Three Thousand Years of Longing (2022)

I’m not sure how George Miller’s new fantasy anthology fits into the modern world, but I’m also not sure that it’s trying to.  Three Thousand Years of Longing feels like a relic from the 1990s at the very latest, recalling a specific fantasy era ruled by the likes of Neil Gaiman, Terry Pratchett, Terry Gilliam, and likeminded Brits.  It conjures its magic through uncanny CGI that definitively pins it to the 2020s, but its story of a lonely white woman finding love with a Black djinn while shopping for knick-knacks in Istanbul feels out of step with modern politics, daring the audience to decry “Orientalism” or “magical negro” at every turn.  It’s worth keeping in mind that George Miller is an old man. He’s been working long enough to have contributed to this exact brand of matter-of-fact magic before it was vintage in both The Witches of Eastwick and Babe: Pig in the City.  It also helps that the story he tells here directly questions its place in modernity, ultimately deciding that it belongs in another time & realm.

Tilda Swinton stars as a professor of “narratology” who travels to Istanbul to perform an academic lecture on the power of storytelling.  While antique shopping in her off-time, she unwittingly unleashes a gigantic puff of smoke shaped like Idris Elba, who demands that she make three wishes so that he can be freed from his tiny, glass prison.  You would expect an anthology with that wraparound to include one cautionary-tale vignette per wish, but Three Thousand Years has many more stories to tell.  Because Swinton’s professor studies storytelling as an artform & cultural tradition, she’s very reluctant to make any of her three wishes, fully informed on the usual “monkey’s paw” irony of these scenarios.  Elba’s djinn recounts magical stories from his thousands of years in captivity to convince her that he is not a trickster set out to teach her morality lessons about selfishness or greed.  In hearing his lived-experience fairy tales, she realizes that the true reason she cannot make a wish is because she does not have a true “heart’s desire,” at least nothing that can compare to the passionate yearnings suffered by her new, eternally lovesick companion.

Three Thousand Years of Longing is at once George Miller’s Tale of Tales, Guillermo del Toro’s The Fall and, least convincingly, Jean-Pierre Jeunet’s Good Luck to You Leo Grande.  The vivid colors & eerie moods of the fantasy flashbacks are unimpeachable, even if their politics are questionable.  All that’s left to puzzle over, really, is the effectiveness of the wraparound, which is mostly an excuse for two talented actors to take turns narrating short stories in an illustrated audio book.  As a two-hander character study, Three Thousand Years is cute but frothy.  The djinn struggles to adapt to the electromagnetic cacophony of modern living, where magic and science clash in a constant, furious roar.  His new storytelling companion struggles with breaking out of her shell, with making herself vulnerable to desire, and with the ethics of conjuring magical powers in the realm of love.  There isn’t much room for that dynamic to deepen, though, since Miller understandably spends more time on the romance & fantasy of centuries past.  Maybe the power of storytelling isn’t so timeless after all; maybe our hearts & minds are too cluttered to fully incorporate the magic of the old world into the electronic buzzing of the new one.  Still, it’s a nice feeling to visit from time to time, a wonderful momentary escape.

-Brandon Ledet

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