illustration by Brianna AshbyIf there was any justice in this wicked world, the 1999 film Wishmaster 2: Evil Never Dies would be invoked with the same breathless reverence by pop culture obsessives as other junk-food landmarks like Teenagers From Outer Space, Manos: The Hands of Fate, and Mondo Cane. But there is no justice in this world—only random, inscrutable, bizarrely scripted bouts of misery, punctuated by random bursts of black humor and liberally applied plot holes. In this way, perhaps, life is just like Wishmaster 2.
For all of its considerable trashiness, I genuinely love Wishmaster 2 in a way I love few other movies. This is a little surprising to me sometimes, because I am not generally a great connoisseur of kitsch. I’m certainly not the type of person whose apartment is cluttered with Shannon Tweed memorabilia and Three’s Company lunchboxes. I don’t even like the horror movie genre, for the most part. But there is something about Wishmaster 2 that is so wonderful and so strange that it defies easy categorization. It’s a clumsy morality play with prison-flick trappings; it’s an over-the-top supernatural mystery; it’s a race-against-the-clock legal thriller; it is even a tragic same-sex love story between a small-time Russian gangster and a genie. There is no other movie in the world likeWishmaster 2.
Wishmaster 2 is the sequel to Wishmaster (1997), an unremarkable horror film with trendy self-referential overtones that was produced by Wes Craven and was notable more for cameo appearances by a series of 1980s horror movie stars than anything else. It was a mild commercial success, though it came along a little too early to cash in on the wink-wink school of meta-ish horror films popularized by Scream a few years later. The franchise was turned over to a director, writer and special effects artist named Jack Sholder, and his Wishmaster 2 went straight to cable two years later. In fact, it’s only currently available on DVD as a twofer with the first Wishmaster. I first saw it when my art-school pal Katie made me watch it after she’d happened upon it on Showtime one night in 2001 and found it utterly delightful. I did, too.
To be fair, it’s not an overlooked masterpiece of any kind. Though it makes an earnest attempt to span a few genres, it’s too loopy and disjointed to be a really good horror film, too crude to be a great special effects showcase, too sloppy to be a great metaphysical thriller, and too broad to be an effective satire about greed and desire. It’s rife with gaping plot holes, the core of the narrative is a weird mishmash of quasi-Catholic and Zoroastrian mysticism, and it features some of the most amateurish swearing I have ever heard professional actors utter onscreen. In one amazing sequence, a prison inmate is barely able to sputter out the phrase “I’m going to own your, uh, little, uh, white, yellow yuppie…motherfucking….uh, golf-playing ass,” as if he’s hearing the word “motherfucking” for the very first time. Despite—or probably because of—these considerable shortcomings, I would still rather watchWishmaster 2 than hundreds of putatively “better” movies.
The plot is something like this: a group of art thieves, led by a nose-crinkling goth named Morgana (played by a very Katie Holmes-ish actress named Holly Fields), accidentally release an ancient genie from a magic ruby in a bungled museum burglary. Morgana’s associates are killed and she flees. This genie, the so-called Wishmaster, who also calls himself “Nathaniel Demarest,” allows himself to be arrested for the museum break-in, so that he can go directly to prison. Why prison? Because prisons are full of desperate people, and the Wishmaster’s earthly task is to grant wishes, following the “Monkey’s Paw” model of wish fulfillment. He then harvests their souls. His technique is practically artisanal in its commitment to handicraft—the Wishmaster tricks people into making wishes that, if interpreted literally, will somehow kill them. For example, in an early scene where a regretful man says “I wish I’d never been born,” in those exact words, he shrivels up into a fetus and then vanishes. After the wisher dies, their soul is his.
So the Wishmaster must harvest a thousand souls in this painstakingly inefficient fashion in order to jump-start some sort of vaguely defined apocalypse; meanwhile, Morgana, with the aid of an ex-boyfriend-turned-priest named Father Gregory, must try to stop him by invoking blah blah blah. I’ve seen the movie dozens of times, and I still have no idea what is going on for half of it. There’s a bunch of nutty subplots, too: a Chechnyan gang war, a love story between Morgana and her “lover-priest,” the betrayal of a prison kingpin by his two identical twin bodyguards, some gratuitous self-mutilation, and much more.
None of this matters, really, because even a mediocre, confusing or downright bad movie can be redeemed by great performances. And above all, there are two outstanding performances in the movie that make it so much fun to watch. The first is Andrew Divoff as the Wishmaster, in a performance that is endlessly rewarding to watch and re-watch. Divoff (who has since had a role on Lost) is a wiry, squinty actor that looks somewhat like a cross between a creepier Morrissey and a lankier James Woods. Much of the screenplay calls for him to simply stand around awkwardly, grinning and saying things like, “Is that your weeeeeeeeeeeesh?” Moreover, the director’s instructions for Divoff seem to have largely been limited to “OK, let’s have another weird, inappropriate grin here.” But from these crude materials Divoff creates a marvel of an unforgettably bizarre character. Divoff does for weird, inappropriate grinning what David Lean did for sweeping, panoramic desert sequences.
