Wishmaster Collection Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
Magically powerful. Supernaturally evil. The ancient entity known in human legend as the Djinn can grant a person’s wildest dreams. And, in the process, it unleashes your darkest nightmares.The moral of the explosively terrifying, special-effects-powered, horror-fantasy spectacular: Be careful what you wish for! (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)
Robert Kurtzman’s Wishmaster is less of a movie and more of what you get when a group of ‘80s and ‘90s horror movie icons pull their resources to pay homage directly to their fans. Kurtzman was a long-time staple of the physical effects community, most famously as part of KNB EFX Group, which he founded along with Greg Nicotero and Howard Berger. He had produced and written a story treatment for Robert Rodriguez’ From Dusk till Dawn in 1996, which put him in good industry standing and offered him the chance to make his directorial debut with Wishmaster. The film was co-produced (more liked ‘presented by’) by Craven himself and one-time David Cronenberg producer Pierre David, scripted by Hellbound: Hellraiser II (1988) and Hellraiser III (1991) screenwriter Peter Atkins, shot by Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) cinematographer Jacques Haitkin, scored by Friday the 13th (1980) composer Harry Manfredini, and features effects work from members of the KNB family. For good measure, the supporting cast was populated with performances and cameos from genre icons Robert Englund (Freddy Krueger), Kane Hodder (Jason Voorhees), Tony Todd (the Candyman), Angus Scrimm (the Tall Man of Phantasm fame), Ted Raimi ( Evil Dead director Sam Raimi’s little brother/good luck charm), and others.
If we approach it like we approach ‘original’ horror movies, it’s a dopey pastiche and a definitively lesser version of special-effects-driven slashers, namely Craven’s Nightmare on Elm Street, Clive Barker’s Hellraiser (1988), and their sequels (with only a couple of tweaks, it could easily be a Hellraiser movie, actually). The filmmakers are clearly trying to create a Freddy Krueger/Pinhead-style franchise mascot and have built a plot around well-worn story tropes in order to serve the creatively violent kill scenes. Those of us that do appreciate the spirit behind the film will note that these simplistic choices were made on purpose and that the important things here are the elaborate effects (the physical ones, as the digital work is...less than impressive) and the rollicking, nostalgic tone – funny, since the filmmakers were clearly trying to be modern with their very ‘80s model, three years after Craven’s Scream had changed the perception of slasher movies. It’s certainly not a masterpiece (Atkin’s derivative script has some terrible dialogue and characters, though he deserves credit for the mature age of his central heroine), but, when Kurtzman and company cut loose with the imaginative prosthetics work and colorful photography, it’s a very amusing diversion. The filmmakers even get away with quite a bit of gore, considering the strict MPAA stance of the era. If there were trims required for the R-rating, the cuts are not obvious. In a different world, it could’ve even made a better Tales from the Crypt-branded follow-up to Ernest Dickerson’s Demon Knight (1994) than Gilbert Adler’s Bordello of Blood (1996) – it certainly understands the old-fashioned, ironic appeal of EC comic books.
Counting the Wishmaster movies as part of the new Vestron Video Collector’s Series seems like a bit of a cheat to me, considering that the first film was released by LIVE Entertainment a solid five years after Vestron folded. There are still a number of LIVE/Trimark/Artisan films I want Lionsgate to release on special Blu-ray, so I’ll allow it. The film was originally released at the end of the VHS era and Artisan had put more effort than usual into its first DVD release (1998), including a commentary, a behind-the-scenes featurette, and an anamorphic transfer. This Blu-ray debut (the first in any country) matches the expectations set by other Vestron Video Collection releases in that it’s a bit soft and has its share of compression artifacts – in this case, some slightly jagged edges and minor blocking throughout the gradations. On the other hand, the title’s recent vintage and decent budget ensure that the original footage is in better shape than some of the label’s other discs. The dynamic range is pretty impressive, as are the overall texture levels, specifically in close-up. Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin’s use of bold, comic book colors is well represented, especially during the red-baked climax, which appears as a noisy, blocky mess on standard definition releases.
