***/**** Image A Sound B+ Extras A
starring Tammy Lauren, Andrew Divoff, Chris Lemmon, Robert Englund
written by Peter Atkins
directed by Robert Kurtzman
WISHMASTER 2: EVIL NEVER DIES (1999)
*/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras C
starring Andrew Divoff, Paul Johannson, Holly Fields, Tommy 'Tiny' Lister, Jr.
written and directed by Jack Sholder
WISHMASTER 3: BEYOND THE GATES OF HELL (2001)
**/**** Image A Sound A Extras B-
starring Jason Connery, A.J. Cook, Tobias Mehler, John Novak
screenplay by Alexander Wright
directed by Chris Angel
WISHMASTER: THE PROPHECY FULFILLED (2002)
***/**** Image A Sound A Extras B+
starring Michael Trucco, Tara Spencer-Nairn, Jason Thompson, John Novak
screenplay by John Benjamin Martin
directed by Chris Angel
by Sydney Wegner The Wishmaster saga begins with a quick infodump about angels and demons from narrator Angus Scrimm, the folklore giving way to a lush array of reds and purples and sandy earth tones as a sorcerer forges a magic red gemstone over the opening credits. In 1127 Persia, something is wreaking havoc on a crowded square; a skeleton rips its way out of a man's skin and walks around to join several other horrifying atrocities. The sorcerer (Ari Barak) pushes his way through the screaming crowd to the King (Richard Assad), who's being advised by a Djinn (a.k.a. the Wishmaster, played by a ferociously campy Andrew Divoff) that he must make a third wish to stop the violence. But the sorcerer manages to trap him in the gemstone, stopping the King before his third wish can grant the Djinn the power to rip through dimensions and unleash his Djinn brethren onto the earth. This prologue sets up a world of magic and fantasy and folklore the series never quite re-establishes. While the ancient imagery is vaguely referenced hereafter, the world of Wishmaster won't feel this sensual or mystical again.
Flash forward to present-day (1997) "America" and the cold, indifferent steel and concrete of a ship's loading dock. An art collector (Robert Englund) is overseeing the delivery of a statue when an unfortunate accident releases the fateful gem from it. Through an unlucky chain of events, it lands in the hands of Alex Amberson (Tammy Lauren), an auction-house employee who has plenty of trouble without the addition of an evil genie in her life. She becomes the Djinn's keeper, and he will relentlessly pester her for three wishes and steal some souls on the side throughout the course of the movie. The demon borrows the skin of a poor corpse in the morgue, walking the earth as a slimeball yuppie (Divoff again, sans prosthetics), duping people by forcing them to wish for something and taking their requests as literally as is required for them to die painfully. In the meantime, our heroine has odd visions of the violence he's committing. Unfortunately, a rough past and a history of mental illness make it difficult for her to get help with her outlandish situation.
Therein lies the heart of what surprised me most about Wishmaster: how woman-centric it is. It's clearly not intended to say anything important about women's issues, which is precisely what makes it worth commenting on. The character of Alex is a chain-smoker with trust issues who doesn't seem to have a life outside of work. Every man she interacts with hits on her and/or condescends to her, and the only people who treat her with respect are other women. These touches bring an unexpected subtext to the narrative that turn this supremely dorky horror-comedy into the story of a woman running from an abuser, a man who promises to give her whatever she wants but twists her desires to suit his own agenda. He's portrayed as suave and conniving in his stolen human form, someone who repeatedly ogles and tricks women--exactly the type to seduce with promises, only to slowly destroy his victims. To our heroine's--and the movie's--credit, she meets his tactics with defiance, not hysterics, and although she's realistically afraid, she doesn't let fear deter her. She's capable, intelligent, flawed, normal. It's a rare treat to see a movie with a woman protagonist that paints her as neither trembling victim nor one-dimensional ass-kicking type, to have a woman just exist in a movie that isn't, strictly speaking, "for women." Lauren plays the part well, striking a balance of intelligence, femininity, and tomboyism that won't blow any minds but is above and beyond what a picture of this calibre merits.
