There is a maxim in small business that also applies to the horror film: location, location, location. Indeed, when budgets leave you lost and production values undermine your vision, a good setting can go along way in saving your shivers. Examples abound in both the mainstream and minor league levels of the terror tale. Toby Hooper's bleak Tejas backdrop really accents the atrocities in his seminal Chainsaw Massacre. The same adage applies to that rural equivalent of the Inferno, otherwise known as a carnival. Hooper again made the midway an inhuman hiding ground when he planted a ferocious freak amongst the hired hand reprobate in The Funhouse. Perhaps the most amazing example of a found frightener is the story behind the monochrome menace Carnival of Souls. Filmmaker Herk Harvey passed by an abandoned Mormon amusement park while traveling through Utah, and was inspired to craft his long considered classic creep-out with the dilapidated delight at its center. While many can argue about the movie's macabre attributes, the aura of fun foiled and fouled really helped to sell the scares. And now it's time to add William Herbert to the list of placement planned picture makers. Having located an abandoned spa in the middle of the California wilderness, this first-time filmmaker got a big brainstorm. Why not utilize the decaying resort as the haunted health club from Hell in a movie filled with witches, axe murders and cannibalism. The result was a little known novelty called Bloody Spa. Somehow later retitled Warlock Moon, this crazy tale of a couple caught up in a flesh-eating legend from forty years before, disappeared from movie theaters as quickly as it arrived, never having the impact hoped for by its creator. Now resurrected by Media Blasters as part of their on-going series of Joe Bob Briggs-hosted horrors, we finally get a chance to see this locale-based lunacy in all its incoherent glory. And you know what? The results are nearly as bad as you'd think.
Jenny Macallister (Laurie Walters - Eight is Enough, The Harrad Experiment) is attending classes at the University of California at Berkeley where she is majoring in Psychology. There she runs into wannabe cub reporter John Devers (Joe Spano Hill Street Blues, Apollo 13) and the two strike up an instant friendship. On the way back from a picnic in the country, the couple gets lost and find themselves wandering around an abandoned resort in the middle of the woods. This one-time spa appears deserted, that is, until Jenny runs into Mrs. Agnes Abercrombie, who claims to be living on the property. Over a casual cup of tea, Agnes tells the pair about the place's past. While exploring further, Jenny runs into a ghost, who leads her to an odd room containing a huge circle made up of purple stones. Before she can question what is happening, Joe informs her that they are leaving. After a week where neither party has spoken to each other, Joe arrives on campus with a proposition they will go back out to the spa so that he can do a feature story for the newspaper. Jenny reluctantly agrees and finds herself back at the abandoned oasis again. But this time, the area truly seems deserted. Mrs. Abercrombie's home is completely empty no furniture inside or flowers on the outside. Again hearing a spectral voice, Jenny runs into a hunter, who informs her of the hotel's haunted legacy. Seems a cook went crazy 40 years before and killed a young bride, cutting her up and cooking her for the guests. Before she can digest the grim saga, Joe arrives with Mrs. Abercrombie is tow. Oddly enough, her home is completely back to normal. After Jenny takes ill during dinner, the old lady convinces the duo to spend the night. Of course, she doesn't dare mention the satanic sacrifice occurring at midnight, the need for a young woman to fulfill the rite's requirements, or the two henchmen wandering around the property with murder on their minds and axes in their hands.
There are a great many reasons to avoid Warlock Moon (aside from the completely pointless title). The plotting is circular and illogical, taking turns that announce spoilers and secrets long before the film is ready to give them up. Characters are ill defined and tend to stop the narrative dead in its tracks to explore tangents of senseless length padding. The murders, whether by axe, shotgun or knife, all occur off-screen, leaving us in the bloodletting lurch, or needlessly waiting around for the quick glimpsed aftermath. And then there's the kitten on the keyboard cacophony of the soundtrack, a mixture of standard symphonic slop accented with random found noises (explosions, mice being strangled, various audible elements from the human alimentary canal) that really grates on the ganglia. So with all these strikes of stupidity against it, with male lead Joe Spano going off on a play acting bender during a crucial crossroads of the narrative, with the need to sit through ALL the credits conceit just to see the ersatz ending, you'd imagine that Warlock Moon would suck pre-pigged pork rinds. Well, as the MXC Captain would say, you're wrong. Granted, this is a failure of a film, a flopping around like a carp without a kiddie pool pisher that can't quite make up its mind if it's a precursor to The Shining (about three years before a certain S. King got the idea for a haunted hotel) or a 'hey dude' California reconfiguration of all those moldy old dark house Hammer films (you know the ones, where buxom wenches wander aimlessly around abandoned boarding schools for 45 minutes). And still, when you sit back and think about it, when you ignore all the faithless leaps in reason and spiraling out of control concepts and consider the impact of the film, the smallest tingle of terror gambols up your spine. While not a ringing endorsement, that's better than most handmade movies can ever claim.
