Horror as a genre satisfies many social and psychological needs. These are the stories we are compelled to tell because they’re fun, because they’re exciting, because it’s natural to crave the thrill and the sweet, sweet dopamine of survival. They allow us to talk about trauma and grief and existential fear, to confront them, to find a way through them in a safe space. They model struggles every mortal creature inevitably faces, not to mention struggles every mortal creature inevitably loses. But these challenges implicit in the stories aren’t always thrilling; sometimes they become genuinely soothing. And that is what I’m going to talk about today: horror as a balm and, to some extent, Julian Sands being pretty.
Usually, when someone drops their jaw because I have never seen Where Eagles Dare or whatever, what I tell them is, yeah, but I’ve made up for it by seeing Warlock: The Armageddon thousands of times. I’m being glib, but it’s true. I have cashed in so much human lifespan watching both Warlock (1989) and Warlock: The Armageddon (1993), I couldn’t begin to guess how much. It’s counting grains of sand stuff. Counting grains of Julian Sands stuff, too. I, of course, assumed my standard issue bookish girl Julian Sands crush around 1995 or so, and that explains something of their appeal–Warlock: The Armageddon in particular is a fine vintage of Julian Sands, around about the time he should have been playing the Vampire Lestat–but not all. No one is exactly ulcerating to reboot the great Warlock franchise, and yet, I’ve never met anyone who doesn’t remember those movies fondly. And you know why? I will tell you.
The Warlock movies represent a prime example of Comfort Horror, which is something I just made up, but dammit, you know what I mean, right? Comfort Horror is the cinematic cousin of what South Park referred to as Informative Murder Porn, or you could think of it as the spicier version of Christmas romcoms on the Hallmark Channel. These are horror films that are more balm than beast. Just scary enough, but not too gross to snack during; just compelling enough, but not so much that you’ll think about them when you’re trying to sleep. I mean, no one’s afraid to turn off the light lest Julian Sands appear, right? That’s basically a Skinimax premise anyway. Comfort Horror offers you manglings you can nap to, slayings you can do sudoku by, but crucially, it must still be good enough to watch and keep you engaged. You have to actually like it and follow it; I’m not talking about a butcher block ASMR. Basically, in order to have a good Comfort Horror title, you must have the following: it must be competent, it must be predictable, and it must star someone aesthetically pleasing. A haunting, but not jarring, soundtrack, a level of gore that you personally find non-objectionable, and first coming across it as a kid or early teen are all big pluses, too. The story should be like a ghoulish old friend that you kinda thought was cute when you were twelve. For me, the Warlock movies tick all those boxes. So let’s dig into this concept a little bit with my old buddies.
The Warlock films fit into the very 1980s Nightmare on Elm Street/Witchboard/Phantasm category of fanciful slashers; that is, they’re more or less a string of weird kill sequences with just enough plot in-between to get to the next murder until there’s a big showdown where Julian yells into a wind machine in front of a green screen and eventually gets put down like a gooey, gooey dog. Yeah, spoiler alert: the Warlock is born to fail. There is no underlying mythology connecting the films, which is an asset when thinking of them as disposable Comfort Horror. Both films are–and this is crucial because it helps them stay nice and safe and predictable–fetch quests of the damned.
In fact, I should mention there is a third entry into the Warlock franchise, Warlock III: The End of Innocence (1999) that I will not be discussing here, even though it stars none other than Hellraiser’s Ashley Laurence, who I love with the light of a thousand suns, alongside perfectly reasonable Julian Sands substitute Bruce Payne as the Warlock. I saw it once, and then I tried to watch it again before I wrote this, but it didn’t work for me, and that actually helps me test out my Comfort Horror precepts. Warlock III, while it stars Laurence, who is aesthetically pleasing, and is predictable, is not very competent in my view. Thus it didn’t work for me. It wasn’t fun to watch. Maybe your mileage will vary? Since there is no connecting mythology, the only thing making Warlock III at all like my Comfort Horror Warlock films is the supernaturally-endowed, ha, blonde British villain with a receding hairline dressed to narrate Infiniti commercials. That alone ain’t cutting it. You must have a serviceable story decently told, and if you don’t…send ’em to the janitor in low earth orbit, I guess.