Beyond that refreshing angle, there are two major highlights of Wishmaster that make it the cult classic it's become. First is the plethora of cameos from horror legends; Robert Englund has the largest speaking part, but genre fans will also enjoy the grisly deaths of Reggie Bannister, Tony Todd, Ted Raimi, and Kane Hodder, as well as the aforementioned voiceover from The Tall Man himself, Angus Scrimm. Englund gives a fine performance, reminding us that he is in fact a versatile actor, and it's fun to see the familiar faces. These cameos, however, muddy the boundaries of scary and funny that Wishmaster tries to create, and in the meta offering of these familiar faces it's hard to fully lose oneself in fear. Second, the KNB effects are stellar. (Robert Kurtzman, the "K" in KNB, directed.) The makeup, character designs, and goopiness are where all the passion lies, and more care and effort were put into them than into any other aspect of the production.
Sadly, they're mixed together with crude early CGI, contributing to the uneven tone; many aspects of Wishmaster simply suffer from the transitional time period in which it was made, resulting in an unholy union of the '80s and '90s that doesn't comfortably fit either decade. The mixture of D&D-style fantasy/folklore, grunge music, and awful fashions hits heads, much like the old-school/new-school F/X, so it's neither a new idea nor a straight homage to the glory days of less than 10 years before. It's all very campy, and mostly a film made by and for hardcore horror enthusiasts, stopping just short of irritating "fan service." The movie toys with some interesting concepts--the mind-meld between the Djinn and his reluctant master (a Will Graham/Hannibal-esque relationship), religion, sin and the everyday corruption of greedy people, capitalism, abuse--but it never truly cares about exploring any of them, and this will prove a recurring theme across the next three entries. Given an overwhelming wealth of ideas, the lamest ones are chosen. The whole series is an exercise in might-have-beens--which is fine here, as Wishmaster is first and foremost a showcase for the glory of practical special effects.
Without the name of executive producer Wes Craven to buoy a theatrical release, Wishmaster's three sequels went straight to video. And in a close race, Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies is the worst of the bunch. There are some fun effects, and they along with the costumes and makeup are admittedly impressive for a low-budget, dtv feature. Yet the deaths themselves are incredibly juvenile and mostly pointless, poor attempts at reprising the original's witty twists. Though they lend the movie a self-aware vibe that isn't unwelcome, especially if they had been done well (the kills are clearly the bread-and-butter of this franchise), Wishmaster 2 has the ring of something written by a 12-year-old without the attendant joy or rambunctiousness, and the comedy is almost as cringe-worthy as listening to writer-director Jack Sholder--of The Hidden and A Nightmare on Elm Street 2 fame--laugh at his own alleged cleverness on the commentary track.
Although this continues the imperfect troubled-heroine routine, the character is too lame to even be offensive. I imagine a war waging off-camera between the costume designer and Sholder, the former determined to make the heroine (Holly Fields) look casual and normal, the latter equally determined to make her sexy. (She's usually in grungy pyjamas but the camera drools over her all the same.) The vague backstory and religious allusions are half-hearted, so she's not much more than an often-irritating, hysterical goth-type with no clear motivation. The movie begins with a botched art heist she's pulling with her boyfriend, but why? A security guard is murdered in the course of the robbery (along with said boyfriend), she finds the familiar red gemstone, and her guilt drives her subsequent actions. Yet what put her in the situation in the first place is a mystery. Yes, this is a dumb movie about an evil genie (Divoff still), but how difficult is it to throw in a few lines of psychological motivation? After the genie escapes (and gets himself put in jail, since the selection of weak souls to steal is most plentiful there), she turns to a priest (Paul Johannson) for help. They have an alluded-to past that she screwed up somehow. It's a bizarre attempt at a romantic subplot, and the movie ends with her having to "purify" herself (which consists of removing her nose ring and smearing off her lipstick, because I suppose only troubled women paint themselves up like harlots) in order to defeat the Djinn. It's a potentially interesting move undermined by the implication that this hunky priest has saved her, which reeks of something shameful.
