Every decade has its ups and downs when it comes to cinema, no matter the genre. Horror fans love to loft on high the output of the ‘30s & ‘40s, the ‘70s & ‘80s, and the more recent decades. More often than not, however, the 1990s are labeled as the worst decade for the genre. Not only that, but ‘90s horror tends to be written off as a whole, beyond a handful of undisputed classics. The purpose of Exhumed & Exonerated: The ‘90s Horror Project, is to refute those accusations by highlighting numerous gems from the decade. Stone cold classics will be tackled in this column from time to time, but its main purpose will be to seek out lesser-known and/or less-loved titles that I think deserve more attention and respect from fans. Let the mayhem begin!
Directed by Robert Kurtzman
Screenplay by Peter Atkins
Produced by Pierre David, Wes Craven, Russell D. Markowitz, Clark Peterson, Erik Saltzgaber, David Tripet, and Noël A. Zanitsch
Starring Tammy Lauren, Andrew Divoff, Wendy Benson, Jenny O’Hara, Rico Ross, Chris Lemmon, Tony Crane, and Robert Englund
Released on September 19, 1997
Wishmaster follows the malicious quest of an ancient dark being, the Djinn (Andrew Divoff), who is accidentally freed from his centuries-long confines by an unaware appraiser named Alex (Tammy Lauren). In order to unleash his dark plague upon humanity, the Djinn must convince Alex to make three wishes for him to grant. Along the way, he must also collect the souls of passers-by by offering them single wishes, all of which are made reality in increasingly horrifying ways.
I’m sure some will scoff at the inclusion of this film, but I’ll counter by saying that it is a lot more fun than some of you remember. Wishmaster is far from perfect. The direction is fairly pedestrian and the budget a little low, causing the concept to lack the scale it needs at times to truly sing, but the good outweighs the bad.
Tammy Lauren has an ‘80s Linda Hamilton thing going on and makes for a capable lead. She is well-supported by co-stars Wendy Benson (as Alex’s sister Shannon), Chris Lemmon as her overzealous boss Nick Merritt, Jenny O’Hara as a mythology expert, Aliens’ Ricco Ross as a befuddled cop, and Tony Crane as Alex’s best friend/would-be lover, Josh. And, as always, Robert Englund knocks his role as the somewhat sleazy Raymond Beaumont out of the park.
The star of the show, however, is Andrew Divoff. Generally stuck playing henchman or simply just “third goon from the right”, Divoff fares well as the scenery-chewing villain. His performance is filled with so much ham that you might still find store shelve under-stocked on the pork product this Thanksgiving, but it suits the film. Given the otherworldly and inhuman nature of the Djinn, the hamminess and mugging constantly flooding forth from Divoff helps to create a disconnect whenever he graces the screen.
In his human form as Nathaniel Demerest, he looks normal at the outset, but there’s instantly something of about him due to the malicious grin constantly adorning Divoff’s face. In his true form as the Djinn, Divoff’s over-animated facial tics carry through the prosthetics and make-up wonderfully, giving us one of the few new iconic horror performances of the ‘90s. It’s really no wonder that this film ultimately spawned 3 low budget sequels, although the third and fourth entries sadly were not smart enough to retain Divoff in the role. I suspect that’s probably the exact reason we aren’t still seeing further DTV entries made to this day.
Back to the style and concept, the film’s rather Clive Barker-esque leanings come as no surprise once one realizes that it was penned by Peter Atkins, the screenwriter of the first three Hellraiser sequels. Pair that with a bit of Warlock-style Anthony Hickox flavor in terms of the film’s look and we have a solid supernatural horrorfest that piles on both the dark magic and the gore. KNB clearly had some fun crafting the deaths in this film, most of which are quite gruesome.
Then we have the cameos, of which there are PLENTY. When horror icons and recognizable genre actors are given bit roles in films such as this, more often than not there is a temptation to fill their scenes with winks and bad references. Wishmaster thankfully eschews this pitfall, instead simply trusting its audience to recognize some (if not all) of these actors. If you aren’t aware of who they are, their appearances still play out organically, instead of jarring the viewer. Chances are I’ve missed a few, but let’s take a look at the full tally…
- Angus Scrimm (Phantasm 1-5) as the narrator.
- Ted Raimi (Evil Dead 2, Darkman) as Beaumont’s douchey assistant.
- Joe Pilato (Day of the Dead) as the drunken dock worker.
- Verne Troyer (Austin Powers trilogy) as the newly-reborn Djinn.
- George “Buck” Flower (The Fog, They Live) as the angry homeless man.
- Reggie Bannister (Phantasm 1-5) as the asshole pharmacist.
- Peter Liapis (Ghoulies) as a pharmacy customer.
- Kane Hodder (Friday the 13th 7-10) as Merritt’s security guard.
- Tony Todd (Candyman trilogy) as Beaumont’s security guard.
- The Pazuzu status (The Exorcist 1-4) as itself!
The nods don’t stop there. The majority of the characters have horror –centric last names, although instead of the usual “name them after horror directors” routine (which grows more stale with each passing year), Atkins was sly enough to adorn them with the surnames of horror authors. Derleth, Leiber, Beaumont, Finney, Etchison, etc. Once again, these are names that will ring a bell with some fans, but not in a way that should take them out of the film itself.
It may not be Hellraiser, A Nightmare on Elm Street, or Candyman, but Wishmaster remains a fun horror romp that manages to offer up an interesting concept, an enjoyable cast, buckets of blood, and an intriguing new horror icon, something that we rarely get anymore. Unlike his more well-known brethren from the ‘80s, the Djinn will likely never see his franchise resurrected in theaters in a big way. That said, this does little to diminish the entertainment he offered up for a short time in his debut decade.
Up Next: Alien 3 (1992)