The package specs claim that Wishmaster would have a 5.1 audio option, but that is an error. The only option is a DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 track, which is unfortunate, since the movie was mixed for DTS/Dolby Digital 5.1 theatrical release. Even without the extra channels, the track is relatively aggressive with strong range, clean layers, and no notable distortion effects. Manfredini’s excitable score was clearly created via synth keyboards, but still lends a theatrical charm to the proceedings. The only issue is the muffled quality of the dialogue-only scenes, which is strange, considering the strong vocal quality during effects and music-heavy sequences.
Commentary with director Robert Kurtzman, screenwriter Peter Atkins, and effects artists/supervisors Greg Nicotero & Tom Rainone – This track, which is edited together from separate recordings, appears to be recycled from the original Artisan DVD.
Commentary with director Robert Kurtzman and actors Andrew Divoff & Tammy Lauren – Kurtzman sort of hosts the first brand new track with his cast. There are some understandable silent streaks here when the actors in question aren’t on screen.
Isolated score selections/audio interview with composer Harry Manfredini – The second new track is moderated by Red Shirt pictures’ Michael R. Felsher, who runs an interview with the composer that ends a bit after the 30 minute mark, at which point selections from the soundtrack take over.
Out of the Bottle (21:55, HD) – Kurtzman and co-producer David Tripet discuss the genesis of the project, from vague concept, to developing the film around the central demands of its special effects. They also talk about involving Wes Craven as a ‘presenter’ rather than a more hands-on producer, casting, and some of the bigger behind-the-scenes challenges, including a story about Divoff getting a concussion from a bullet squib.
The Magic Words (13:55, HD) – Atkins joyfully elaborates on some of the stories he already told during the commentary track.
The Djinn and Alexandra (25:57, HD) – Stars Divoff and Lauren also expand upon some of their commentary discussion, separately this time.
Captured Visions (12:48, HD) – Cinematographer Jacques Haitkin discusses his career and contributions to Wishmaster.
Wish List (12:04, HD) – Horror icons Kane Hodder and Ted Raimi chat about their cameo appearances in the film.
Making of Wishmaster (24:45, SD) – A vintage making-of featurette.
Raw behind-the-scenes footage compilation (11:58, SD)
Teaser & theatrical trailers, TV & radio spots, and an EPK clip
Storyboard & still galleries
Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies (1999)
When the legendary monster, the Djinn, is re-released, he begins his reign of terror, plunging the earth into horror and chaos. As the Djinn reaches his goal of a thousand captured souls, it is up to Morgana to stand between the world as we know it and a terrifying future beyond our darkest fears. (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)
The first Wishmaster was a big enough hit – especially with the horror community – that LIVE’s successor, Artisan, continued efforts to create a franchise. The sequel, titled Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies, dropped almost all of the first film’s connections to genre titans, including all of the cameos, the production staff, the filmmakers, and the KNB staff. Besides Alice Sweet Alice (1976) director Alfred Sole being credited as production designer, the only real tie to older horror traditions was new director Jack Sholder, who also happened to be the director of A Nightmare on Elm Street 2: Freddy’s Revenge (1985). Sholder also took over writing duties. He gets things off on the right foot by setting the story in a prison and offering the franchise an appropriate backdrop for a wish-granting supernatural monster. The Djinn’s very Hellraiser-esque resurrection is good fun and Andrew Divoff returns to the title role with relish as he exacts more ironic punishment on poor, unsuspecting saps. But the sequel is quickly undone by a devastating lack of story content (ending the movie in a casino is another clever touch that doesn’t quite work out) and sloppy, made-for-TV-worthy direction. Worse, this episode in the Wishmaster saga features a cloying moral slant, in which the heroine has to repent before God, put her hair up, remove her nose ring, and dress more modestly in order to beat the Djinn. She then fucks it up when she makes out with a priest. This is all very strange coming from the guy that made the gayest slasher movie of the 1980s (the aforementioned Nightmare on Elm Street 2). The effects crew does employ some clever techniques to contend with their lack of budget to achieve some pretty funny kills and an improved Djinn costume, but aren’t able to deliver anything as visually over-the-top as what was seen in the first movie. They also seem more hemmed-in by the R-rating, as only the ‘guy squeezed through the prison bars’ sequence really delivers the gore goods.