I could probably forgive the slog of a middle and the sexed-up heroine and the plot holes and everything else if it wasn't for the complete defanging of Divoff. He delivers his best effort at maintaining the physical presence of the character, but for whatever reason Sholder chose to thwart his attempts at being imposing by putting him in situations where he's the least impressive person in the scene. He's constantly either in the open outdoor exercise area of the prison or a room that sounds like an echo chamber. There's very little music, there are very bright lights, and he's usually standing next to someone bigger and badder than himself. The reverberations rob his voice of depth and the overexposure flattens the sharp planes of his face so that he registers as pale and pathetic. Opportunities for eye-catching lighting and environments, though rampant, are almost never taken advantage of. If the intention was to make the Djinn look like just another greasy weasel, it worked. He seems ridiculous, a raving lunatic, but by no means creepy or formidable. I do think the director was trying to go in a wackier, more overtly comedic direction (as stated in the commentary, he thought the first movie was too much like a standard horror film and prefers his own take), but in so doing he robbed the franchise of its number-one redeeming factor: Andrew Divoff as a low-rent Universal Monster whose obnoxiousness is an entertaining wonder to behold. The screenplay is also a mess, as it switches gears from prison comedy to bible allegory to the plight of a Russian mobster. Overall, Wishmaster 2 isn't a complete waste, thanks to a few slimy effects and the pleasantly-ridiculous final 15 minutes. Best is the insanely tacky set design, so kudos to set decorator Elizabeth Zdansky. A solid effort compared to similar dtv releases of the time, perhaps; where the first instalment is mainly a showcase for gore lovers, this sequel is a feast for fans of wildly hideous interior design.
Here, the series starts to get interesting in what is ironically the most boring of the 'quadrilogy.' Wishmaster 3: Beyond the Gates of Hell is a horror/melodrama hybrid that focuses far more on (inexpensive) character than it does on (expensive) effects. Aside from two brief but suitably cruel scenes of violence, there isn't much in the way of blood, and what's there shows none of the technical skill of the previous movies. Part three focuses on college student Diana Collins (A.J. Cook), who uncovers the gemstone in a Hellraiser-esque puzzle-box that has landed in the care of her creepy History professor as part of a museum installation he's working on. After she opens the box and fondles the gem, the predatory, goateed prof (Jason Connery--yes, THAT Connery) catches her snooping and breathlessly tries to con her into a date. She leaves in an awkward huff and the Djinn appears (now played by John Novak, doing a straight-up Freddy Krueger impersonation). He grants the professor's wish to get humped by some sexy students, who subsequently scratch and bite him to death so the Djinn can assume his identity. Sadly, it is this unimpressive form in which he remains for the majority of the movie.
A fairly amusing early sex scene sets the stage for some sort of poorly-conceived softcore porno, with T&A occasionally taking the place of costlier gore. I don't think the director's heart was all the way in it, though, because the film is ultimately closer to the first Wishmaster in its respectful explorations of the main character's traumatic past. Cook does a far better job than her low-rent goth predecessor, and there is lots more backstory and pained gazing. In fact, it appears most of the budget was spent on a car crash that happens as a dream, purely to set up sympathy and depth for the heroine. Not only are the characters a little more fleshed-out and the premise rife with potential, the lighting here is also quite beautiful, especially the natural, sunlit exterior shots. While it isn't scary, effective uses of shadows indoors give Wishmaster 3 an atmosphere that is at once cozy and uncomfortable.
