James Cameron's 1984 masterpiece The Terminator remains one of the greatest time travel epics ever made. A true Sci-Fi classic, it grossed $78 million at the box office and was an instant favorite of critics and fans alike. Perhaps it was inevitable that its premise—that of a hero and his mortal foe battling across centuries as well as great distances—would be duplicated a score of times by lesser filmmakers in lesser films. Universal Soldier, Highlander, and their myriad dismal sequels come to mind, as does the 1993 Stallone vehicle, Demolition Man. Steve Miner's unsung 1989 B-movie Warlock is very much in this same category of Terminator knockoff. Though underwhelming in its production values, Warlock manages to outshine its contemporaries through fine writing, directing, and above all, acting.
The beauty of Warlock's story lies in its simplicity. This is not a film with delusions of grandeur; it has more in common with Highlander than Braveheart. Hot on the trail of his mortal enemy the Warlock, our hero Redferne dives courageously after his foe into a magical time vortex that transports him from 17th century New England to 1980s Los Angeles. A true fish out of water, it isn't long before Redferne finds himself tasered at the hands of those infamous proponents of brutality, the LAPD. He's arrested but doesn't stay in jail for long. An innocent bystander named Kassandra ("With a K!," as she is quick to remind all) posts bail when she realizes Redferne may be the one person who can free her from the curse the Warlock has placed on her. Kassandra (Lori Singer) is a vain young woman who has been cursed by a spell that leads to rapid aging. At the pace of "a decade twice over a day," Kassandra not only rapidly loses her looks but has less than a week to live unless she can reverse the spell. The only way to do that is by confronting the diabolical Warlock, who rightfully terrifies her. After some convincing, Kassandra eventually agrees to join Redferne. The odd couple set off on a quest to find the Warlock and end his reign of terror before it goes any further. Along the way, the Warlock takes council with Satan himself and begins a quest to undo all of creation by uniting the pages of a spell book called the Grand Grimoire. Fully assembled, the Grand Grimoire spells out the true name of God which, if spoken backwards, will destroy the universe.
The character to whom we are to relate immediately as an audience is the Sara Connor proxy, Kassandra. Initially, she is not a likable leading woman; she is written as dim witted, cowardly, and vapid. But by the film's end, I came to find her if not pleasant then tolerable. The kindest thing I can say of Singer's performance as this boor is that it is adequate; she is never charming but far from odious. It would take an actress of the highest caliber to make me really care about Kassandra and Singer just doesn't have the chops. Still, she does what she can with the role and her effort is commendable.
Like The Terminator, Warlock focuses as much on its antagonist as it does on the heroic duo out to defeat him. The Warlock's true name is never revealed on screen. Instead he is referred to only by title, a nice touch that paints him as less a man than an entity of nameless evil. He is wantonly cruel, blond, and impossibly beautiful. His powers are formidable; superhuman strength, a hypnotic gaze, and flight to name just a few. English actor Julian Sands has a ball as the title character. The scene in which he plays video football with a young boy on a swing set is tremendous; as is the scene in which he admires a victim's pinky ring before rudely hacking the finger off. Misfortune in the form of death and dismemberment inevitably befall all who cross his path, but Warlock takes care not to become an exploitation film. Most violence happens off screen, is merely hinted at, or is handled humorously.
Richard E. Grant's performance as the witch hunter Redferne is nothing short of heroic. His character is loosely molded after Terminator's hero, Sgt. Kyle Reese (Michael Biehn). In the hands of a lesser actor, the valiant Redferne could have been a laughable caricature of superstitious Puritanism but Grant finds the heart of the character. Standing over a "witch compass" constructed of brass and witch's blood, he delivers the greatest line in the film; "Now brute, one last time we play the game out!" I enjoyed every word of Redferne's dialogue, all intoned with Grant's silver tongued faux Scots burr.
On a special effects level, Warlock falls flat on its face. This is a film produced by Roger Corman in the late 80s, which should give you some idea of what to expect. The bursts of magical energy the Warlock fires from his hands are truly garish. And don't get me started on the scene in which the Warlock is supposed to be flying down an interstate highway at 100 mph. Warlock's special effects suffer not only in comparison to recent films, but also in comparison to other films from the same time period such as John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China. Still, for all of the low budget special effect snafus, I enjoyed the fight scenes between Redferne and the Warlock immensely. I particularly enjoyed the climactic showdown in which Redferne takes on the Warlock with his bare hands.
All in all, Warlock is easily the best of the many Terminator knockoffs. It is action packed, well paced, and resists the temptation to get bogged down with a sappy romantic subplot. It never reaches beyond its grasp; it is a B-movie out and out and on that humble level it succeeds. It features an attractive cast and is well written, directed, produced, and especially acted.