Warlock ★★★½

Cult Movie Challenge 2020! Week 49 - a religious horror film! (Jackie's pick!)

Tell me your movie is a blend of The Terminator and Highlander, and I reserve my right to be skeptical as all get out. Show me the movie you made by blending The Terminator and Highlander, and if it looks and plays the way Steve Miner and David Twohy's collaboration does, then I'll concede my initial judgement was wrong. Warlock's a pretty sweet ride all round, the story of Julian Sands' nameless witch (man never calls himself a warlock in Warlock, it's always "witch") Satan-magicking himself from 1691 Boston into the future of 1989 Los Angeles to assemble the Devil's Bible and unmake creation, only to accidentally pull Richard E. Grant's witch-hunter Redferne behind him, leading to a lengthy series of action beats and plot happenings as the two duke it out, with Lori Singer's Kassandra With A K caught in the middle. It's not an incredible actioner or remarkably tight script like its one obvious influence, nor as smart about exploring the implications or visual possibilities of its premise like the other, nor so prime an example of economical and effective character writing animated by strong actors at the top of their game as either of the two. What it is, is a pretty dopey idea all told brought to screen with glee and slapdash care by people who aren't the best in the game, and are gonna give you the best they've got anyhow.

Neither the warlock nor the witch-hunter are particularly complex or interesting personalities on their own, but Sands and Grant's reads on the screenplay grant their roles some enjoyable dimensions all the same. Fr'instance, Twohy's approach to making the pair sound like they hail from 300 years back involves a lot of twisting modern phraseology into moderately verbose versions of themselves, so their dialogue scenes often involve something ridiculous like, "Over mine rotting corpse!" delivered as if it were any other line. The measured manner of such flowery speech means even moments of heightened emotion or impulsive action communicate minds who are carefully weighing their every word, for they know words have power, and often that power is to entertain as counterparts to more casually-jawed modern locals. The flavoring hints of personability help too, be it Redferne casually steering Kathy away from the path of an oncoming truck, the warlock treating his latest victims with an air of menacing charm, or a fairly bizarre scene in which he sits down for a game of LED football with a little boy he's about to murder. Every so often the movie will pursue a strange little idea like that, letting the characters breathe in ways you wouldn't at all expect. I'm not sure it links up to anything deeper than, "We thought it fun," lacking as it does any bigger point or theory of mind at times. Seeing as it IS fun to watch Grant tear around a Menonite farmhouse barking Ye Olde Englishe instructions or Sands relax on a swingset for a round of the ol' virtual pigskin, you won't find me complaining.

On the token of questionable yet effective, we've the film's action- and effects-driven sequences, most of which prove good for kicking back and admiring some solid B-tier work. No shortage of underfunded or oddly-staged setpieces here, between the swipe 'n' slide technique deployed to make the warlock fly like a dragable element in an early paint program, to the hastily sketched-in blobs they use for his fireballs, to the awkward tendency to realize fights by pulling actors around on so-so wirework. I call them lesser efforts because they are, but the magic failing to appear magical is all part of the package - you either accept Redferne is vomiting copious amounts of blobby aftereffect flames after getting magic-punched in the mouth, or you deny yourself a smile at something trying its hardest to punch above its weight class. If all the effects were on this level, I might critique them as shoddy, but fortunately there's plenty smaller moments to get me there. Minor stuff like Redferen and a few other spiritually-attuned characters noticing the cursed signs of a witch's approach, the warlock tugging around chairs or rattling furniture with his mind, or a hunting sequence dependent entirely on Singer hammering nails into the ground and Sands writhing in pain across a cut all make for effectively live-action demonstrations of witchcraft in action. Make-up's pretty solid across the board, between a medium who physically transforms upon possession by the devil, and Kassandra progressively aging twenty years all at once under the warlock's curse. Even without any prosthetics on her forty-year old self and less than planned on the sixty-year old iteration (she apparently rejected them at the last second owing to claustrophobia, and I can't much blame her), they couple well with her increasingly exhausted performance to sell the picture of a woman slowly collapsing in on herself. Plus, there's a solid early scene involving a kiss-bitten tongue, and a midway action beat where Sands drags Grant through a farm as the Amazing Human Kite, so that's always nice.

If you'll notice, my extolling of Warlock's virtues has largely taken the form of listing out things I liked without much mention of a larger binding theory on why it all works, which is sorta the problem with the movie as a whole. More than some creaky effects, more than feeling a little overlong in places (it takes a good while to set all the pieces on the board, and a late scene of the protagonists skulking in a graveyard feels like it goes on forever), more than the occasional odd plot turn (Kass manages to reverse the aging spell roundabout act three's open, which necessitates an entirely new ticking clock to keep the film moving), and more than an uncomfortable instance of what may or may not be purposeful homophobia. Warlock's a solid adventure-horror flick with a sampling of eyecatching moments, a mostly-intact idea of how to maintain its momentum, no sense of holding back on following its bliss, and hardly anything I can call soulfully distinct. It's a lot of good, some shaky, and not a lot of binding material. There's no big idea it argues better than any other, or any one thing it does particularly well above and beyond its peers, or super-effective relationship, or a major, stunning selling point you can only get from sitting down to watch it in whole. If you find goofy stuff played earnestly appealing, or else fun magic stuff, or else the prospect of a chase film in vein of The Terminator but with time travel in the other direction and witchery rather than high-tech weaponry, it'll definitely give you a good time. If, however, you want to get anything from the film beyond a smile and a quick "well that was a good time, yeah?" discussion with friends afterwards, it won't service so well.

And honestly, there's worse crimes for a movie to commit. I might sit here, struggling to put down properly contiguous thoughts about Warlock and its identity and virtues without resorting to bullet pointing in all save name, but I enjoyed myself and found a little appreciation for Grant and Singer as a largely chaste witch hunting team. Didn't offend my sensibilities, try for a message and deliver it badly, or prove visually intolerable at any point. A 7/10 can easily get by on doing all the important things well enough without vaulting over the line into stand-out or fantastic territory. Point is, if you want a skinny, blonde, shoeless fucker in all black to wail on Richard E. Grant in a fright wig and more animal furs than you could poach across an entire winter's good hunting, complete with butchery dialogue and a bit of top-heavy plot mechanic explanations, I'd say Warlock's worth the time. And if you don't consider such things worth a watch... well, Terminator and Highlander are still there and still pretty great all their own.

(Aspire to be so extra that you fly through the air at ninety miles an hour stood straight up, arms crossed, hips to the wind, and a "Take THAT, Mother Nature," look on your face.)