Thursday, January 9, 2014

Warlock (1989)

WARLOCK (1989)
(R, New World Pictures/Trimark Pictures, 103 mins., theatrical release date: January 11, 1991)

Time travel and Satan worship, two great tastes that go together in Warlock, one of the last New World Pictures productions which got a belated theatrical release two years after its completion. The former Corman house, several years after going public and branching out into video and television (thank them for Alan Spencer's cop comedy Sledge Hammer!), were in financial ruin after failed acquisitions and court cases deprived them of any gains they stood to earn from such successes as Soul Man or the Hellraiser series. Like Cannon Films, the dissolution of New World was a messy one, although unlike Golan/Globus, New World went out with a bang when they acquired Michael Lehmann's seminal teen comedy Heathers. They also had Warlock, but it was shelved until early 1991 when another independent company, Trimark Pictures, properly unleashed it to the world at large.

Producer/director Steve Miner had done two movies for the company in 1986 with the aforementioned Soul Man and the previously reviewed House, but here was perhaps the best of the three, a black magic take-off on the premises of Nicholas Meyer's Time After Time (1979) and James Cameron's The Terminator (1984) which shifted from Salem to SoCal as the forces of good and evil waged ancient war in modern times. Part of the reason Warlock worked so well was the casting of the primary combatants, two rising British talents in the form of Julian Sands and Richard E. Grant. Sands was already familiar thanks to notable parts in The Killing Fields, Gothic and the Mechant/Ivory drama A Room with a View, whereas Grant had made his debut in the cult classic Withnail and I. This was a considerable boon, as they play admirably straight characters who would've tempted a more winking treatment had they been instead filled by established superstars.

Sands and Grant admirably resist the allure of parody, playing cool and consistently their respective parts as the nameless Warlock and witchfinder Giles Redferne. The film opens during the supernatural scare in Massachusetts circa 1691, as the Warlock has been successfully captured and incarcerated for heresy by the dogged Redferne. On the eve of the prisoner's execution by funeral pyre (with cats for kindling, natch), the Devil throws a curve by whisking the Warlock away through a time-vortex twister, although Redferne catches wise and jumps in after him. Their destination is three centuries later in Los Angeles, where first the Warlock and then Redferne happen upon Kassandra (Lori Singer), a twenty-something Valley Girl waitress with diabetes who rents a room with the openly gay Chas (Kevin O'Brien).

No sooner have the two taken in the stray sorcerer than our villain literally plants the kiss of death on hapless Chas, eventually making his way to a dubious spiritualist played by the great Mary Woronov, an old guard from the New World (Death Race 2000, Rock 'n' Roll High School). She channels the spirit of the Devil against her will, informing the Warlock of his mission: to retrieve the scattered pages of the Grand Grimoire, the coveted anti-Bible which contains the true name of God which, when spoken backwards, can beget the apocalypse. Intrigued by the notion of becoming "the new messiah" (watch the theatrical trailer, where the line is taken from an unused alternate death which apparently also involved demonic eyes pasted over the psychic's nipples), the Warlock sets about collecting the various sheets starting at Kassandra's house, after she has already been introduced to and called the cops on Redferne.

The vain Kassandra is cursed to age twenty years per day thanks to his machinations, and has no choice but to bail out Redferne for help. The two reluctantly travel cross-country in an attempt to catch up with the witch, who has already murdered an Arizonan preteen (Brandon Call, the boy sidekick to Rutger Hauer from Blind Fury) of impure soul so that his fat can be harvested for flying potions and hidden in the basement of a Mennonite farm out in Colorado close to completing his task. The final pieces of the puzzle will take them back to the hallowed grounds of Boston, but can Redferne finish the job when his archenemy is more hellbent than ever before?

