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

Wes Craven’s Crown Jewel: New Nightmare (1994)

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Just two weeks ago, we lost a cinematic great who was often overlooked for his accomplishments as an auteur, perhaps due to his extensive work in genre films. Wes Craven may have made an occasional goofy trifle like a Shocker or a Swamp Thing, but his more accomplished films have unmistakably reshaped the horror landscape in a significant way. I don’t have much of a stomach for them myself, but his early works The Hills Have Eyes & The Last House on the Left rang out like the enraged, too-believable battle cries of a deeply disturbed mind eager to unleash its violent cravings upon the world at large. Honing in that anger for something more purposeful & universally palatable, Craven later scared the every living shit out of mainstream audiences with A Nightmare on Elm Street, which did for the simple act of falling asleep what Jaws did for nightswimming. Craven’s instantly infamous Freddy Krueger creation, brought to disturbingly vivid life by actor Robert Englund, would’ve been enough to coast on for the rest of the director’s life, but instead Craven broke out into more surreal territory with The Serpent & The Rainbow, political satire in The People Under the Stairs, and the very nature of horror as a genre in the meta franchise Scream, among other projects. Craven was an inventive fella, to put it mildly. He was enthusiastic about exploring new, strange ideas that would allow his demented id to escape from his mild-mannered exterior, scaring his audience while simultaneously challenging them in unexpectedly intellectual ways, the latter being something a lot of horror peddlers don’t bother with often enough.

My personal favorite Wes Craven film is 1994’s New Nightmare. It’s not his scariest, nor his most tightly-controlled work, but it is an incredibly smart picture that manages to bridge the gap between the dream-logic horror of A Nightmare on Elm Street with the meta genre reflection of the soon-to-come Scream franchise. Wes Craven’s New Nightmare is a perfect way to remember the filmmaker for all he accomplished, not only because it marries those two defining moments of his career in a single picture, but also because he plays a role in the film as a fictionalized version of himself. The Scream franchise introduces its meta context by having the typical bonehead slasher victims be atypically self-aware of classic horror film tropes that usually lead to violent deaths, allowing for them to make commentary on the very film that they populate (eventually with their lifeless bodies). However, thanks to the dream logic of A Nightmare on Elm Street, New Nightmare allows itself even more free rein with its meta context. The movie itself is about the making of another Freddy Kruger picture, a cursed production that blurs the lines between reality & nightmare and free will & scripted fiction to the point where it’s near impossible to tell the difference between a character being awake, getting trapped in Freddy’s playground of the subconscious, or, worse yet, living out one of Wes Craven’s screenplays.

Set on the 10th anniversary of the original Freddy Krueger picture, New Nightmare stars Heather Langenkamp, who played the protagonist Nancy in the original Nightmare on Elm Street, as Heather Langenkamp, who played the protagonist Nancy in the original Nightmare on Elm Street. As the anniversary of the film draws near, threatening phonecalls (often accompanied by Earthquakes) that impossibly seem to be from Freddy Krueger himself torment the poor actress, establishing a mood of dread very early in the picture. The strange thing is that Langenkamp is good friends with Robert Englund, her colleague who portrays Krueger in the movies. Englund, playing himself (and Freddy, of course), is portrayed as a genteel dude here, spending his days idly painting in the sun room of a mansion undoubtedly funded by the success of the Elm Street films, a far cry from the undead homicidal maniac he embodies with Freddy. As mentioned above, Wes Craven also plays himself in New Nightmare. He explains to Heather that he’s been working on a script (or a “nightmare in progress” as he calls it) for a new Elm Street picture as a means to stop Krueger from becoming “real”. According to Craven, because Freddy was killed off in the 6th installment of the franchise (Freddy’s Dead: The “Final” Nightmare), he has been set free like a genie from a bottle, now able to manifest in real life, causing real havoc. The only way to stop Freddy, Craven explains, is to make another picture, an ordeal Heather is very reluctant to suffer.

There is so much to enjoy in New Nightmare & the film really does at times feel like all of the best elements of Wes Craven’s aesthetic conveniently gathered in one package. Striking an unnerving artificiality from the get go, the whole film feels like a constant dream state, a feeling that’s only amplified as the walls between the conscious & the subconscious, as well as the walls between the movie & the movie within the movie, begin to break down into a mess of Freddy Krueger themed chaos. As for Krueger himself, he actually doesn’t appear in his full form for much of the film. He’s more of a disembodied idea than a physical threat, often appearing solely as a clawed glove & at one point literally becoming larger than life by appearing in the clouds above a freeway. Heather’s horrified reaction to Krueger’s new, true-life form & his adoring fans’ gushing at his publicity appearances call into question Craven’s own thoughts on his creations & their fandom, particularly with the rougher work of films like The Last House on the Left. Otherworldly landscapes of bedsheets & subconscious dungeons recall the POV of a child’s imagination Craven so well captured in The People Under the Stairs. Although the dream state reflections of The Serpent & The Rainbow and the original Elm Street as well as the meta reflections of the Scream movies may have been more thoroughly solidfied in his other pictures, it’s nice to see those two worlds bounce off each other in such a satisfying way here.

Wes Craven’s New Nightmare might not be his most technically accomplished film & it’s doubtful that it’ll be the one he’s most remembered for, but it holds a special place in my heart as a sum of the accomplishments of a director I grew up loving & fearing. When I heard the recent news that the incredibly gifted director had died, it was the first film I thought to revisit as a means of remembrance. It only helps that the director himself makes an appearance in the film to weigh in on the magical nature of filmmaking, directly referencing his personal compulsions to create, the often hellish compulsions that drive anyone to create, and the ways art can take on a life of its own outside its creator’s will or control. Besides being a great film as well as a reflection on the nature of horror as a genre & art as an enterprise, New Nightmare is a solid means to commemorating the accomplishments of a great director who is unfortunately no longer with us. He will undoubtedly be missed, but we’ll always have great films like New Nightmare to remember him by. Much like his creation Freddy Krueger, Craven lives on.

-Brandon Ledet