The second stand-out performance is by one Oleg Vidov as Osip Krishkov, a Russian gangster that becomes the Wishmaster’s confidante, and—if one pays careful attention—his lover. Vidov’s IMDb profile seems to indicate that he was a Soviet teen actor, and there is a wounded adolescent vulnerability to his character. Things do get nominally hot and heavy between Morgana and Father Gregory, but there is a smoldering attraction between the Wishmaster and Osip that burns everyone else off the screen. This attraction is quietly expressed in the two men’s lingering conversations, nominally about the legalistic framework of the wish-making process, but that actually seem to be euphemisms for something else entirely. (“Rules were made to be broken,” suggests Osip coyly, as the Wishmaster smacks his lips in delight.) The Wishmaster and Osip remain together long after it makes any narrative sense for them to do so, and when the Wishmaster cruelly abandons his loyal friend three-quarters of the way through the film, sparing his life but leaving him drunk and broken in a Russian bar, it’s the one legitimately emotional note in the whole movie.
The movie runs out of steam in the final act, a gory, unbelievably silly showdown in a Las Vegas casino. The action is stalled by the Wishmaster’s increasingly nitpicky parsing of the wishmaking process, which grows more and more lawyerly over the course of the film. “A wish cannot change that which is eternal…Any wishes pertaining to me are circumscribed by the prophecy,” he explains to a bewildered Morgana at one point, sounding less like a demonic genie and more like a student loan officer explaining repayment schedules. The film’s low point is perhaps a particularly insulting scene in which the Wishmaster tries to bribe Morgana into giving up her immortal soul with the promise of unlimited poker chips. But before the film collapses under the weight of extensively baffling plot holes and loopy mysticism, so much of what comes before it is weird and fun. Consider wonderful exchanges like these:
Inmate: What’ll it take?
Wishmaster: Your soul. [pause] And a pack of cigarettes.
Kingpin: Your drugs! I want your drugs!
Wishmaster: What kind of drugs would you like?
Kingpin: Well, well, well. What do we have here, boys? [jazz hands] Wishmaster.
Wishmaster: I like to flatter myself.
Kingpin: Flatter this, motherfucker. [this comeback is not followed by a specific threat; it just kind of hangs there in the air while everyone stares at each other anxiously]
Cop: You must be a real good [stumbling over the swear word] fu-u-u-uck, if you’re worth taking the injection for.
Wishmaster: [weird, inappropriate grin]
Cop: You got a boyfriend?
Wishmaster: [weird, inappropriate grin]
Cop: You got a boyfriend, you sly dog you.
Wishmaster: [suddenly serious] Actually, I don’t have any friends.
Cop: [pause, followed by a blank stare and blinking; it’s unclear if this is intentional or if the actor has temporarily forgotten his next line] What the fuck is wrong with you?
These exchanges lose a lot of in transcription. Still, scenes like these, even after seeing them dozens of times, make me collapse into hysterics. I have never really been able to determine how funny scenes like this are intended to be (if at all), or why I find them so wildly entertaining. It scarcely matters, anyway. One of the joys of living in this age of information overload is that, occasionally, these little packages come your way through the unlikeliest channels. You claim them and you feel very possessive of them, since so few other people know or care about them. Wishmaster 2 is, for me, just such a small reward for living in a time defined by almost unlimited options for entertainment, a film that probably no one else besides Katie likes in quite the same way I like it. You have your own films like this, too. They are your own private jokes and minor obsessions and become part of your lexicon. Do I wander around my neighborhood muttering, “Your drugs! I want your drugs!” to myself sometimes? Yes, I sure do.
So there it is. I love Wishmaster 2’s endearing awkwardness, and its bizarre sense of humor, and the fact that there’s an entire subplot involving Russian gangsters so that Andrew Divoff can speak a few lines in Russian because he is fluent in Russian. There are a lot of trashy made-for-cable horror flicks out there, but there is only one where a socially awkward Persian genie kills Tiny Lister in a mystical prison dance-off and then possesses his body in order to bust his secret Russian boyfriend out of Los Angeles County Jail.
And that flick, ladies and gentlemen, is Wishmaster 2.
Andy Sturdevant is a writer and artist living in Minneapolis. He has written about art, history and culture for a variety of Twin Cities-based publications and websites, including mnartists.org, Rain Taxi, Mpls. St. Paul, and heavytable.com. He also writes“The Stroll,” a weekly column on art and visual culture in the neighborhoods of Minneapolis-St. Paul for MinnPost. Many of these pieces are collected in his first book, Potluck Supper with Meeting to Follow.