As mentioned before, Wishmaster 2 was a mostly STV release (there was some international theatrical distribution) and made its DVD debut as part of a two-sided double-feature disc with the first film and, as far as I know, was never released on a solo disc in North America. This is a notably grainier and noisier transfer. While the grit lends a filmic look to an awfully video-friendly (i.e. not theatrical) movie, the fuzzy qualities of the scan magnify the issue, especially during the darker sequences, which are blocky and marred by Gibb effects. In better news, the color quality is quite vibrant, thanks in part to the use of high contrast, though this also causes some issues, like blow-out and crush. Details are tight in close-up and medium shots, then sort of mushy in busy wide-angle shots. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack is less aggressive than the first film’s 2.0 track, but is more consistent due to the discrete center channel, which evens out the dialogue tracks. Environmental effects are basic and underwhelming (if the soundtrack is to be believed, the jail runs on steam), leaving the surround channels to only be engaged by occasional supernatural noises during the wish sequences. David C. Williams’ obviously keyboard-performed score pops up a few times, where it is mostly used to set the mood during expositional sequences, oddly enough.
Commentary with writer/director Jack Sholder – Felsher returns to moderate a second new commentary for this set. He keeps Sholder talking, covering both screen-specific issues and general factoids without a lot of down-time. The director is pretty funny and throws plenty of love towards his cast & crew.
Wishmaster 3: Beyond the Gates of Hell (2001)
When Diana, a beautiful co-ed, discovers an ancient gem inside a mystical Persian case, she unwittingly releases the mercilessly evil Djinn. The gut-slinging demon uses fiendish trickery to take the form of a professor in order to slice, dice and burn his way through the university staff and its students. If he can overpower Diana, his “waker,” and grant her three sick and twisted wishes, the very gates of Hell will open up and engulf the world in eternal damnation. With help from the man she loves she must impale the bloodthirsty demon with a sword from Heaven to save herself and the entire world. (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)
For some reason, the third movie in the series did not bring back Divoff, much to its detriment, as his grinning, camp-heavy performance is one of the best things about the second movie. He was replaced by two actors; one, Jason Connery, as the ‘human avatar’ and another, John Novak, as make-up encrusted demon. Both actors are smart enough to not do direct impressions of their predecessor (Connery is a slightly slimy guy that can disappear into a crowd and Novak’s Djinn is more of a hoity British guy), but the inevitable comparisons are still very much in Divoff’s favour. Replacement director, Chris Angel (not the Mindfreak – a different guy), spent most of his career editing television and STV movies, which makes sense, since Wishmaster 3’s looks its best when being extensively edited – montages, flashbacks, et cetera. For his dialogue/exposition-driven sequences, Angel does his best impression of Craven’s Scream movies by keeping his camera gliding and opting for lots of ‘slick’ angles. The effects are mitigated by the obvious budget constraints (the use of stuntmen and dummies for action scenes is really distracting), but it’s not a terrible effort, all things considered. Screenwriter Alex Wright isn’t even trying to avoid the formula, but does put slightly more effort into his major characters (who are stereotypes, nonetheless) than Sholder did, which puts the third entry slightly ahead of the second in the script department alone. His story doesn’t directly follow the two previous movies, which makes me assume this was meant to be a soft reboot (hence the two new actors in the title role). Funnily enough, the little pieces of new mythology, such as a puzzle box that now hides the Djinn’s jewel, only make this seem even more like a D-grade Hellraiser series rip-off.
Overall, this is an objectively mediocre movie as long as it’s ignoring the franchise’s legacy. It might even have made a decent pilot for a teen-based television series. As the third entry in a horror series that was built around creative/ironic special effects, it’s a huge failure. It’s as if the filmmakers are annoyed that they owe the audience a Wishmaster movie. The demon-form Djinn makes only two appearances and spends most of the film stalking coeds, instead of tricking them into making wishes. There’s a single ironic, horrifying wish punishment during the first hour, followed by a meager four other wishes. Arguably, only one of those kills even qualifies as ironic – the others are mostly bloodless, sub-Freddy Krueger murder sequences.
