Warlock Trilogy Blu-ray Review (originally published 2017)
Boston, 1691: The gallows await the Warlock (Julian Sands). What was an apparent triumph of Witch Hunter Giles Redferne (Richard E. Grant) is short-lived as the Warlock escapes and is hurled 300 years into the future. Now, say a prayer for the City of Angels, for it is here in Los Angeles where he begins the task of reuniting three portions of the Devil’s Book that will reveal the secret name of God. If spoken, all creation will be destroyed. Redferne, who is also transported, enlists the aid of Kassandra (Lori Singer), who has miraculously escaped the Warlock’s wrath. (From Trimark’s original synopsis)
Following the outrageously offensive “comedy” Soul Man (1986), Friday the 13th Part II (1981), Friday the 13th Part III (1982), and House (1986), director Steve Miner returned to horror with Warlock. It eventually helped to define the look and feel of late-’80s/early-’90s era mainstream horror, though not until a troubling stint in distribution hell. Horror fans of a certain age will remember it as a popular home video release from a budding company called Trimark (under their Vidmark banner) without knowing that it sat on the shelf for almost three years after Roger Corman’s New World Pictures collapsed. It became a signature role for actor Julian Sands, who enjoyed a short period as an A-list (or at least high B-list) actor after its release. Miner’s direction is solid and unobtrusive without ever being particularly stylish or frightening. At its heart, Warlock is a fantasy film, so his biggest challenge (besides integrating pre-digital special effects) is to juice the story for as much ‘80s-friendly horror as possible. He then compounded the challenge by setting almost the entire film in glistening sunlight. I’m not sure if the gamble paid off, but the mix of bright images, goofy optical effects, and sporadic gore is entertaining and doesn’t outlive appeal, even in the face of an overextended 103-minute runtime.
Miner and Sands continued working regularly in the years following Warlock, but it was screenwriter David Twohy who touched upon real big-budget success with Pitch Black (2000) and its sequels (2004, 2013). His script isn’t particularly original and is hampered by man-out-of-time story cliches, but the characters are likeable (including a gay man whose sexual orientation isn’t the butt of any jokes) and the mythology surrounding the plot is charmingly ambitious – or at least more ambitious than the limited locations/settings and a B-movie budget can contain. He clearly did some research on the subject of witches and 17th century witchcraft before putting pen to paper. The cult-ready cast extended beyond Sands, who actually plays a secondary character as the villain. The leads are Footloose (1984) and Fame (the TV series, 1982-83) actress Lori Singer and Withnail and I (1987) star Richard E. Grant, who is purposefully cast against type as the hero (a role he never really played again). Death Race 2000’s (1975) Mary Woronov also makes a cameo appearance.
As mentioned, Warlock was a hit for Trimark/Vidmark and Starmaker on VHS and even made an appearance on US Laserdisc. Unfortunately, Lionsgate never saw fit to release anything but an open-matte 1.33:1 DVD in North America. Fans were limited to importing an anamorphic disc from Second Sight in the UK. Surprisingly enough, a series of Blu-ray versions popped up in Australia, Germany, Austria, and Scandinavia soon after, so the film has been available in HD before Vestron and Lionsgate released this new three-movie collection – it just wasn’t available stateside. This 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer mostly matches the expectations set by previous Vestron Video Collection releases. The good news is (besides the fact that it’s actually in widescreen) that there aren’t too many obvious DNR or CRT artefacts this time. Colour quality is vivid, consistent, and hues are pretty well separated. The not-so-good news is that the footage has been compressed. It’s still well beyond SD quality, but the hard edges feature haloes, the film grain occasionally clumps into blocky noise, and there are posterization problems in the smoother gradations. Still, most of these nitpicks relate to still frames – in motion, the transfer looks nice and relatively clean. Note: Apparently, some fans are under the impression that Warlock was meant to be framed at 2.35:1, but I see absolutely no evidence of this anywhere.
The film is presented in its original stereo-surround 2.0 and uncompressed DTS-HD Master Audio. The mix itself is a typical late-’80s affair – the stereo channels are a little over-busy when it comes to incidental effects, but dialogue remains relatively centered (there are only subtle bleeds/reverbs) and the bigger horror/fantasy effects (mainly the Warlock’s powers) move swiftly throughout the right and left channels. The only notable distortion is a bit of vocal hiss, but only during sequences shot outdoors, in the elements, so I assume this is related to difficult recording situations. Despite its relatively modest budget ($15 million wasn’t that cheap in 1988), Warlock was scored by superstar composer Jerry Goldsmith, who, even under budgetary constraints, manages to bring much needed scale to the proceedings.
The mostly brand-new extras include:
Commentary with director Steve Miner – Nathaniel Thompson of Mondo Digital moderates this new track and keeps the discussion moving to cover the film from development through completion. Between Thompson’s questions/trivia and Miner’s memories/anecdotes, there isn’t much of the behind-the-scenes process left uncovered.
