Wishmaster (1997)

By the 1990s it feels as if the official Hall of Fame for iconic horror movie villains had already shut its doors to new inductees.  If your movie monster hadn’t already earned one-namer status like Freddy, Jason, Chucky, or Pinhead, it only got exponentially more difficult to get a cloven hoof in the door.  A few iconic movie monsters did fight their way into the official Horror Villain Hall of Fame that decade—Ghostface, Candyman, Leprechaun, etc.—but there were countless, blatant attempts to create new haunted-household names that just didn’t survive the Blockbuster Video rental era.  You’re unlikely to find a more blatant attempt to create an all-timer movie monster that failed as decisively as Wishmaster.  Yes, Wishmaster racked up enough box office and video store revenue to justify three sequels, but its goals were obviously much loftier and unfulfilled.  It very obviously wanted its evil djinn antagonist to earn his place among the horror greats who slayed before him, and instead it feels as if the movie has been largely forgotten by horror nerdom . . . unless you’re like me, and happened to catch the film as an easily awed child who was technically too young to see it when it first hit home video.

When I say there’s very blatant reverse-engineering of an iconic horror villain going on here, I’m mostly referring to the staggering amount of Big Name horror talent who put their weight behind the Wishmaster‘s production and promotion.  It’s not enough that hall-of-famer horror auteur Wes Craven produced the film, he also lent its VHS box covers the precious “Wes Craven presents . . .” seal of approval.  Phantasm‘s Angus Scrimm provided the narration track.  Surrealist special effects wizard Screaming Mad George produced oil paintings for its set decoration.  The film also boasts a who’s-who of horror icon cameos in minor roles to help legitimize its place in the canon: Robert Englund, Tony Todd, Kane Hodder, Ted Raimi, etc.  Director Robert Kurtzman cut his teeth on special effects work in the horror industry, and that background shows not only in the film’s wildly imaginative practical gore but also in his Rolodex of horror legends he was able to assemble for the relatively meager production.  Given the talent behind it, t’s a film that’s perfectly targeted at horror convention nerdom, but it somehow failed to make the leap from popular video store rental to T-shirt & Funko Pop mainstay in the decades that followed.

If Wishmaster made any obvious missteps in its bid to conjure a brand-new horror icon, it was in nailing its titular djinn’s look.  The movie goes out of its way to say, “Forget Barbara Eden, forget Robin Williams”—stopping short of declaring “This ain’t your grandma’s genie in a bottle”—but at least those previous examples of wish-granting pop culture genies had instantly recognizable visual designs.  You can’t sell a Wishmaster brand Halloween costume the same way you could market a bloody hockey mask or a striped sweater/fedora combo; there’s just nothing that distinct about his iconography.  A leathery ghoul with elongated earlobes and a penchant for ragged cloaks, the Wishmaster himself is just about as generic as movie monsters come.  His lethal promise of (extremely literal) wish-fulfillment to his victims is basically just Pinhead without the leather bar sex appeal, an absence that zaps the franchise of its long-term marketability.  Luckily, though, while Wishmaster‘s imagination was limited & short-sighted in the design of its titular monster, it was much more actively creative in the djinn’s individual kills.

Wishmaster may not have succeeded as a launching pad for an all-timer horror villain, but it mostly holds up as a dumb-fun practical effects showcase.  Its quality and sensibilities are pretty standard for trashy novelty horrors of its era, but its “Careful what you wish for” evil genie set-up allows its imagination to run wild from kill to kill instead of being limited to the generically “scary” visage of the Wishmaster himself.  While on his wicked quest to grant three wishes to our Final Girl heroine (a living-single jewel appraiser who charitably coaches a girls’ basketball team in her spare time), the Wishmaster amuses himself by turning the puny peons in his way into skeletons, mannequins, snakes, and piles of cancerous tumors – granting their deliberately misinterpreted desires in exchange for their eternal souls.  Some of these lethal wish-fulfillments are rendered in embarrassingly outdated 90s CGI, like when Kane Hodder is transformed into a pane of shattered glass.  However, most of them are achieved in wonderfully grotesque, tactile gore, with Kurtzman & company showing off their deep horror industry roots with a genuine zeal for the nastier, practical details of the genre.  The film’s tone, villain, and central drama can all feel a little deflated from scene to scene, but its actual kills are often a stomach-turning spectacle you won’t find anywhere else on dusty video store shelves.

Wishmaster makes total sense as a Wes Craven production, since the nightmre logic of the Elm Street kills work the same way as this series’ evil wish-granting surrealism (even if it does fall below Craven’s usual standard of quality).  Its lack of a significant cultural footprint also might help make it feel fresh to new fans who missed it in its heyday and are on the hunt for a 90s nostalgia fix.  At the very least, it felt refreshing to return to this as a real-deal specimen of the vintage media we only now see spoofed & homaged in goofy-on-purpose throwbacks like Psycho Goreman.  The only thing it’s missing is a more distinct, compelling monster to help carve out its place in the Hall of Fame horror canon.  Even if I end up indulging in all three of the Wishmaster sequels, I doubt I’d be able to pick the ghoul out of a line-up of generic demons from episodes of Buffy, Xena, or Power Rangers.  That’s a pretty significant problem for a movie so clearly invested in weaseling its way into the Horror Hall of Fame, but it doesn’t detract at all from the grotesque novelties of its much more distinct, inventive kills.

