Released: 19 September 1997
Director: Robert Kurtzman
Distributor: Live Entertainment
Budget: $5 million
Stars: Tammy Lauren, Andrew Divoff, Wendy Benson, Ricco Ross, and Robert Englund
Gemologist Alexandra “Alex” Amberson (Lauren) unwittingly frees an evil genie, the Djinn (Divoff), from an ancient jewel. As the Djinn twists people’s wishes into deadly curses in his quest to acquire souls, Alex finds herself the only one capable of stopping the Djinn and his brethren from wrecking Hell on Earth!
Wishmaster was helmed by Robert Kurtzman, who had gotten his start in the industry surprising special effects sequences and working with the likes of Robert Rodriguez and Sam Raimi; in fact, it was Sam Raimi who recommended him to direct the film and his fast turnaround time with limited money on The Demolitionist (Kurtzman, 1995) meant he was ideally placed to quickly deliver an effects-heavy horror film. Wishmaster proved to be the ultimate fan service to fans of horror; not only was it produced by the legendary Wes Craven, but it featured numerous cameos by horror icons such as Robert Englund, Tony Todd, Angus Scrimm, and Kane Hodder alongside veteran writers, producers, and directors of the genre either showing up, getting involved, or being referenced in the film. The film also made a horror icon out of Venezuelan actor Andrew Divoff, who relished the opportunity to play a villain despite the heavy make-up required to realise the Djinn’s more monstrous appearance, which went through numerous design phases. A worldwide gross of just over $15 million meant that Wishmaster was only a modest box office success and the film was widely panned by reviews that criticised the effects and performances. Others, however, enjoyed the film’s commitment to its genre and its gory scares and it has gone on to be regarded as an overlooked cult classic that is sadly forgotten compared to other, more mainstream horror franchise. Wishmaster also spawned a franchise, though Divoff only returned for the second film and they were criticised as getting worse and worse as they wore on.
In the pantheon of horror icons and villains, you’d be forgiven for forgetting about the Djinn since he never attained the same level of popularity and notoriety as his closest equivalents, the likes of Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund) and Pinhead (Doug Bradley). However, I would argue that you’re doing yourself a disservice to not look into the Djinn’s efforts, especially the first two movies, simply because the concept of this malevolent, sadistic wish-granting demon is pretty unique and fascinating within the genre and Andrew Divoff’s performance is so damn captivating. The man oozes menace and a twisted glee at toying with and torturing his victims, his gravelly rasp of a voice makes him stand out even when he’s not made up into this truly horrific, demonic being, and he carries himself with an unsettlingly physicality and intensity at all times, never blinking, always watching and waiting to prey on the ignorance of others. The Djinn’s threat and seriousness is established right from the beginning with a helpful narration from horror icon Angus Scrimm and, later, from folklore professor Wendy Derleth (Jenny O’Hara), with both emphasising that the Djinn are not colourful, friendly characters as popularised by Disney but rather demonic creatures from the “void between the worlds” who must be feared above all else.
Back in 1127, the Djinn brought terror and suffering to a Persian empire but was sealed away within a special fire opal using an incantation by the emperor’s (Richard Assad) Zoroaster (Ari Barak) before he could bring his cohorts into the world. While it’s not made clear exactly how the emperor summoned the Djinn before this, the creature is trapped within the jewel for centauries and the gem is sealed within a statue of Ahura Mazda, finally making its way to then-present day America after wealthy art collector Raymond Beaumont (Englund) purchases it. However, crane operator Mickey Torelli (Josef Pilato) shows up to work drunk and accidentally causes the statue to break while unloading it, killing Beaumont’s assistant (Ted Raimi), and the jewel ends up in the hands of Regal Auctioneers and under the eye of their head appraiser, Alex Amberson. Alex is a very sporty, very active young lady who enjoys playing tennis with her best friend, Josh Aickman (Tony Crane), and even coaches a basketball outside of work, but she’s somewhat unlucky in love; a string of dead ends with boyfriends have left her cherishing the close friendship she has with Josh, even though he would like them to have something more, since dates “are a dime a dozen” and she doesn’t want to lose what little she has left. Thankfully, she’s distracted from this awkwardness by the jewel, which stuns her with its beauty and uniqueness, but she’s disturbed by strange visions and the results of her initial analysis after blowing and rubbing the gem. Luckily for her, Josh is capable of running additional tests with his laser equipment, so she takes it to him to take a look at, however she’s soon being haunted by the Djinn’s voice and bombarded with gruesome images of the death and suffering he’s causing after he breaks free from the gem.
