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In my day, those even endeavouring to fly were accused of witchery.

Movie

Warlock
(1989)

 

Hero REG? Scottish hero REG? This could only have happened before anyone knew any better. As Richard E Grant himself commented, of a role Sean Connery allegedly turned down (“Can you do a SKUTTISH accent for us?“), “How could they have cast a skinny Englishman to play this macho warlock-hunter?” And yet, that incongruity entirely works in Warlock‘s favour, singling it out from the crowd as the kind of deliciously-offbeat straight-to-video fare (all but) you could only have encountered during that decade.

Giles RedferneTell me straight. Lest your children be born slugs of cod fish, tell me now.

It helps that the screenplay comes courtesy of David Twohy (“I was hired, fired and re-hired“), who positively revels in the chance to pen antiquated dialogue ripe with colourful adjectives for his characters (well, mostly REG’s witch hunter Giles Redferne).

One gets the impression from With Nails that REG didn’t think much of it – “… I am gearing myself up to say with a straight face and Scots accent, ‘Damned be these hell besmeared and black Satanic farting holes’“. In an interview with Anne Bilson at the time of Hudson Hawk‘s release, she says he “appears sceptical when I say how much I enjoyed it” while noting “I was astonished that they offered it to me in the first place” and “I did the part because I knew that the chances of me ever being offered a sort of macho heroic part were so slim“. Indeed. But I guess, if you’re too close to something, you can perhaps fail to appreciate its full antic glory (that was certainly true of his view of Hudson Hawk).

The fish-out-of-water structure had seen big successes in the previous couple of years (Back to the FutureCrocodile DundeeStar Trek IV: The Voyage Home) and the occasional bomb (Masters of the Universe). A witch hunter follows Julian Sands’ Warlock – “the rudest that ever troubled daylight” – through time to prevent him from bringing together all three books of the Grand Grimoire, from which the lost name of God, invoked during creation, may be uttered back to front, undoing all worlds with it. Phew!

Other reference points include Terminator (but time travelling from the past instead of the future), Vincent Ward’s Navigator and Highlander. This particular blend of medieval confusion over modern mores found a more receptive audience a few years later with Les Visiteurs (eventually remade with the same leads as Just Visiting), and while Grant’s wide-eyed earnestness yields a number of laughs, it’s more director Steve Miner’s game tone that elicits a broad grin than overt attempts to get yuks.

Miner, a former editor who graduated to directing with a couple of Friday the 13ths, has a rather grab-bag resumé, taking in further genre entries (Halloween H20Day of the Dead and comedy-horror House), as well as such diverse fare as Soul ManForever Young, and Gerard Depardieu remake My Father the Hero.

I tend to associate him with the likes of Antony Hickox and Mick Garris, no one’s first choice and often found delivering natural rental fare. He can provide the necessaries, but you aren’t likely to recall stylistic flourishes or visual élan. What he does have, and he should have probably concentrated on this more (or, with Soul Man, perhaps not) is a sense of the absurd. Right from the first, in the 1691 opening sequence, we are informed the Warlock is to be “hanged and burned over a basket of living cats“; it’s clear this isn’t going to be play out entirely soberly, but Miner’s shrewd enough not to go too far in that direction (one also occasionally gets the feeling he was a big fan of Evil Dead II).

WarlockI would ask that we wait.
MediumFor what do we wait?
WarlockFor the true Zamiel to appear.

When the Warlock – I always found Sands a bit of a plank, but revisiting this, he’s actually reliably mischievous – cuts off the finger of Kassandra’s (Lori Singer) housemate, it’s a shocking moment, followed by a twisted come-on as he goes to kiss the (gay) man and bites out his tongue (“We’d like to find this guy before he makes an omelette out of somebody else’s tongue” comments one of the officers on the scene).

His meeting with Mary Woronov’s fake medium is similarly poised between the ghoulish and funny; her horror at being genuinely possessed is followed by the scooping out of her eyes in order to hunt the books’ locations (they more resemble something from The Fly than anything truly gruesome).

WarlockI need no broomstick to fly.

The Warlock has quite the repertoire of cruel fates, including slaying a poor moppet in order to concoct a flying potion (it requires “fat from an unbaptised male child“), after which he amusingly sets off a cop’s radar gun as he speeds by. A murder in Canada in 1995 was cited as influenced by this scene (the fourteen-year-old initiator of the crime was reportedly obsessed with the film).

Giles RedfernA horse that sweats in the night. Cream that sours overnight. You know the signs.

The Warlock also casts a spell on Kassandra, such that she ages twenty years every day and will “die in half a week of old age“. Not that you’d really know, as Lori Singer refused to wear the old age makeup. Singer, who had her big break on the Fame TV show and comes across like a B-list Daryl Hannah, was reportedly a major pain in the arse. There’s an amusing payback sequence in which Kassandra pursues the Warlock, banging nails into his footprints and causing him considerable pain as a consequence.

Air StewardessCan I take that for you?
Giles RedfernOver my rotting corpse.

Sands’ adversary also leaves tell-tale signs wherever he goes, leading to an inflight sequence in which Redferne and Kassandra search a plane for him (on account of “(lighter) flame that burns blue” and “cream that spoils“); it’s particularly amusing that Redferne is allowed to take a weather vane aboard (a makeshift spear, essentially), with a flight attendant stowing it for him (“Where did that wench put the vane?“)

Grant is a particular picture, draped in a coyote skin coat and sporting a permed mullet. It’s probably easier to let REG describe himself: “an oblong-faced, minor rock’n’roll band member“. This was (I think; I can’t recall any other contenders) the beginning and end of his career as a Hollywood leading man, and he wouldn’t have that many leads at all after this in any shape or form (the equally unlikely romantic comedy Jack and Sarah was also an isolated incident).

Less is the pity, as his natural idiosyncrasy is best used in something as skewed as this. He starred in a BBC adaptation of The Scarlet Pimpernel about a decade later, and it should have been ideal REG material, a chance to go off on one as an exaggerated fop, but it fell disappointingly flat. And while you can give him a so-so supporting part, it’s really a waste of resources (he was on great REG form in Dom Hemingway a few years back, a tailor-made role).

Giles RedfernOur interest lies in stopping those who would see good falter. It lies in stopping the powers of misrule from coming of age. It lies in finding that damned book, and thwarting a vile beast of a man who shall not rest until God himself is thrown down, and all creation becomes Satan’s black hell-besmeared farting hole!

Jerry Goldsmith provides a fine score infused with creepy electronica, following on from the quirkiness of his work with Joe Dante. The effects work is sloppy (the company that provided them were brought in at short notice), but in a charmingly basic way. There’s a small role for Anna Levine, who’d be notably cast in Unforgiven a couple of years later (and is now unrecognisable thanks to numerous plastic surgeries).

Anne Billson (Film Yearbook Volume 8): Packed with the sort of dialogue in which characters say ‘Let us tarry not’ instead of ‘Let’s go’, and striking a nice line between tension and humour, this is definitely superior hokum. 

There were, of course, several sequels, neither with REG, but one seeing Sands return and the other with him replaced by Bruce Payne. Warlock came from New World, who were going down the tubes at the time yet ironically making some classic genre fare (HeathersMeet the Applegates, releasing the aforementioned Navigator). As a result of those hassles, the movie didn’t get released in the US until 1991 (by Trimark). The only surprise in all this is that Warlock hasn’t been remade yet, but it can only be a matter of time.

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