In Not Guilty, we look at movies that the general consensus tells us that we should feel bad for liking, but that our hearts tell us we should embrace -- "guilty pleasures" we don't feel guilty about. This week we take a look at the spell-like charm of the late '80s cult horror flick...Warlock.
Sometimes the "guilty pleasures" we pardon in Not Guilty are movies that we believe were underrated and unfairly panned (see Superman Returns). Others are films that we take a bit more at face value, yet in which we still manage to uncover the hidden gems that not only add to the movie's overall entertainment factor, but are solid examples of good filmmaking (take the animatronics in Super Mario Bros.). Then, there's a third instance: When the topic of Not Guilty is given reprieve because sometimes what is "wrong" with it actually works for it, making it a true indulgence. That's the case with 1989's Warlock.
Horror films have long been the redheaded stepchildren of the movie industry, and have always been held to their own standards of what constitutes a "good" film. They can be low-budget and campy, Oscar-caliber, or anywhere in between. More often than not, however, horror movies need to go beyond the point of reason and venture into the ridiculous in order to work, as opposed to, say, sci-fi, which often works best when there's at least some scientific merit to the ideas introduced. Generic horror is a lot less precise in its formula, and Warlock is a perfect example of it.
It's Horror 101
There are certain elements you can expect to see in any generic horror film. Shallow characters, cheap laughs, and some type of icongraphy linking it to religion or a historical reference. While horror capitalizes on a lack of realism and camp, the storyline needs to flow and the characters have to make sense (for example: Of course the girl is going to trip and fall and probably get stabbed to death because, up to that point, she has proved to be the type of person who would end up tripping and falling and getting stabbed to death). Most importantly, the central point of any horror film always lies with the main antagonist. Friday the 13thhad Jason, Nightmare On Elm Street had Freddy, and so on. 1989's Warlock fit perfectly into the loose structure of a successful horror film: The writing makes its own kind of sense even if the overall concept is ridiculous, it's got just the right amount of campiness, and, most importantly, it has a good villain.
The characters work
Since the '80s had yet to really embrace the whole concept of political correctness, almost every character in Warlock is a walking cliché. Initially, that may seem offensive and closed-minded, but on further review, those stereotypes actually help move the story along. For example: Chas is a gay man with a beautiful home and antique collectibles, which explains how and why a centuries-old altar table with 1/3 of the The Grand Grimoire is in his house in LA. Kassandra is a shallow, youth-obsessed 20 yr. old diabetic with bad jewelry, which lays the groundwork for creating a conflict between her and the Warlock. He ages her and steals her bracelet, so now she has to retrieve it to break the spell and live. Plus, her dependence on insulin provides the resolution at the end of the film as to how this almighty and powerful sorcerer doesn't prevail. Even though it wasn't achieved in the most tactful way, the characters actually make sense and are well-written, all things considered.
It isn't too cheesy
Horror films are like the nachos of cinema: You need the right amount of cheese for them to be good. For every diehard horror fan that will watch anything because it's from the genre, there's just as big an audience that watches horror films because they want to laugh at the cheesy effects and dialogue. And Warlock delivers to both audiences without every going completely overboard on the kitsch or being so terrifying that it alienates either type of viewer. Its low-budget special effects are comical - for example, whenever the Warlock flies, it's only slightly more graceful than Chris Farley's Bennet Brauer being hoisted in the air on SNL . At the same time, the plot, itself, is essentially about black magic and the occult, a topic that really has been the center of controversy for centuries since before the Salem Witch Trials, and there are moments of real darkness. It doesn't delve too deeply into either side, keeping it neutral enough to be enjoyable to everyone.
For whatever reason, most bad guys in the '80s happened to be good-looking men that were either blonde, British, or had their ear pierced, and Julian was the trifecta. We assume, between making omelets out of tongues and killing boys to harvest fat for flying potion, he stopped by a mall kiosk to get that piercing done; after all, this was LA in the late '80s. But details like that often don't matter in even the best of horror films. What takes precedence is having a badass villain that maintains his composure in almost every situation, one that's suave one minute, then gouging your eyeballs out the next without even breaking a sweat, and whose very presence can illicit chills just by looking at you. Sands' Warlock basically walked around making everyone that crossed his path his b****, which is exactly what a great villain's supposed to do.
When he did speak, Julian's Warlock was condescending even in light conversation. Sands delivered every word of dialogue with the commitment and authority of a Shakespearean stage actor, which just made him more believable as a man from the 1600s on a quest to become the ultimate dark power. In fact, Julian was such a good bad guy that he has basically been a career villain ever since.
It's Quintessential '80s
The '80s were a magical time in cinema. On one hand, the excess of the decade birthed the concept of the blockbuster franchise. It was also a time, however, defined by focusing on quantity over quality; a paradigm shift in filmmaking that Hollywood seems to have had trouble shaking ever since. While in some ways, those years forever changed the direction of the film industry in a positive way, it also left in its wake an infinite amount of pop culture gems that collectively exist like a bunch of embarrassing reminders from a night of binge drinking.
Because of this, almost everything out of the '80s still manages to be entertaining decades later, albeit maybe not the way it was initially intended. And while it may always be a period referred to with the proverbial face palm, the horror genre truly benefited most from the loosened quality control in movie making at the time. Granted, we aren't talking about Exorcist level of classic horror here, but Warlock is still an entertaining movie that is a lot less embarrassing to admit to liking than that hypercolor t-shirt you probably rocked back in the day.