All that being said, let’s look at the first Warlock. It is a very competent film, if sometimes only just. It begins in 1692, as Puritan elders confront a warlock (Julian Sands) on the eve of his execution. Do not get me started on the historical inaccuracies, as I will never stop. Enter the witchhunter Giles Redferne (Richard E. Grant), who has a personal grudge against the Warlock and will be there just in time for Satan to spring his faithful witch from prison via time traveling funnel cloud. The Warlock ends up at a posh house in L.A. circa 1989, where our heroine Kassandra with a K (Lori Singer) rents a room from the fatally tasteful Chas. Chas is fatally tasteful not only because of how the Warlock ends up killing him,* but also because he has an antique altar table of particular interest to Satan and his boy. That table–an antique in 1989, but the new hotness in 1692–secretly contains a third of the Grand Grimoire, and it just so happens that Satan sent the Warlock (and accidentally Redferne) forward in time to track down three parts of the Grand Grimoire, which contains the lost name of God, and saying that backwards will unmake all of Creation and…I feel like Satan might have workshopped this plan a little more? Anyway, Satan also promises the Warlock that if he is successful, then as a special treat, he will become the devil’s one begotten son, and that puts us into some serious Doctor Who paradox territory. But the point is witchhunters gonna witch hunt, Kassandra is cursed by the Warlock so she’s forced to be the audience proxy/Final Girl, and the Warlock is hunting down parts of this book to hit control-alt-delete on everything ever. Everyone has goals, simple goals, that are much harder for me to summarize than to watch. It’s kind of like an episode of The Amazing Race with occult murders instead of Roadblocks. Actually, Phil Keoghan would be a decent Warlock, I bet.
So this first Warlock is incredibly fun. Like a light beer is easy to drink, it’s easy to watch, just scary enough to keep your attention and our lightly bickering pair of leads manage to keep your heart along with your interest. It’s not the goriest or the cleverest or scariest, but it watches like a good adventure RPG of the era plays. It does show its age in places: Kassandra’s comment about her gay roommate not being queer may make you drop the good china and the special lighting effects for the Warlock’s magic–as opposed to the practical makeup effects–will never be okay outside of 1989. I’m honestly not sure they were okay then. But it’s also the kind of movie that will keep you up until 1am accidentally because you started watching and just couldn’t stop. It is a very potato-chip eating movie; before you know it, you’ve eaten the whole bag/watched the whole thing. So while there are rough edges and VCR tracking lines, the film still hangs together well over thirty years later, and the linear fetch quest of the damned narrative makes things pleasingly predictable, all the way to a final apocalyptic confrontation in a Boston graveyard.
Low-budget and low stakes, a lot of Warlock’s success rests on the strength of its performances, and as it would happen, pertaining to my Comfort Horror formula, all three leads are very beautiful people. I have to admit that Julian, as many bullets as I would take for him, comes off pretty woodenly the handful of times he’s allowed to talk, but he certainly looks the part. Richard E. Grant and Lori Singer flesh their characters’ bones to the point that an ending note of ill-starred romance between them kinda sorta works. This is especially commendable for Singer, as Kassandra is one of those great characters who is a terrible person: vain, callow, cowardly, and self-involved. In a different slasher, Kassandra would almost certainly be the dumb, superficial girl that Jason shishkebabs second or third. She resists the call to adventure until it’s the only way to get her vinyl-coated butt back, and once she’s saved that personal butt, she does try to nope out of the rest. I’m not saying I would be more noble than this, but it’s not Final Girl stuff. And yet, she’s the only heroine we’ve got in a cast of, oh, three. On paper, her shyster valley girl affect jars against Redferne’s relentlessly noble, holy witchhunter, and it might play like a USA Up All Night version of Terminator, except for Grant and Singer’s chemistry and Singer’s ability to get you to empathize with the unsympathetic. For his part, Grant takes a character that’s pretty rote and gives him the equivalent of a Scots accent in characterization, filling his plainness with burrs and trills and musical vowels. And so the cast ends up upselling what is a fairly bland, moody occult slasher into a final film that is not only memorable, but forgettable…in a good way.