-Brandon Ledet

Phantasm (1979)

Because we’re living in an absurdly spoiled golden age of physical media production & cult horror reappraisal, there’s a new, crisp digital 4K restoration the 1970s regional cheapie Phantasm currently making the rounds. It wasn’t until I saw that restoration listed in the BYOB Midnight Movie slot at the Prytania this summer that I realized I had never actually seen it before. I’m familiar with the film’s Tall Man villain (played by the recently deceased Angus Scrimm) and his armory of flying, bloodletting orbs from catching a sequel or two out of sequence over the years, but the original film has always eluded me. In retrospect, it’s incredible that it ever registered on my radar at all. Crowdfunded by director Don Coscarelli’s Long Beach, CA community (including major financial & production contributions from his own parents) and crewed mostly by locals, Phantasm likely should be relegated to the cult curio popularity level of other regional cheapies like Don’t Let the Riverbeast Get You!, The Gate, and The Pit. Instead, it’s somehow earned horror-legend status for its Tall Man villain among the likes of Freddy, Jason, and Chucky, as well as four better-budgeted sequels in the decades since, most recently Phantasm: Ravager in 2016. After dragging my old-man bones to the Prytania’s midnight screening of this regional-cheapie-turned-cult-classic, the reason for that success became abundantly clear: Phantasm fuckin’ rules.

Like The Gate & The Pit, the film is framed through the POV of a young boy whose anxiety over his shifting family dynamic & his own coming of age discomforts is reflected in the increasingly nightmarish world around him. The protagonist here is slightly older than our usual nervous-child-with-bad-dreams tykes from this genre template, so his tween interest in the adult activities just beyond his reach get a little squicky in their prurience — especially when he trails his older brother to a graveyard to watch him have sex with a stranger. Mostly, though, it’s a familiar story in which the boy has trouble handling a recent death in the family, so that no one believes him when he reports that the evil ghouls he’s been spotting around town aren’t just an extension of his grief-stricken nightmares. Phantasm puts most of its emotional heft into exploring the feeling of abandonment & helplessness when family members die or move away while you’re still at a formative age. In that respect, its most distinct early scenes involve the teen boy’s fascination with the funeral business, both compelled and scarred by watching a member of his family going through process of being prepared for burial then hidden away forever. Angus Scrimm’s performance as The Tall Man starts off as a part of that morbid funeral business fascination, standing in as a Lurch-like funeral home mortician (and by extension, Death) in his earliest scenes before his role becomes something much, much stranger.

Of course, it’s not the Horror 101 themes of familial grief & childhood anxiety that make Phantasm stand out as a gem in its genre. The film is most remarkable for its constantly shifting, disorienting nightmare logic. It plays like a bad drug trip or a half-lucid dream, wherein its unprepared teenage victims struggle to establish their footing in a world that’s rules are completely governed by the moment-to-moment whims of a lanky ghoul. The Tall Man is a scary enough figure just in his enormous stature & funeral parlor costuming, but what really fucks with your head is his ever-evolving arsenal of creepy crawlies & sci-fi gadgets that he unloads on his victims. He commands an army of Druid-costumed dwarves from an alien planet; he disguises himself as a smokin’ hot Blonde Babe to lure men in with his feminine wiles; he appears in your actual dreams to expend his powers to a Freddy Krueger level command on the metaphysical world around him. And then there’s the Tall Man’s signature weapon: a flying metallic orb that latches onto victims’ skulls with a retractable blade to drain the blood from their bodies in a geyser of gore. This grab bag of surrealistic horrors all arrive to the same repetitive prog organ theme music, making the film play like a low-budget D.I.Y. version of an American giallo. It’s a beautiful, confusing, creepy, deliberately goofy film that surprises at every turn because it follows the cyclical, non-linear rhythms of a nightmare instead of the typical slasher template it teases in its first act.

This “Let’s put on a show!” communal enthusiasm & D.I.Y. approximation of nightmare-logic surrealism is the exact kind of thing I’m always looking for in low-budget genre films. Phantasm’s trajectory of starting with familiar regional slasher locations like suburban cul-de-sacs, dive bars, and graveyards before launching into a fully immersive nightmare realm of its own design is a perfect encapsulation of how it somehow turned low-budget scraps into cult classic gold in the real world as well. By the time the sparsely decorated mausoleum set starts to resemble a de Chirico painting (or a precursor to The Black Lodge) that opens a gateway to an alien planet, the film is bewilderingly impressive as an act of low-budget alchemy. And it only gets more surprising & impressive from there. I now get why Phantasm has earned so many sequels over the decades; I’m dying to see them myself, even if I doubt this is the kind of low-budget movie magic that could ever be duplicated. Any chance to continue poking around in the makeshift dreamworld Coscarelli created could only be a gift.

-Brandon Ledet