A Witch In Time: Warlock

A Witch In Time: Warlock

It is the late 1600's. A villager places a basket of live cats atop a mound of kindling, this being called for to successfully destroy a witch, whom will soon join the cats. Locked away in a tower is the occult prisoner, awaiting his execution. Being a warlock his fingers and toes are bound closely together in customized iron shackles. A holy man, joined by a handful of others, implores him to at least admit his guilt. He refuses. Among the group is a man who has doggedly hunted the warlock, and reminds him that his end draws near. The warlock disagrees, confident that he will escape. Moments later he does just that, by opening a passageway through time. His pursuer follows as they are thrown into the far future of the 1980's.

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The horror genre is littered with stories of the corrupt Church, with evil priests and terrible abuses of power, of innocents being caught up in the violence of religious fundamentalism. My previous post regarding Castlevania detailed a Church which was complicit in significant, evil acts. One of the most striking things about Warlock is the degree to which it actually vindicates a more holy paradigm. The Church's superstitions are proven right, and all of the peculiar, sanctified methods employed to detect and combat the film's antagonist work without fail. The person accused of witchcraft is guilty of exactly that, and is furthermore every bit the irredeemable menace he is said to be. This simplicity allows the viewer to follow along in the hunt for the titular villain in an uncompromised way, unburdened of moral doubt.

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Though released in the final year of the 1980's, Warlock is very much a product of that decade, and is infused with its sensibilities. Quite deliberately designed as a sometimes humorous foil to her fellow characters from the 1600's, Kassandra (Lori Singer) is an archetypally 80's, girl, sporting the expected fashion sense, hair style, and interest in health and fitness. But beyond these superficial qualities abides a rather distinct female protagonist, with an occasional tendency toward selfishness, stubbornness, and outright flakiness. She is sometimes grating, but this is because she has an actual personality, unlike the occasionally bland, stalwart heroines who inhabit genre fare. After witnessing the warlock crash through the window of her shared living space, she eventually joins forces the witch hunter, Giles Redferne (Richard E, Grant). She doesn't have much of a choice, because the witch took from her a bracelet, and as long as he possesses it, she is cursed to age rapidly every day. It is, to say the least, an admirably bold move to have your movie's female lead careen toward old age as the story progresses, and I doubt you would get away with such a thing today. 

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Julien Sands brings a combination of almost contrary traits to his portrayal of the warlock. He has an allure, a confident power, but also the abnormal vibe of an outcast, of someone who looks down on others, and can't be trusted. Redferne, who possesses a deep hatred for the villain, has the soft spoken disposition of a man from the past, a humility that disguises true wisdom, passion, and bravery. Nonetheless, he is vulnerable to the kind of bewilderment one would expect from a person thrown 300 years into the future, showing a deep, superstitious fear of flying by aircraft, among other things. He has both the strengths and quirks that a man of his time would possess, and Grant is magnetically brilliant in the role.

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Both Redferne and the warlock utilize various arcane means and tools throughout the film, and these bear the specificity and peculiarity of real folklore. I don't know if any of these concepts actually originate from historical sources, but they feel like they do, which is an accomplishment on the film's part either way. Redferne uses a witch compass to track his quarry. It looks vaguely like a sextant, a metal skeleton of a sphere with a rotating arrow at its center. Applying the warlock's blood to this arrow will cause it to point towards him, the rings of the surrounding sphere spinning more quickly the closer you get. Another conceit concerns the warlock's footprints. If such tracks are from his bare feet, he can be attacked by driving nails into the prints, which he will feel as though they were impaling his actual feet. The warlock wields his own, similarly unique array of spells and abilities. He is seeking the three parts of the "Devil's Bible", a forbidden text said to contain the true name of God, thus bestowing upon its wielder the power over all creation. After beckoning his master, Zamiel - the devil himself - into a human host, he makes use of the host's removed, blighted eyeballs as a radar for the location of the book's components. And the recipe for his flying spell is grisly indeed.

All of these various strange and imaginative elements contribute to Warlock's pervading sense of buoyant, fantastical unpredictability. They are the kind of touches found frequently in horror films of the 80's. These years might not have produced the most strictly frightening horror films, but they did the more important work of generating the most entertaining and creative ones. Just to name a scant, tiny few, consider the existential body horror of Cronenberg, the vibrant dream sequences of the Nightmare On Elm Street movies, the widely varied methods of murder in the Friday The 13th series, the many mutating forms of the alien organism in John Carpenter's The Thing, Sam Raimi's off the wall Evil Dead films, and the freak shows of Frank Henenlotter. Along with countless other wild directorial visions, monsters, and effects, this wonderful period saw the genre expand past the breaking point to its full artistic potential. In director Steve Miner's relentlessly fun, thrillingly imaginative Warlock, two characters are transported into the 1980's. They're lucky to have landed in a time of such incomparable cinematic invention and joy.

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