Wishmaster 3 was a 100% STV release stateside and made its first appearance on DVD in 2001. This 1.85:1 Blu-ray debut exhibits some signs of compression, like its predecessors – namely slightly jagged edges and blocking throughout its gradations – but its comparatively young age and the fact that it was likely scanned for digital home video release very recently ensures that is an improvement over the Wishmaster 2 disc. This time, details appear neatly knit in both close-ups and wide shots, and grain levels are more natural, aside from some bright spots that appear burned-out and overly dirty. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack meets expectations for an early ‘00s STV movie. Directional effects are rarely used, but, when they are, they are quite busy, if not applied in fewer layers than their modern counterparts. The pseudo-symphonic scores of the first two movies are replaced with a series of dance-club-ready jams and driving scare cues from Ferocious Fish (aka: Daryl Bennett & Jim Guttridge). The music settles into the center and surround channels more often than expected.
Commentary with director Chris Angel and cast members John Novak, Jason Connery & Louisette Geiss – This is a particularly strong group track, largely due to the fact that Angel acts as lead and moderator. He comes prepared with loads of factoids, while also leaving space to let the actors speak and ask them questions.
Making of Wishmaster 3: Beyond the Gates of Hell (5:51, HD) – A vintage EPK.
Wishmaster 4: The Prophecy Fulfilled (2002)
As a host of new victims see their most nightmarish wishes come true, the world faces the ultimate demonic terror; an onslaught of multiple Djinns hell-bent on destroying everything in their path! (From Lionsgate’s official synopsis)
Angel directed the final (?) Wishmaster movie, The Prophecy Fulfilled, back-to-back with Beyond the Gates of Hell. Based on the final results, he either spent his entire two-film budget on the first movie, his crew died and was replaced by semi-smart apes, or he suffered a brain injury during his month off, because the dip in filmmaking quality from three to four is bleak. The only solace is that someone at Artisan obviously complained by the lack of exploitation appeal in the third film, because this entry opens with a relatively graphic sex scene and it only takes 15 minutes for the bad guy to appear in full costume and do something gory. The violence still doesn’t live up to the goofy carnage of the first movie, but the raunchy factor is maintained throughout. Screenwriter duties fell to John Benjamin Martin, who reiterates the series formula to the letter – a female lead with romantic troubles stumbles across the Djinn’s jewel (this time ‘hidden’ in a cheap-looking tin box), is supernaturally tied to him, and watches in horror as he slowly kills off her friends in an effort to force her to fulfill his prophecy. I guess the hook here is that the Djinn needs to convince a human woman to fall in love with him, which certainly appeals to every fan that wanted to see him awkwardly try to woo a lady. Personally, I’d rather see this genie apocalypse they keep talking about. The sub-Lifetime Channel melodrama is particularly painful, but the frustrating angst may qualify as camp value to some viewers. Most annoyingly, this movie also refuses to play by the Wishmaster rules. There is no continuity in the way the Djinn operates in the final two sequels – too often, he ignores the whole ironic wish thing and just kills people.
Wishmaster 4 was also a STV release in the US and Canada and debut on DVD in 2002. This Blu-ray debut transfer appears to have gotten the short end of the stick when it comes to sharing its disc space with the third movie, because the image is noticeably more compressed than any other in the collection. The close-up details are pretty sharp and the dynamic range is impressive, but wide-angle patterns are mushy, the gradations are messy, and the blocking and aliasing artifacts are considerably problematic. It legitimately looks like it was shot using early, non-HD digital cameras. In the transfer’s defense, some of this is probably an issue with bad digital effects. I’m not sure anyone thought this movie would be seen in high definition when the effects were developed. The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack features more of the same – noisy magic sequences, cleanly centered dialogue, thinly mixed dialogue scenes, and relatively loud musical cues. Ferocious Fish took a second swing at the score, creating more punchy dance sequences and chintzy scare cues.
Commentary with director Chris Angel and actors Michael Trucco & Jason Thompson – Angel continues his streak as an involved commentator and moderator by recalling loads of behind-the-scenes information and generally enjoying the company of his former cast members. This track is a bit more disorganized than the previous group commentary.
Commentary with director Chris Angel and actor John Novak – I’m not sure why Novak wasn’t included with the last track (perhaps there were scheduling conflicts), but I suppose it’s okay, because Novak is pretty amusing and Angel gets a chance to delve into more of the technical aspects of the film.
Wishmasterpiece Theatre (7:13, HD) – A vintage behind-the-scenes EPK.