It's shocking, really, that this thing drags on as slowly as it does, because writer Alex Wright and director Chris Angel (no, not THAT one) create a twist that could have been an incredible, YA-novel shitshow. In a wild attempt to outsmart the Djinn, Diana wishes for the archangel Michael to come help her. The angel enters the body of her boyfriend (Tobias Mehler), bringing with him a magical wavy sword that is apparently the only weapon capable of killing Djinn. To her dismay, Michael is not only a dick, but super unhelpful, too, and she ends up saving him a couple of times before having to take down the demon herself anyway. He's so annoying that gallivanting around with him makes her realize how much she cares about her real boyfriend, a guy she wouldn't "let in" emotionally because of her painful history. There's also a stunt in which Connery Jr. clings to the top of a car while trying to kill its occupants, but by that point many viewers will have already fallen asleep. For me personally, this entry was just weird enough to keep me on my toes, and the Full Moon Productions-ready crappiness was inviting in a brainless, 3 a.m.-insomnia-buster sort of way.
Coming hot on the heels of the teen-centric drama-fest that is part 3, Wishmaster: The Prophecy Fulfilled continues the new tradition by turning the hormones up to 11, resulting in what is essentially an episode of television from the height of the mid-'90s Wiccan fad, where the primary focus is on sex and relationships (with passing nods given to gore and Wishmaster-ing). Our fourth heroine, Lisa (Tara Spencer-Nairn), is in an unhappy relationship with Sam (Jason Thompson), who has soured their carefree romance by drinking and being an asshole after getting paralyzed in a motorcycle accident. What bugs him isn't that he can't walk, but that his dick is paralyzed as well, and he seems to blame his girlfriend that he can no longer pleasure her. They're in the middle of trying to settle a lawsuit with the motorcycle manufacturer for some reason, and their lawyer, Steven (Michael Trucco), is a cute frat boy straight from the set of your favourite high-school romcom--maybe that guy who was puking in the background of the climactic Big Party Scene. He's got the hots for Lisa and gives her a fancy antique box containing a certain red, glittering you-know-what. The box is dropped and fondled and the familiar mind-meld flashback is performed so the wishing antics can begin anew.
Departing even farther from the framework of the original, Wishmaster 4 is much more involved with the love triangle and the complexities of how sex and trauma can affect relationships than it is with any fantasy or horror. It makes some sense, again because nudity is cheaper than gore, but it's also clear that writer John Benjamin Martin and returning director Chris Angel wanted to say something important no matter how futile and idiotic that desire might be. It isn't nearly as tedious as the third instalment, the performances are much livelier, and the Djinn gets more screentime, plus there are more boobs if that's your thing. The sparse violence is improved, while the CGI is of the same quality but highly amusing, complementing the production's cheap shortcuts well. Thankfully, the beautiful lighting is still a priority, and a lot more colour is introduced into the palette. The plot proceeds pretty steadily, with the Djinn/lawyer bro killing people as usual, until around the halfway point. Instead of the heroine figuring out what's going on and trying to stop him as expected...she actually makes the third wish. Over a semi-flirtatious "my life is falling apart and my boyfriend hates me" glass of wine with her lawyer, she wishes she could "love him for who he is." In that moment, after hundreds of years and three 90-minute movies of the same merry-go-round of waiting and murdering, the Djinn can best be described as befuddled. Some of his Djinn brethren show up in a cloud of fire, demanding he grant her third wish so they can finally be released.
