Beyond the Slimy Wall: Wishmaster
By Stephanie Star Smith
July 28, 2005
We here at BOP are an eclectic group, and our tastes in movies run from the serious cinephiles to the foreign-film aficionados to niche film lovers. Thus was born the idea for this weekly column, devoted to horror films of all shapes and sizes, but concentrating on those B- and C-grade films that mainstream reviewers disdain, but are the bread-and-butter of every spook movie lover's viewing. So come with me as we venture beyond the slimy wall, uncovering the treasures - and burying the time-wasting bombs - that await those who dare to love the scare.
Wes Craven certainly seems to be fascinated with the subconscious mind.
Whether acting as executive producer or writer/director, Craven seems to gravitate towards projects that focus on dreams, nightmares, and wishes, and the shadowy figures that lurk just beyond our waking reality. Of course, one expects that with the horror master attached to a project, however innocuous the premise might seem on the surface, there is something terrifying and deadly awaiting the viewer within.
And we wouldn't have it any other way.
For Wishmaster, we are presented with the age-old fantasy of the genie in the lamp or bottle, who grants three wishes to the lucky mortal who releases him (or her, if you're a ‘60s sit-com). Of course, this being a horror film, the manner in which the wishes are granted owes more to the monkey's paw than the kind and obedient genie we're heard tell of in fairytales and the stories in the Arabian Nights.
Wishmaster goes back to the roots of the genie folk tale, the Djinn, which we learn in the film's prologue are nasty things that cause mayhem, death and destruction wherever they go, and they have nearly collected enough souls through granting wishes to remain in this plane of existence forever, and destroy mankind as they gain mastery of this world. The Middle-Eastern monarch in whose realm the Djinn have taken up residence consults a wizard, and together they hatch a scheme to keep the Djinn out of our world by trapping the head demon in a fire opal. As long as this Djinn remains in confinement, the world is safe. The requisite catch, however, is that if the Djinn is freed and he grants the person who summoned him forth three wishes, then he and all his brethren will once again be unleashed upon the Earth to finish their task of destroying humankind. So dangerous are the Djinn considered that the king takes a suspenders-and-belt approach to the head demon's cage, and encases the fire opal inside a stone statue, thus keeping it from falling into the hands of someone who doesn't know its true purpose and who might accidentally awaken the Djinn.
Fast forward to the present day, where - wouldn't you know it? - a rich collector, having heard rumors there's something valuable inside the statue, has purchased it and brought it to the States. In the course of unloading the statue, it is damaged, and the fire opal revealed. The stone is brought to a lovely young gemologist for appraisal, and the young woman finds herself fascinated by the unusual gem. And quicker than you can say "plot device", she accidentally awakens the Djinn before we get too far into the movie.
At this point, I'm sure some of you are saying, "Well, once she finds out how the Djinn operates, why doesn't she just refuse to make any more wishes?" Excellent question, gentle readers, and one which the Djinn - and the filmmakers - -foresaw. With the supernatural power the Djinn possesses, he can endanger any member of her family or any of her friends that he wants, forcing her to make wishes in order to rescue them. Dirty trick, sure, but apparently a legal one as described in the Djinn Wish Fulfillment Manual. The Djinn also has the ability to take human form - he spends a fair portion of the film looking the right demon - and lure others into making wishes, none of which turn out as the wish-maker expected. These sideline wishes come one to a customer and don't count towards the get-the-rest-of-the-Djinn-out-of-a-hell dimension-free card provided by the three wishes of the awakener.
So amidst all the mayhem and horrific happenings and buckets and buckets of stage blood, our heroine has only one chance to save the world from being destroyed by these evil demons: she has to come up with exactly the right wish to end the Wishmaster's reign of terror, and she has to do it before he forces her to make her third wish.
One of the cool things about Wishmaster is that its boogeyman is based an actual historical demon. The Djinni are specters in Muslim demonology; they walk the earth, are shapeshifters, and wield supernatural forces (the Arabic word and its variation, Jinni, are the etymological base for the English word genie). It makes for an interesting bit of a history lesson to learn that the charming sprite we know from I Dream of Jeannie and Aladdin is sugarcoated for the kinder, and the actual phantom is a much darker fellow.
Another big, big plus for Wishmaster is Andrew Divoff, the actor playing the title character. He has just that perfect combination of charm and menace that one would expect from a creature that needs to seem as though he's doing another's bidding when actually it is his ends that are being served. Divoff has quite the commanding screen presence as well, another essential for playing an unpleasant character that is the center of a film. Plus, his voice is one of those unique instruments that can convey both the unctuous civility of a servant and the malice of an evil being simultaneously and so very smoothly, in a wonderfully deep register that can send chills up the spine (not to mention being rather erotic). And it's a hoot to see such current horror icons as Robert Englund, Tony Todd - both sans the makeup of their most famous roles - and Reggie Bannister sprinkled throughout the film in supporting roles.
The rest of the cast of Wishmaster is filled out with journeyman actors who are all certainly serviceable in their roles. And I must give kudos to both the casting director and the scripter for not making the gemologist heroine one of those wilting-violet types who needs a big, strong man to come take care of her. She's as cool as is possible in some of the situations she finds herself in, handles her never-sought role of savoir of humanity with equanimity, and takes the information available to her and figures things out for herself. Even in the 21st century, one sadly still finds few female leads written as capable beings in their own right, so I always want to give credit to those who ignore the long-standing horror conventions and write the women characters as strong, if not more so, as the men.
But of course the real fun of Wishmaster is the Djinn himself, so much so that at last count, the film had spawned three sequels, although Andrew Divoff, perhaps wisely, bailed after the second one. I, for one, find it hard to imagine that the producers of the third and fourth films in the series managed to find someone to suitably fill the proverbially enormous shoes Divoff left behind (and not having seen Wishmaster 3 or 4 yet, I think I might just continue that trend).
There's enough mysticism laced with mayhem in Wishmaster's 90 minutes to satisfy even the most voracious gorehound, and by the end credits, the viewer has more than enough reason to, as the movie's tagline cautions, be careful what you wish for.
Avoiding polishing up rare gems, brass lamps and unusual-looking bottles isn't such a bad idea, either.
I see by the shadows falling from my bust of Pallas that our time is up. Until next time, then, when we will once again venture Beyond the Slimy Wall.