Isolated score selections/commentary with Jeff Bond – Bond, a writer with the Hollywood Reporter writer and the author of The Music of Star Trek (pub. 1999), discusses the career of Jerry Goldsmith and introduces the film’s major themes.
Satan’s Son (25:04, HD) – A brand new interview with Julian Sands in which he recalls the making of Warlock and the first sequel. He also shares memories of his early career, recites a passage from Richard III, and has very nice things to say about the rest of the cast.
The Devil’s Work (16:18, HD) – Miner talks a bit more about his experience making the movie for New World, just before the company folded.
Effects of Evil (16:24, HD) – Make-up effects creators Carl Fullerton and Neal Martz talk about their working relationship over the years and the challenges of creating Warlock’s effects as financing fell apart.
Behind-the-scenes footage (17:35, SD)
Vintage interview segments with the cast and crew (40:28, SD)
Vintage featurette with Fullerton and Martz (5:50, SD)
Vintage featurette including interviews with visual effects supervisors Patrick Read Johnson and Robert Habros, animation supervisor Mauro Maressa, and matte artist Robert Scifo (5:51, SD)
Trailer, video trailer, and TV spots
Warlock: The Armageddon (1993)
Satan’s only son, the Warlock (Julian Sands), is plotting even greater mayhem. His singular goal is to free his father from the fiery chains that imprison him and unleash Satan’s wrath upon the world. The only ones who can prevent complete world destruction are two warriors (Chris Young and Paula Marshall) – who alone possess the supernatural powers to challenge the Warlock...and stop the inevitable Armageddon. (From Trimark’s original synopsis)
The odds are good that if you’re trying to recall scenes from the Warlock series, you’re actually thinking of the first sequel, Anthony Hickox’s Warlock: The Armageddon. Despite its lower budget (only $3 million) and limited production schedule (only 38 days), Hickox’s prevailing skill as a visual filmmaker and Julian Sands’ juicier, scenery-munching performance make the first sequel a more memorable experience. Strangely, while the film was produced in-house by Trimark following the success of the first film on home video, Kevin Rock’s screenplay has almost nothing to do with Miner’s film. The events of the first Warlock are ignored and the title character’s powers/origin have been altered, leaving Sands’ unmistakable visage and the collection of enchanted MacGuffins as the only major connections. The reboot doesn’t rehash the dopey man-out-of-time aspects, because, as the actual Antichrist, the new model Warlock is hip to the technological advancements of man. On the other hand, Rock’s oddly dense script requires even more mythology to the backstory, so narrative space is still at a premium. As a result, the characters suffer and the bland romantic subplot does not work at all.
On the other hand, Hickox, who is also known for directing the Waxwork movies (1988, 1992) and Sundown: The Vampire in Retreat (1989), brings a slightly cartoonish and fantastical slant to the horror and wrings the production design for everything it’s worth. Warlock: The Armageddon is also more horror-centric than its predecessor, leading to a smorgasbord of ooey-gooey Suspiria, Evil Dead, and Hellraiser-inspired special effects (it’s no surprise to learn that Hickox had just come off of making Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth, 1992) and flashy camera work (there are at least a dozen split-diopter shots). When watched back-to-back, the first two movies in the short-lived franchise are actually good companion pieces – the first skates by on likable characters and witty dialogue, while the second endures dull characters and stiff dialogue with superior storytelling and visuals. Perhaps it’s time to reboot this series using the best elements of both films?
Warlock: The Armageddon was another VHS hit for Trimark and found its way onto barebones, anamorphic DVD in the US (foreign releases were 1.33:1 pan & scan). It appears that it was also released on Blu-ray in Spain and Germany. This particular 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer, which shares disc space with the second sequel, is more or less identical to the [i]Warlock[/i] transfer in terms of overall image quality. Detail levels, dynamic range, and colour quality are sizably better than SD releases. Compression issues are slightly enhanced, including more sharpening haloes and occasionally blocky edges, but the real issue is, once again, the softness of the original scan. This is more evident in wide-angle shots than close-ups. Cinematographer Gerry Lively’s moody, colourful photography mitigates the problem with crisp shadows and smooth lighting schemes. There are more prominent damage artefacts on this print, including vertical streaks, dust spots, and snowy white noise throughout diffused lighting schemes.
Note that European DVD and Blu-ray versions are slightly longer (less than 10 seconds) than any North American versions, this one included. For a breakdown of the differences, see this webpage.
The original stereo soundtrack is presented in DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0. Dialogue is tinnier and less neatly centered (a number of scenes appear to have been dubbed), but the overall sound effects palette is improved with more lively stereo enhancements (the ‘hall of mirrors’ set-piece, for instance, is so busy that it could almost be confused for a 5.1 track). Jerry Goldsmith was probably too expensive for this smaller sequel, so second-time solo composer Mark McKenzie was hired to score the second film and, dare I say, his Christopher Young-like compositions are better. They are at least more dramatic and hummable.