Alas, the third wish, the most precious of all, is a wish for love. Human love can only be given willingly, or it isn't real, thus Lisa has unknowingly set a trap in which she alone is capable of granting that wish. The second half of the movie, then, becomes a sort of Beauty and the Beast perversion, where the Djinn must 1) eliminate the boyfriend; 2) continue hunting souls, which he does with a feverish desperation and confusion familiar to those at the end of their rope; 3) fight The Hunter (a vampire romance novel-looking character who has appeared out of nowhere, his only purpose to defeat the Djinn by killing the innocent person who unleashed him. Who the hell is this guy? A crossover character from some other movie?); and 4) make Beauty love him despite the dark secret that he's an evil demon. What makes this so fascinating is that the Djinn doesn't merely seek to trick her into falling for him, but appears to go through an actual existential crisis about whether or not it's possible for someone to care about him. The story is focused on sex--all of the deaths have something to do with lust and the central conflict is impotence and adultery. Despite this trashiness, there is a valiant effort to tie the physical and emotional together, to create a web of sin where sex and death and unhappiness are essentially the same thing. If it wasn't so stupid, it might be devastating.
The drama is spliced together with admittedly dire fight scenes* and a couple of uncomfortable deaths, leading to a climax I couldn't have dreamed up if I had ten years and a gun to my head. The sorta-feminism of the original Wishmaster is resurrected, the Djinn becoming the "nice guy who is owed love for being nice" and the heroine making some good-vs.-evil choices. But there is no happy ending here, no triumph in the final showdown between man and monster, for either party involved. Balance is restored at a heavy cost, nobody really gets what they want, and in its own bizarre way, this is the darkest entry of the four. In a series overflowing with the possibility for bizarre deaths, musings on sin and suffering, retellings of ancient folklore, time-travel and flashbacks and hallucinations and whatever else you can imagine, it's admirable that it ends with a quiet tragedy that avoids anything that may satisfy hardcore fans of the first two films. It's understandable why this would be seen as a disappointment, but my god! Much like the titular Wishmaster, the director has pulled the ultimate prank: he closed the franchise in the most outlandish, unimaginable, unpredictable way possible. You wished for horror? Well, joke's on you, because you weren't specific enough, and in an ironic twist on ironic twists, you've been given a picture of the most horrific hellscape known to humankind: grief, love unrequited or outgrown, dealing with lawyers, and random guys in long black coats trying to chop your head off with a sword. In the immortal words of Talking Heads: watch out, you might get what you're after.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
Lionsgate brings the four Wishmasters to Blu-ray under their resurrected Vestron Video brand, even though none of these films originally came out on the Vestron label. Wishmaster has been rather obviously degrained, smoothing out some of the fine detail of the 1.78:1, 1080p image, but to me this is a movie that was meant to be a little soft: An impeccable HD transfer would only accentuate the seams between CGI and reality. The washed-out tones in Wishmaster 2 notwithstanding, colours and contrast are lovely across the board. The reds look lurid and the blacks look menacing; the fire looks warm and the shadows look mysterious. The HiDef upgrade serves parts 3 and 4 especially well, where attempts to broaden the palette and do more with the interplay of light and shadow are most apparent. For a series with three different directors, four different writers, and varying tones/intentions, it's almost remarkable how closely the four films match in terms of aesthetics. Even 2, visually the odd one out, kept in line with the blazing reds and deep blacks of some of the original's set-pieces in the interior of a bar. Also worth noting that the sequels' 1.85:1, 1080p transfers represent a large step up no matter what, considering they debuted on inferior formats; any quibbles aside, it's nice that someone found it worthwhile to polish them up for an HD release. The accompanying DTS-HD MA tracks on all four features are solid, although the first loses the 5.1 mix it had in theatres, seemingly causing both the ambient effects and Harry Manfredi's score to sound reserved as a result. (Curiously, the even-numbered films are in 5.1 and the odd-numbered ones are 2.0 surround.) Nevertheless, numerous details shine through, especially during the scene in the Djinn's den, which is full of all kinds of creepy, inhuman noises that stand out from the music. Likely due to budget, the other three mixes don't sound as slick or complex, but they're clear and effective enough.
