WARLOCK. Fantasy horror with diabolical Julian Sands
At the end of the decade when Freddy Krueger, Jason Voorhees, and Chucky reigned, and the most popular subgenre of horror was the slasher, a dark character unlike the others appeared. A 17th-century devil worshiper, transported to the modern era in search of a book, casting dreadful spells on people, and instead of a disfigured face, he had the countenance of a cantankerous angel. Although he didn’t match the popularity of any of the aforementioned, somehow, the memory of him survived. I say “somehow” because Warlock, directed by Steve Miner, is an example of a film with as many flaws as virtues; a film that straddles the line between unsettling horror and adventure; ultimately, a film whose popularity should have ended with the decline of VHS tapes. Additionally, the bankruptcy of the distribution company New World Pictures meant that the film sat on the shelf for 2 years in the United States before Trimark Pictures bought the rights and released Miner’s work in theaters. Warlock can’t boast the label of a classic, and its cult status seems to rely solely on one element, yet it is a strangely charming creation, full of life, and in its best moments, devilishly clever.
The screenplay written by David Twohy, the future creator of the character Riddick, reaches for motifs known from Terminator, including the time travel of two mortal enemies, but at the same time, it flips that scheme in various ways. The characters don’t come from the future but the past, and the good one hunts the bad one. Of course, there’s a girl, but not to rescue her or make her a romantic object. Played by Lori Singer (Footloose), Kassandra is a character through whose eyes we watch the unfolding story of the battle of good versus evil, forced to participate in the hunt for the evil warlock initially only because he cast a spell on her. A nice, naturally developing relationship emerges between her and Redfern, the witch hunter played by Richard E. Grant (Withnail and I), contrasting with the evil deeds of the titular character.
The Warlock does horrendous things, from cutting off fingers, biting off tongues, or gouging out eyes to threats to turn fetuses into blocks of ice. His worst act is the murder of a boy to use his fat for flying. However, the horror is more suggested than shown here, and the brisk pace translates into a more summery than dark atmosphere. Miner has sequels to Friday the 13th and Halloween: 20 Years Later to his name, but Warlock in terms of atmosphere is more reminiscent of his comedic horror films – House and Lake Placid. The danger here is real, although tempered by Redfern’s jokes, who, being plucked from the past, struggles to understand the present. It’s a shame that the warlock himself didn’t receive similar scenes that would have made him a more interesting rogue.
Another issue with Warlock is that, despite large reserves of goodwill and genuine fondness for the film, it’s challenging to consider it truly scary or even spectacular. You might expect a fantasy horror film about a warlock to be filled with special effects, but most of them are animated (!), which, for a film from the late 1980s, looks cheap, dated, and almost embarrassing. It’s hard to feel threatened when the warlock’s magical powers resemble something out of Disney’s Fantasia. Even the way the main character levitates and flies is more amusing than awe-inspiring.
Three things not only save this film but also make it incredibly entertaining and memorable. The first is Jerry Goldsmith’s music, the same composer who won a well-deserved Oscar for his score for The Omen. His work on Warlock stands out just as powerfully, with its clinks and clanks that perfectly capture the atmosphere of earlier times. The main theme, in particular, is catchy, emphasizing the demonic nature of the titular villain.
The second thing is Twohy’s ingenuity, which diversifies the chase template in various ways. The warlock casts spells, and Redferne knows how to defend against them. He also knows that his enemy is no ordinary man, so seemingly harmless things like salt or driving nails into the soles of his feet will affect him. Even the final scene, which is incredibly satisfying, continues to explore the warlock as a superhuman but strangely vulnerable character.
The third and most important reason for the timeless popularity of Miner’s film is Julian Sands in the titular role. It’s difficult to imagine Warlock without Sands, and he’s the one who remains in the audience’s memory over the years. The actor infuses his character with charisma, grandeur, and a sinister sense of humor, never endowing him with any positive traits. He is pure evil but captivating, a quality that would be even better utilized in the flashy but less charming 1993 sequel. Initially, Sands was supposed to play Redferne, and Grant was meant to be the warlock, but the director decided that both actors would be better in the reversed configuration, cementing Sands’ employment as the archetypal villain who continues to be cast in such roles to this day.
I can imagine a modern-day remake of Warlock, one that is darker and scarier, with spectacular special effects and a better-developed relationship between the warlock and the hunter. The potential is there, and considering the current trend of revisiting horror films from three decades ago (as seen in recent releases like Pet Sematary and Child’s Play), someone might come up with the idea of updating Warlock for a new audience. When that happens, they’ll need to be lucky in finding an actor equally as diabolical as Julian Sands, someone who can ensure that their film doesn’t get lost in the annals of time and a slew of other horror releases. Sands has a strong on-screen presence, and even after thirty years since its original release, Miner’s film, which is neither truly frightening nor exceptionally cultish and is visually somewhat laughable, surprisingly holds up quite well.