Commentary with director Anthony Hickox – Hickox is typically charming and informative in this brand new and adorably self-deprecating solo commentary. He obviously did considerably prep before recording, because he can recall the imdb credits of just about every major and minor player on and behind the camera. The technical discussion is interesting too, however, it is the self-criticism and deadpan complaints about the qualities of early digital effects that stands out.
Vintage making-of EPK (7:43, SD)
Extended interview segments with Sands, Hickox, and actress Paula Marshall (5:41, SD)
Behind-the-scenes set footage (4:57, SD)
Trailer and TV spots
Warlock III: The End of Innocence (1999)
Over 300 years ago, Katherine Miller, a New England witch, saves her kidnapped daughter from the clutches of a demonic warlock. Hungry to perform a human sacrifice on the offspring of a witch, the warlock needs her blood to create an eternal bride of darkness...but his plan is foiled and the warlock is banished, until now… (From Trimark’s official synopsis)
Several years after Warlock: The Armageddon was released, Trimark had all but entirely given up on the theatrical game and was paying the bills with straight-to-video sequels to their short-lived horror franchises, including Brian Trenchard-Smith’s Leprechaun 3 (1995) and Leprechaun 4: In Space (1997), Adam Grossman’s Sometimes They Come Back...Again (1996), and Eric Freiser’s Warlock III: The End of Innocence. Frieser, who had never directed a feature film before and never would again, co-wrote the End of Innocence script with producer/one-time writer Bruce David Eisen. The duo’s general lack of experience and the even smaller budget (only $2 million show in the film’s “made for cable” look (almost every single image is framed too tightly, as if it was meant for a 1.33:1 aspect ratio), but the Freiser manages to class up the joint with really ambitious tracking shots and shoestring attempts at the slick look of Wes Craven’s ‘90s-defining Scream movies.
Sadly, the screenplay is a drab mix of haunted house clichés, underdeveloped/weirdly structured flashbacks, erroneously unlikable characters, and an utter lack of scares. Almost nothing happens for the first 40-plus minutes, every line of dialogue is delivered with the longest pauses between words, and the runtime is further padded with repetitive montage and exposition. Oh, and there’s literally nothing aside from the title that connects this film to the others. Sands wasn’t fond of the script (and who can blame him?), so the Warlock role was handed over to B-action/STV horror star Bruce Payne, who actually does a good job bringing his own flavour to the role. If only there was something for him to do. He’s pitted against Ashley Laurence, marking yet another connection to the Hellraiser series (Laurence is the heroine of the first two movies). The always dependable actress and her capable co-stars do their best to bring a semblance of emotion and sympathy to the Warlock’s victims, but there simply isn’t enough for them to work with.
It appears that Warlock III was only released on North American DVD once (from Trimark) and that disc was not anamorphically enhanced. I assume that the German disc, via Alive/Atlantis Film, was also non-anamorphic, but have no proof. This is its first home video HD availability, though it appears there was a 1080i streaming/television version. One might expect this newest movie, which was planned for release on a digital format, to have superior image quality, but this 1080p, 1.85:1 transfer is easily the weakest in the set. Details are alright – especially considering the only other option isn’t even 16x9 enhanced – and cinematographer Andrew Turman’s neutral and warm palette seems accurately reproduced. The problem here is threefold – heavy machine noise masquerading as film grain, loads of oversharpening effects (haloes and hot-spots), and soft dynamic range, which flattens the already under-furnished compositions. I even spotted a few of what I think were interlacing artefacts. It’s far from the worst I’ve seen, but disappointing, considering the small improvements that the other two transfers made over the earliest Vestron discs.
I expected this movie to include a 5.1 mix, but I guess STV releases were still only bothering to produce stereo mixes in the late ‘90s. The 2.0 DTS-HD Master Audio track is crisp and clean, but, for some, reason the sound designers decided to stick almost everything into the same centered ghost channel. This means that incidental and environmental effects are often crammed behind dialogue, as if the production shot the entire movie on a single boom mic. This tinny, crowded quality is magnified by awkward ADR work. None of this is the Blu-ray’s fault, of course, and the scary/fantastical sound effects (including the T-rex roar from Jurassic Park) are actually quite expressive. David Reynolds was in charge of the music this time around and he occasionally brings a late-’90s techno/dance flavour to the major themes. I probably would’ve found this annoying a decade ago, but I actually found myself a little nostalgic for the era. The score is augmented with gothy pop/rock tunes and the music is warmly mixed to stand out against the otherwise bland soundscape.
Behind-the-scenes footage (14:06, HD)
Vintage EPK interview segments with the cast & crew (43:19, HD)
Trailer and Video sales promo
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