Tomorrow, January 11th, marks the 30th anniversary of the New World Pictures film, Warlock. For many of you, you may be thinking, what the hell is that? And I don’t blame you. Warlock is by no means a traditional “great” horror film, but it is what I would call a B-horror classic, as it is the sort of witch’s brew blending cheesy writing and fun practical FX to form an entertaining concoction that we just don’t see enough of these days…
…Directed by Steve Miner (Friday the 13th Part 2) and written by David Twohy (Pitch Black), Warlock tells the story of a warlock (Julian Sands) who time travels from the 17th century to the 20th century, pursued by the man who caught him, Giles (Richard E. Grant). Hell-bent on finding the missing pages of an ancient text which will reveal the true name of God and the ability to undo all creation, the warlock embarks on a bloody rampage across the U.S., with Giles and a modern woman cursed by the warlock, Kassandra (Lori Singer), on a mission to stop him.
Known as one of the last films to be made by New World Pictures before going out of business, Warlock is one of those rare movies to escape the fiery pits of development hell, making it something truly special that horror fans are lucky to have. As you’ve already read, Warlock comprises a filmmaking team of household horror names, such as fan favorite Steve Miner and the inventive David Twohy, along with prolific composer Jerry Goldsmith (having composed scores for The Omen, Poltergeist, and Gremlins, just to name a few). What results is a chaotic mess of a film bubbling with charm and enough insanity to make other 80s horror films look like standup citizens by comparison.
Warlock begins with a rather obvious reference to James Cameron’s The Terminator, seeing the warlock and Giles transported to the 20th century by a baby tornado that would be rather embarrassing compared to the massive time travelling storm from The Wizard of Oz. Just like in The Terminator, we cut to the modern day, watching as some strong gusts of wind and said baby tornado bring our warlock crashing through the home of Kassandra and Chas (Kevin O’Brien), with Giles conveniently far behind him, again, similar to the way that Reese ends up miles away from the Terminator, even though they used the same transport, if I’m not mistaken. Am I calling Warlock the fantasy-horror version of The Terminator? Why yes, yes I am, you know, minus the impeccable one liners and groundbreaking effects.
But in all seriousness, Warlock is a part of this fantasy-horror sub-genre that we just don’t see enough of, and it’s a damn shame, because most of the time, these types of films either turn out great, or at least cheesy enough to make for a good night on the couch with your choice of “party favors” and a bag of unbaptized baby fat. Warlock, Lord of Illusions, Suspiria, all prove, through varying degrees of quality, that warlocks, magicians and witches all have a place in the horror genre, and often bring with them a fantastic mix of imaginative gore and unique storylines. Each one of the above-mentioned, along with others like it, are the perfect canvas for special FX teams and writers to get as creative as they want with the kills and gore, because there are simply no limitations.
And that’s where Warlock is at its strongest. The film may feature some wonderfully awful CGI and camera tricks, including some true laugh out loud moments involving our warlock flying around like fucking Peter Pan (moments which Miner is, admittedly, extremely regretful of), but the practical FX in Warlock are legitimately great. Julian Sands as the warlock has plenty of macabre tricks up his sleeve, whether it be delivering a literal “kiss of death”, to carrying around a pair of ripped out eyeballs which point him in the direction of the grimoire’s pages, to a rather gooey demise in the finale which screams classic 80s horror. Our lead heroine, Kassandra, also has the unfortunate pain of dealing with a curse put on her by the warlock, which causes her to age 10-20 years with the passing of each day, her ultimate fear. While the aging makeup is well done, the filmmakers admit that it was supposed to be more significant, but Singer was uncomfortable going full force with it. I won’t knock Singer for that, because as an actress at that time, it took a lot of guts to spend most of the film appearing “ugly”, so Singer deserves a lot of credit for agreeing to do the makeup at all.
The sad case with Warlock is that the effects were originally meant to be more extreme, but the filmmakers either ran into budgetary or logistical issues. Putting Singer in expensive, time consuming makeup probably didn’t help much either. But for example, the warlock at one point visits a channeler (Mary Woronov), requesting that she summon a dark spirit for him to communicate with. Initially, those eyeballs which he later travels with were supposed to appear as the nipples on Woronov’s chest, which the warlock would then rip out, but the scene was apparently deemed too comical by test audiences, so it was cut out. Then there’s also a moment where the warlock runs into a young boy (Brandon Call), and skins the poor tyke, because in this universe, the boiled fat of an unbaptized boy allows the warlock to fly around like the damn Flash. Who knew, right? Anyway, that scene was of course cut for being “too graphic”, but you have to respect any horror film that’s willing to kill a child. Not like I get off on child murder, but moments like that in horror let the audience know that the filmmakers are willing to take us anywhere, which leaves viewers vulnerable, because we have no idea what to expect, and Warlock is indeed about as unpredictable as it gets.
I haven’t even gotten to the cast of Warlock yet, and if the outrageous nature of the effects is the film’s strong suit, then Julian Sands as the warlock comes in at a very close second. Charming, seductive, and deliciously evil, Sands embraces his role like a gluttonous lion, eating up every mischievous line and act of violence as it is second nature to him. He may not be placed on the same pedestal as other horror villains with eccentric personalities like Freddy Krueger or Chucky, but Sands portrayal as the title antagonist deserves to be talked about more within horror circles, because there is something truly sinister and unforgettable about him as this character. Maybe it’s the lack of one-liners or, more likely, the lack of success with the three-part franchise, but it’s a damn shame that Sands as the warlock isn’t considered more of an icon.
As for the other cast members, Singer and Grant, each does well in their roles, but are easily outshined by Sands. I attribute that less to their performances, and more to the fact that Warlock is simply a strange combination of heroes. On one side you have Singer, a rapidly aging “old lady” in a motorcycle jacket and leather skirt, looking like one of the three witches from the original Clash of the Titans, and on the other, you have Grant, an ultra-religious fish out of water who feels a lot like Tarzan, but more well-spoken, afraid of planes, aka the devil’s work, and spoiled cream. And my god man, you’re in LA, at least change out of all those heavy furs! Then of course there’s the casual abuse of dragging around and slapping of Singer which each Sands and Grant do, because the 80s I guess. What a time.
30 years later, Warlock has not by any means aged well, and has various scenes which were probably considered out of date even then. But what the film lacks in visual mastery, it more than makes up for with a B-horror charm that is difficult to match, and some truly gruesome effects that will please any fan of gooey practical FX. Say whatever you want about Warlock, Miner and Twohy know exactly what this film is, and instill just enough humor, intentional and unintentional, to make this one well worth the revisit, or a perfect late night watch for first time viewers looking to have a good laugh.
Warlock and both sequels are now available in an excellent 2-disc set from Vestron Video, (which all of the above behind the scenes info is credited to). I would highly recommend picking up the set, as not only is it the sort of quality we’ve all come to expect with Vestron, but the sequels live up to and even improve upon the original, with the second film in particular being loaded with incredible practical FX that offer a lot more gore and horror.
By Matt Konopka