The Djinn’s first victim upon escaping is poor, lovesick Josh; caught in a horrific explosion caused by the Djinn’s breakout, Josh is left begging for his pain to end and the Djinn is only too happy to grant his request by increasing his agony a thousand fold until he dies, much to Alex’s horror and heartbreak. For Alex, this all hits a little too close to home as she’s still carrying the grief and survivor’s guilt from a house fire from her youth that saw her parents killed, though she was able to pull her sister, Shannon (Benson), to safety. At first, Alex believes that the shock of Josh’s death is causing her horrifying visions, which she’s previously suffered from and had therapy for in the past, but it’s actually because she unwittingly summoned the Djinn, who’s out in the world causing havoc with reckless abandon, having assumed the face and identity of “Nathaniel Demerest” to walk freely among men once more. While Alex meets with Beaumont to track the origins of the fire opal and discovers the horrifying truth of the Djinn from Derleth, Demerest conducts his own search for Alex, which causes him to cross paths with numerous victims and Lieutenant Nathanson (Ross), from whom he’s able to learn her location after causing a criminal (Dennis Madalone) to go on an unprovoked shooting spree. Determined to bring his fellow Djinn over from the dark dimension, the Djinn confronts Alex, killing Derleth and demonstrating his power using a “free” wish that proves he is an eternal force that cannot simply be killed or wished away by conventional means. When Alex refuses to give into the Djinn’s demands, the unholy demon is forced to resort to threatening Shannon in order to intimidate Alex into expending her remaining wishes, driving Alex to find another way to outwit the malevolent force she unwittingly unleashed.
Of course, as mentioned, Wishmaster is absolutely chock full of appearances and contributions from some of horror’s greatest icons; Angus Scrimm, Robert Englund, Kane Hodder, Tony Todd, Josef Pilato, Reggie Bannister, and Ted Raimi all show up in one form of another (with all but Scrimm and Pilato meeting fittingly horrendous ends), Wes Craven produced the film and even Harry Manfredini does the music, resulting in one hell of a treat for die-hard, long-term horror fans. Horror villains generally fall into a couple of categories, from the unstoppable slasher villain to the unhinged psycho to the more supernatural wraiths and such, but the Djinn is almost in a league of his own. An unholy amalgamation of the likes of Freddy, Pinhead, and Daniel Robitaille/Candyman (Todd), the Djinn can only be called into being when summoned from the jewel that imprisons him and, upon being unleashed, will grant his summoner three wishes. However, the Djinn isn’t bound to just the one who summons him; he can freely walk the Earth, granting wishes to any that he encounters in exchange for their soul, but once the summoner has made their three wishes, the barriers between worlds will be broken and the entire Djinn race will flood the Earth. Although the Djinn cannot directly cause harm or hurt or kill others and is compelled to grant whatever is asked of him, he’s a master manipulator with a silver tongue and fully capable of twisting wishes to suit his own sadistic pleasures; even simple requests, such as to ease one’s pain or to be granted a million dollars, are perverted into a gory end and he’s constantly finding little loopholes to get past people or cause them suffering.
If there’s any reason to watch Wishmaster beyond Divoff’s magnetic and menacing presence, it’s the fantastically gory and unsettling special effects on show. We’re treated to an absolute orgy of blood and viscera in the opening sequence alone, in which the Persian emperor wishes to be shown “wonders” and is horrified to watch as his subjects are absorbed into the stone walls of his temple, trample over each other in a panic, suffer from horrendous diseases and injuries, turn to trees and human lizards, and even have monstrous jaws burst from their stomach. By far the most gruesome visual in this ghastly carnival of horrors is the depiction of a man’s bloodied and screaming skeleton literally forcing its way out of his body and pouncing on another in its pain and distress! And the harrowing deaths just keep coming once the Djinn is in the modern day; he coerces a cantankerous and bitter hobo (George “Buck” Flower) into wishing for an antagonistic pharmacist (Reggie Bannister) to die from cancer, resulting in the druggist collapsing and convulsing as a wretched form of super cancer eats him alive. He also grants a sales clerk’s (Gretchen Palmer) wish for eternal beauty by turning her into a mannequin, and renders a medical student (Brian Klugman) blind when he walks in on the creature ripping off and assuming Demerest’s face. The Djinn’s twisted sense of humour is at the forefront of every wish he grants; when Nathanson wishes to have unequivocal evidence of a known criminal’s guilt, the Djinn causes said criminal to shoot up the police station and even rip a guy’s jaw off! Though a security guard almost spares himself by sending Demerest away, he dooms himself to probably the poorest effect and death in the film when he goads the Djinn into turning him into glass, a death only surpassed in weakness by the fate of self-assured doorman, Johnny Valentine (Tony Todd), whom the Djinn “simply” leaves locked in a Chinese water torture cell.