Luckily for fans, there's a hefty dose of bonus content in the special features section on the first disc of this three-disc set. Two full audio commentaries--one recycled from the LaserDisc release (pairing director Robert Kurtzman and screenwriter Peter Atkins) and one newly-recorded (reuniting Kurtzman with stars Andrew Divoff and Tammy Lauren)--as well as a shorter commentary with composer Harry Manfredini, are chock full of background information Wishmaster fans never knew they wanted. There are the requisite trailers (two, bumped up to HD), TV and radio ads, storyboard/still galleries, plus a "vintage" 25-minute behind-the-scenes featurette (SD). This last extra is pleasantly nostalgic albeit repetitive if you've already watched and listened to everything else here. In addition to the older material are several new interview segments: "Out of the Bottle" (22 mins., HD), with Kurtzman and co-producer David Tripet; "The Magic Words" (14 mins., HD), with Atkins; "The Djinn and Alexandra" (26 mins., HD), with Divoff and Lauren; "Captured Visions" (13 mins., HD), with director of photography Jacques Haitkin; and "Wish List" (12 mins., HD), with actors Robert Englund, Kane Hodder, and Ted Raimi. The best of these is "The Djinn and Alexandra", juxtaposing the serious approach of Divoff with the light joking of Lauren in intercutting talking-heads. Atkins and Haitkin are also enjoyable, providing insight into horror and filmmaking in general and the genesis of Wishmaster specifically. Another highlight is the 12-minute compilation of behind-the-scenes footage. Like watching a candid home video, it includes between-takes banter and casual shots of the cast and crew milling around, and fortunately is not merely a repeat of the B-roll used as cutaways during the various interviews. The overall impression is that this was a fun film for everyone to work on; the friendly attitudes and pride in their work the cast and crew exhibits added a touch of warmth to my opinion of Wishmaster itself.
Disc two, containing Wishmaster 2, is comparativley bare bones: you get a gallery of production stills and a VHS-tastic trailer. The brand-new feature-length yakker with writer-director Jack Sholder is a bit of a challenge to sit through. Apart from a worthwhile anecdote or two, it's a lot of "um"-ing and "uh"-ing, with Sholder being distracted by his own movie and forgetting the names of actors and characters. Also frustrating is that during one of the best special-effects sequences, he's discussing themes and story rather than addressing what's happening onscreen. Wishmasters 3 and 4 share a platter. Wishmaster 3's commentary (featuring director Chris Angel and actors John Novak, a largely-silent Jason Connery, and Louisette Geiss), ported over from the DVD release, is mostly upbeat and enjoyable. The director offers some neat insights into the low-budget shortcuts he had to use, and sounds passionate about what he was doing yet fully aware of how silly the whole enterprise is. Geiss has a similarly jovial attitude she obviously carried into her role as the "wild" best friend. Additionally, find a 5-minute behind-the-scenes montage--which was probably tacked onto the end of the VHS release--and the film's trailer, each in standard definition.
The last of the series boasts two separate yak-tracks, one with Angel and actors Michael Trucco and Jason Thompson, the other with Angel and Novak. Both are pretty engaging while containing, along with tales from the trenches of low-budget filmmaking, somewhat redundant insights into the effects and lighting choices. Novak is, quite frankly, irritating in the second track, though his goofing-off offers a welcome counterpoint to the director and his co-stars, whose fondness for the movie and musings about themes and subtext would be pretentious were they not so amusing. For what it's worth, Angel has several stories of minor mishaps and injuries happening to lead actress Tara Spencer-Nairn that would have been nice to hear about firsthand. Rounding out the platter and therefore the set: a short "Wishmasterpiece Theater" featurette (7 mins., SD), which falls somewhere between charming and cringe-worthy, and the trailer for Wishmaster 4.
* One in particular is a mystery: a sword battle between Highlander-lite (Victor Webster) and the Wishmaster set in broad daylight in the woods for some reason. For a director with such a keen sense of lighting, it's curious that Angel would have this fight happen in a romantic little lakeside clearing during a light drizzle, totally out of place with the rest of the movie and putting every flaw in costumes and fight choreography on full display--but whatever!