Warlock Collection Blu-ray Review: Satan’s Son Starts Franchise

Like House II, Warlock was one of those movies that I remember seeing heavily advertised on television as a kid, and it occupied a place of real intrigue in my mind. I was too young to see it in the theater, and as it turns out (though I had no idea at the time) a shake-up at the production company meant that Warlock barely even saw a theatrical release. But the ads, with their canny use of “Carmina Burana” created a space of real menace in my consciousness. This new Blu-ray release, the Warlock Collection, brings all three movies (the original and two loosely connected sequels) together in an extras-laden package.

Warlock stars Julian Sands as the titular servant of the devil, and his character is given no other name throughout the film. We meet him after a long atmospheric trip through an old colonial village which, probably untypical of 17th century villages, has an enormous tower of dark stone at one end. This is the prison in which the Warlock is kept, held by chains and toe and thumb screws, where he is sentenced to be put to death by burning at the stake over a basket of live cats.

Warlock has an in with the devil, though, and so he is whisked away to a time and place more accepting of his particular brand of villainy – late 1980s Los Angeles. There (for no reason explained in the story) he ends up in house being shared by a very hip waitress and a gay man. After biting out the man’s tongue and casting an aging curse on the girl, the Warlock goes to find a medium, who he summons a demon into and then rips her eyes out on his search for the Gran Grimoire, a Satanic magic book which contains the name of God and can un-do creation. The Warlock is pursued, through time and space, by Redferne, who has a personal grudge against him: the Warlock killed his fiancée.

Warlock, with a smart screenplay by David Twohy, combines the horror movie with the fish-out-of-water time-travel story with a good old-fashioned road movie, and surprisingly it blends all of these elements quite well. Warlock and Redferne (played respectively by Julian Sands and Richard E. Grant, who might be best known as Withnail in Withnail & I) are men out of time, but they are not stupid men out of time – there’s no low comedy scenes of them gawking at new technology or being made fools of. It doesn’t matter what century they are in, they are men of purpose.

Warlock was directed by Steven Miner, a jack of all trades director who cut his teeth on two early Friday the 13th movies, and whose work in House I wasn’t too impressed with. Warlock is much better – atmospheric, well-paced and filled with interesting little details. The place where it (and all of the movies in this collection) fall down is in special effects. There are a lot of them in this movie, and the quality never exceeds pretty good, and is often rather dreadful, particularly with some of the flying effects. It’s a matter of timing (the late ’80s were well before the major shift into CGI which allowed things like flying characters to be commonplace effects) and budget. But Warlock succeeds despite these issues largely thanks to the performance of its two leads. Julian Sands can be stiff and awkward, but his mannerisms and cadences fit this character perfectly. Richard E. Grant’s Redferne is one of those rare protagonist performances in a horror film that seems almost too good for the movie. He’s intense and filled with conviction as Warlock’s righteous pursuer.

Warlock had a tumultuous post-production history, since the production company, New World Pictures, had financial trouble just before its release (on the commentary track, Steve Miner is surprised to hear it actually had a brief box office run in America). However, when it eventually came to home video it did enough business to warrant a sequel. Kind of.

Warlock: The Armageddon is not a direct continuation of the first film’s story, though it stars Julian Sands as essentially the same character. In this version, there’s a centuries long conflict between Druids and the Devil, and every 600 years or so there’s an eclipse that gives the Devil a chance to destroy the world, if he can gather the six magical stone of plot contrivance. The construction of the story nods to the structure of the first film – we start in the past, and then move into present day (though nobody travels through time) to a California town where a secret sect of druids lives, and is waiting for the signs that they’ll be needed to save the world.

Of course, such a rescue is required (or there’d be no movie). Warlock: The Armageddon plays this scenario out in possibly as strange a collection of plot points and scenes as possible. It is by no means a good movie, but I’ll be damned if it isn’t entertaining in its go for broke weirdness.

For instance: our protagonist is a rather milquetoast kid who, because of the circumstances of his birth, can be turned into a Warrior – basically a druid Jedi. But he has to die first, so his dad drives up to him while he’s taking a walk and blows him away with a shotgun. The Warlock, in his cross-country search for the stones, crashes a fashion show, a sideshow at a circus, and some billionaire art collector’s top floor office, leaving a trail of corpses behind (including Gremlin‘s Zach Galligan, who is in the movie for maybe two shots). Our heroes use creepy insects to lead them to the Warlock, and the whole thing ends in a giant special effects extravaganza for which this film seriously did not have the budget.

If Warlock: The Armageddon is a “good bad” movie, Warlock: End of Innocence is worse than bad: it is intensely boring. Sans Julian Sands and any connection to the other movies besides the title and the notion of a satanic bad guy in black moving through time, End of Innocence tries to meld the franchise to a typical late-’90s horror cast (a group of college kids, including a free spirit, a jock, a stoner, and the good girl, though not a virginal good girl in a pointless twist) and completely eschews both end-of-the-world consequences and the road-trip plot – the entire movie is set in a single haunted house (except for a flashback to the distant past and a short early sequence set in several dorm rooms).

The plot involves little orphan Kris Miller, an art student who learns that she has a house in her family name. She learns this just the weekend before it is to be demolished by the local government, so she’s given an opportunity to come for the weekend and search for family heirlooms. It’s a premise that could support a decent horror movie plot about a girl discovering disturbing truths about herself, except that absolutely nothing is done with it. It’s all an excuse to have a lame haunted house picture sans scares, where the Warlock (posing as an architect who stays at the house to “wait out a storm”) has to lay deadly curses on Kris’ friends so that they give him consent to sacrifice her. I suppose it is part of a spell, but it is impossible to care about details in this plodding, stake-free, scare-free and chills-free horror movie.

An extremely uneven level of quality aside, it is interesting to look at this collection of Warlock movies as a kind of microcosm of horror trends through one decade, from 1989 to 1999. At the end of the ’80s, the independent studios’ ability to make something interesting on a modest budget was waning. Warlock looks like a major motion picture, and it has the scope of one. Warlock: The Armageddon, undeniably cheaper, was still being made by a filmmaker with some vision and real ideas. A cheap theatrical sequel, it was still made with style and panache (even if the director overuses fake split-diopter shots, at least he’s trying something.) Warlock: End of Innocence typifies direct-to-video cheapy sequels that used to be all the rage. It shares the title and a vaguely similar looking lead with the real movie, and nothing else.

Warlock was a surprise movie for me to revisit – when I first saw it in the ’90s, I remember being disappointed in it after years of anticipation. Besides one stand out scene (the little kid who the Warlock “befriends” in order to boil his fat into a flying potion) it was flat to me then. Watching it now, I see a remarkably detailed script and intense performances marred only by the technological limitations of its special effects. Warlock: The Armageddon is a surprisingly strange follow-up, which trades in coherence and overall quality for a series of scenes where it is nearly impossible to guess what is going to happen next. And Warlock: End of Innocence has some kind-of pretty girls in it, and a reliably terrible soundtrack.

Vestron Video has been releasing a number of catalog horror movies on Blu-ray with impressive collections of extras, and Warlock is no exception. The first film has the most extensive collection of extras – including new interviews with Julian Sands, Steven Miner and with make-up effects crewmembers. There is also an audio commentary with the director on the first two films. All of the films have vintage interview segments and behind the scene footage. As with their release of The Unholy, Vestron releases have paid particular attention to movie scores, and include an isolated score/audio interview with Jeff Bond, a composer and expert in movie soundtracks who gives a deft commentary on Jerry Goldsmith’s score.

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Kent Conrad

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