie Bannister) rapidly succumbs to cancer (while a shocked customer played by special effects legend Tom Savini looks on) after the djinn coaxes a hyperbolic curse from a “fuckin’ bum” (George “Buck” Flower, a John Carpenter regular) he’d just had words with.
This chaos sustains a huge chunk of the movie, and the djinn — whose go-to mood is smirking self-admiration — manages to annihilate characters played by Kane Hodder (Jason Voorhees in multiple Friday the 13th films) and Tony Todd (Candyman) on his quest to sink his hooks into Alex’s soul. She’s the one that woke him, so she’s the only one who can make the fabled three wishes and thus, as the legend goes, allow the djinn to unleash hell on Earth. Unless, of course, she can figure out a way to outsmart him, perhaps even using the same advice about concentrating on “stillness” that she shares with the girls on her basketball team. You know, in case you didn’t notice how that kept coming up earlier in the movie. Oh, Wishmaster. We noticed!
The movie leaves you with one last party scene that’s basically an excuse for more Kurtzman slice-and-dice effects (best use of a piano and all its wires in a movie ever?), and then there’s a freaking Motörhead song over the end credits to keep the fun going a little bit longer. Wishmaster is proof that just because a horror movie isn’t one bit scary — and in fact is pretty hilarious, intentionally or otherwise, when it’s not being excellently gross — that in no way detracts from its overall impact. I wish (tee-hee) that every good bad movie could be this good.
Wishmaster is now streaming on Amazon Prime.