Like Darrens on Bewitched, Warlock: The Armageddon is both completely different from its predecessor and also exactly the same. The background of this one isn’t Puritan witches, but Asgardian…Druids…who prevent the rise of Satan’s son, and the Druids are protecting not the Grand Grimoire, but these magical crystal stone things. Sure, Jan. But we have another big ‘ol time jump from ancient Druid times to today, and we have Julian as the Warlock again, although he doesn’t seem to be quite the same Warlock…or is he? Maybe? Here he’s explicitly the son of Satan from go, who is born full-grown on an eclipse when a lady plays with a new age crystal, and…you know what, let’s skip a bit. The Warlock has to track down seven stones that are scattered across the continental U.S., and standing in his way are a group of aged…Druids…in the guise of normal old white dudes living the middle class life in a small southern Californian town…and their Romeo and Juliet progeny who are magical zombie Druid warriors after being ritually murdered and brought back to life…okay, let’s skip a little bit more. The important thing is the Warlock is going to kill a path across the U.S., much as in the first movie, on his way to a final confrontation with a male and female team, much as in the first movie, and then Julian is going to squint dated CGI at them and try to release Satan, which…release Satan, reverse creation, same diff, and he’s going to fail, much as in the first movie. Waxwork director Anthony Hickox brings a totally different tone and visual style to the piece, less eerie and more garish, but his super-saturated color palette and neck-breaking camera work jibes well with this material and centers the Warlock amid much more memorable and creative murder sequences in the vein of Nightmare on Elm Street or Wishmaster, where the Warlock’s supernatural devilpowers get their sinister due. I mean, he turns one guy into a living Picasso. Tell me that’s not fun. And yet, by following the same road tripping formula of the first film, it remains, crucially, extremely predictable fun.
It’s good that there’s so much more Warlock in the sequel, too, because Julian is so much better in the role this time. I’m not sure what his deal was in the original, but he seems to have developed a taste for scenery in the intervening years, and it’s a joy to watch him eat. Warlock: The Armageddon actually boasts a pretty damn good cast all around, too, including veteran character actors like R.G. Armstrong, Bruce Glover, and Charles Hallahan. Paula Marshall, who also starred in director Hickox’s Hellraiser III: Hell on Earth (1992), turns in a great performance as the fated Druid warrior Samantha, who I can never quite believe is that into Chris Young’s Kenny, but that’s me, not her, and not really Chris Young either, who does a pretty good job with his occult Luke Skywalker-Romeo deal. Also not to be overlooked, Joanna Pacula, Julian’s co-star in Husbands and Lovers (1991), has a bit role as a fashion designer/victim, and the pair of them seem to have a great deal of fun killing her. In spite of all the talent onboard though, the script is kind of a mess, grafting tropes onto the skeleton of a fetch quest like extra noses. I don’t care that Kenny is bullied. No, I don’t need to watch the training montage. Sure, the trees are laughing, anyhoo…Basically, any screentime that doesn’t involve the Warlock tricking someone into giving him one of the stones of power “freely and willingly; those are the rules” is time better spent in the kitchen making a snack. But that’s okay because the movie centers those parts: predictable, competent, pretty Julian. And if you’re not Julian-inclined, again, our male-female hero team are on the pretty side themselves. Boom. And thus I have seen it thousands of time. It is a safe, soft comforter with screams and guts.
The very notion of guilty pleasures in media is kind of anathema to me and, indeed, to the mandate of the Cultural Gutter generally; the point of us is to look seriously at work that often isn’t taken seriously and seriously discuss why it is seriously, actually quite interesting, if not outright good. And given how invested I am in the legitimacy of horror as a genre, I feel that. O Midsommar Oscar noms, where art thou? Now, I have not argued the Warlock films are conventionally good, but that doesn’t make them a guilty pleasure for me either. They are simply a Pleasure. And a Comfort. Exceedingly Not Good, the Warlock films are nevertheless successful in a way that has persuaded me to make more time for them, or at least with them, than most other movies in my collection, to reacquire them in different video formats over two decades, and to cherish them because of what might read as flaws in another context. It’s not just that Julian Sands is pretty. I don’t own Boxing Helena (1993) and I never have. Certainly, both films lend themselves easily to riffing, and it’s easy to call out those bad points. It’s harder to say why they’re so easy to love. In the end, I think it’s because they are the kind of horror that is purely cozy and reassuring, and there is a place for that in our criticism if there is a place for that in our hearts and our collections. There is horror that challenges, there is horror that redefines, and there is also horror that comforts, and that’s what the Warlock films are for me. Comfort Horror. A little peril, a little blood, a little dopamine release, and a damned good time.
Warlock: The Armageddon is streaming on Tubi TV and Amazon Prime. Warlock III: The End of Innocence is also streaming on Tubi TV.
*bites his tongue out for starters. Well, technically he chopped his finger off for starters…
Fun fact: the only book that Angela’s mom ever confiscated from Teen Angela was the novelization of Warlock.