Figuratively speaking as an eighties B-movie enthusiast, Warlock is very much a witches' brew of a movie. Miner and screenwriter David "D.T." Twohy (co-creator of the Vin Diesel Riddick series) have all the proper ingredients to fit the recipe, especially when you factor the cast by itself: lips of Sands, larynx of Grant, legs of Lori, eyes of Mary (and yes, that's voice actor Rob "Yakko Warner" Paulsen in a walk-on role as a gas station clerk). Miner doesn't quite stir the pot with the kind of cackling vigor of a Witch Hazel, but instead relies upon the leisurely dry humor evident in all of his prior horror efforts. Case in point: the ironic cut from a severed tongue sizzling in a pan to Kassandra serving an omelet at her place of work, a joke which frankly would've gotten the point across without a cop immediately making the connection via interrogation. After the bottom-line bloodbaths of the Jason films and the broad farce of House, Miner is refreshingly droll with the basic tone of Warlock.

Twohy's script allows for Middle English and Malibu personalities to contrast against each other with aplomb. While Redferne sets up his witch compass in his first sudden, uninvited appearance at Kassie's ("Now, brute, one last time we play the game out"), she phones the emergency police line ("He's got a thing for blood...draw your own conclusions") with no intention of waiting for them to show up ("I'm skatin' right now!"). Redferne demands her to stay until the cops arrive, at which point he matches whips with tasers and is suitably outmatched. Kassandra is bewitched and fools herself that she can pass for 40 with a tennis skirt and a new dye job on her hair. The script has plenty of requisite references that show just how far out of time the ancient duo has come (The Wizard of Oz, faucets instead of wells), but this doesn't act as the movie's only source of comedy.

The visual effects are of a particularly rough quality, dependent on wires and bright orange opticals whenever the Warlock flies or lets loose with magic. Luckily for Miner, he doesn't lean too much on either, which is fine since he got some natural magic out of two proper actors in Julian Sands and Richard E. Grant. One of the more delightful tricks involves Kassandra nailing the Warlock's tracks as a means of crippling him, and Sands' agonizing screams get the point across with gusto. It should be said that Sands, here suggesting the heir to Malcolm McDowell's charismatic creepiness, makes a top-flight antagonist by virtue of his smolderingly Aryan good looks, wicked smirk and verbose grandiosity.

Although Sands returned for the first sequel in 1993, the hammier Anthony Hickox-directed Warlock: The Armageddon, missing from that film was an opposite number of Grant's caliber, a personality every bit as wry and wonderful as Sands was initially. Grant as the blue-eyed, fur-lined, God-fearing Redferne has an equally likely commanding presence and knack for character-specific subtleties that is truly dignified. Lori Singer's part is a bit less distinctive than that of the male leads, but she has a spacey comic timing and manages a solid job of her own.

Linger too long on Warlock and its ridiculousness becomes transparent, especially in the bizarre sight of Lori Singer in shoddy old-age facial make-up trying to limp about as a 60-year-old in her glittering leather miniskirt. The rubbery Richard Moll zombie from House looked more convincing. The true delight of Miner's film is in the way he and Twohy spin such a breezily entertaining chase pic out of superstitious sundries, from the painted-on hex mark outside the Mennonite barn attic to the various threats and colloquialisms dropped by the main characters. You've got to love how Redferne warns a priest of the imminent danger of the Warlock reversing all of God's designs into something akin to "Satan's black, Hell-besmeared farting hole," whereas that same man of cloth is later threatened by the witch to aid him lest his "children be born slugs of cold flesh."

In a word: Huzzah!

Warlock remains available on DVD in the American market specifically in a full-frame, bare bones release. A special edition would be a preference, especially considering how Jerry Goldsmith's colorful, ominous original score would benefit greatly from an isolated music track. Also, a crisp widescreen print mastered in HD would undo my murky VHS memories and bring new life to the film's rich scenery and production/costume designs. There are Blu-Ray releases from certain European territories, but this is something British distributors Arrow Video would do wise to explore for one of their own catalog titles. Chances are Lionsgate Home Entertainment in the U.S. won't be getting around to this one until the world ends. Must be the Devil, I don't know.

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