The film is then nicely bookended by the Djinn granting Beaumont’s wish for his big gala to be unforgettable, which results in one of his guests turning to glass and shattering, mutilating a bunch of others, and still more being set on fire or ripped asunder when Beaumont’s pictures and statues come to life and go on a blood-soaked rampage, with Beaumont himself puking up a hideous, squealing tentacled creature! It’s not just the gore where Wishmaster shines, however; the Djinn himself is one of the most disturbing and monstrous creatures ever brought to life. A hulking, demonic creature, he glistens with an unsettling ooze, intimates with his red eyes and prehensile horns, and resembles something more akin to popular images of Satan rather than Robin Williams’s whimsical genie. The Djinn actually has a couple of forms in the film; when he escapes the jewel, he’s this putrid, slug-like monster (Verne Troyer) capable of little more than crawling, and undergoes a sickening metamorphosis (Walter Phelan) after ending Josh’s suffering that more than recalls the body horror of Hellraiser (Barker, 1987), and even has a ravenous beast at his beck and call in his dark dimension. Once he assumes his Nathanial Demerest guise, his external horror may be subdued but his charm and menace are just as palpable thanks to Divoff’s captivating screen presence, and there’s an intriguing complexity to his villain since he’s capable of practically anything you can imagine but his magic is restricted to the wishes of other, lesser beings. After attempting to trick Alex by assuming Derleth’s form, the Djinn abandons his façade and reveals his monstrous true self to her, granting Alex a taste of his hellish dimension, a bejewelled void of ancient evil where he delights in the torment of the souls in his possession, and manipulates her with the agony of the souls he has claimed. Functionally immortal and impervious to physical harm and at the brink of ultimate success, the Djinn doesn’t think twice to grant Alex’s final wish, that Torelli hadn’t been drunk at the start of the film, and thus unwittingly undoes the entire movie since the statue never breaks and the fire opal is never discovered, leaving the Djinn trapped once again and allowing all lives and souls lost to be restored and the unknowing Alex free to pursue a life with Josh.
I can see why Wishmaster didn’t quite reach the same heights as some of its competitors; the writing and dialogue is a little stilted and some of the acting isn’t quite up to par, with Tammy Lauren struggling with her delivery and comebacks and being a pretty weak main character and the wealth of horror icons hamming up their cameos at every opportunity. Some of the visual effects also leave a lot to be desired; obviously, the film didn’t have a massive budget and CGI was still finding its feet, but it probably would’ve been better to avoid computer effects entirely rather than date the film so noticeably. However, the practical and make-up effects are nothing short of extraordinary; Wishmaster is full of some of the most disturbing and gory deaths you’ll ever see from a slasher/horror film and there’s some really creative stuff happening here. Unlike Freddy and Pinhead’s initial outings, Wishmaster takes its fantastical concept and runs with it right away, depicting its demonic villain as a being of unparalleled power who can conjure all kinds of bizarre nightmares from the most innocent of wishes. Indeed, the titular genie is the star of the show here, and Divoff steals every scene he’s in with his creepy, menacing intensity and his purring growl of a voice. His Djinn easily stands up as one of the best under-rated horror characters ever and I loved how he exuded this hatred and contempt for humanity and being bound to their wishes when he’s capable of such incredible and horrendous feats. The film suffers a bit in terms of pacing, mainly being a showcase for the gruesome effects and a wet dream for horror fans everywhere with its gratuitous cameos, but I enjoyed the way the opening and ending paralleled each other and the Dijnn’s taunting, sadistic personality. Overall, I think this one is well worth your time and adding to your horror collection; it’s a unique and entertaining horror piece that has a lot of grisly visuals and effects to offer and is well worth a little bit more time in the spotlight.
Are you a fan of Wishmaster? Do you agree that it’s an under-rated horror film or do you think it’s better left forgotten? What did you think to the Djinn and Andrew Divoff’s performance, and where would you rank him against other horror villains? Which of the horror cameos was your favourite, or did you find them a bit too self-indulgent? What did you think to the kills and the effects on offer? Are you a fan of the Wishmaster sequels? If so, which is your favourite and would you like to see the franchise revived someday? What would you wish for if approached by the demonic Djinn? I’m always up for discussing Wishmaster so sign up to leave your thoughts below or feel free to leave a comment on my social media.