In spite of the its San Andreas sized flaws, and substantial lack of sagacity, this is still a decent little diversion, a film flying by the seat of its setting and damn proud of it. Writer/director Herbert has to be given some credit for trying to squeeze all the atmosphere and dread he can out of that disheveled spa location. Overgrown with weeds and out of control ivy, rotting facades evoking both splendor and spoilage, there is an incredibly redolent environment for this chaos to crawl around in. Though he never exploits it to its fullest (we catch only glances of the grotesque grandeur) Herbert still wants us to feel the spooky, desolate impression of the place, and for the most part, he succeeds. Since it comes with its own authentic aura of antiquity, we almost automatically fall for the haunted house histrionics, as if the very nature of the place warrants our being wary. There are a couple of classic scenes (one in a disheveled kitchen, the other in a drained swimming pool) that are permeated with the rotting reality of the resort, and had Herbert used more of this real life relic's riches, his movie would have been far better. Instead, he sticks us in stupid, non-descript dining rooms where endless conversations about minutia are metered out, the actors fighting back the boredom the entire time. Or worse, Herbert closes in tight for frame filling faces while his performers wander his found fright site, destroying any visual cues he could use to achieve claustrophobia or confusion. The spatial relationship between people and place particulars in Warlock Moon is way off. When Jenny steps out into the daylight and onto a porch overlooking the main entrance, we wonder just how she got there (since the film never tells us). Similarly, the hunter describes a short cut to the front that seems antithetical to the landscape surrounding the path. There is a lot of blueprint bafflement in Warlock Moon, a sure sign that its creator had the heart to complete his ideas, but not the proper synaptic connections to make them clear.
Herbert could also have used a couple of audited classes in Syd Fields' screenwriting basics. He saves up far too many of his sinister secrets for the last five minutes of his movie, and even cheats a little more by requiring the audience to pay attention during the closing credits. Like the below-average student who falls asleep during a Calculus test and, upon waking up with two minutes before pencils down, jots as many ideas as he or she can in the time allotted, Warlock Moon is just too back heavy with revelations. There is a good 30 minutes of aimless wandering put forward before our first clue that something is amiss. We then have to wait another 10 minutes before our perplexed pheasant hunter cuts loose with the classic tale of corpse canapιs. Since Warlock Moon is just a little short of 80 minutes in length, and with lots of meandering still mandated by the story, this leaves about 289 seconds to divvy up between the diabolic and the denouement. Indeed, the final act of this film, with its strange Spano soliloquy about heroes hiding hideousness, and off screen death antics would have benefited from an additional 15 minute of running time that is, as long as the entire first half of the film was retrofitted to play more straightforward and less scattered. Since our first experience with the supposed supernatural/slasher concepts of the film happens over the opening credits, and all other paranormal possibilities are merely hinted at or happening outside camera range, we are left holding the boredom bag quite a bit in Warlock Moon. Sure, there is the bleakness of tone and halo of unease surrounding the situations, but we never actually understand the devil worshipping/people eating ideas contained in the numb narrative. Herbert may have had high ideas for his little slice of California Gothic, but we are poorly versed in how to fill in the blanks ourselves.
Then there is the acting. Now, it is not bad, not by an extended attempt. Both Spano and Walters sell the heebie jeebie moments with energy and pep. No, the problem arrives in the unhinged characterization given to each of our pseudo-protagonists. As Agnes Abercrombie, Edna MacAfee has all her bitchy old bitty eggs properly placed in the right basket of banefulness. She is a pitch perfect witch from beginning to end. But when it comes to the inquirer as question mark Joe and the flibbertigibbet as femme fatal of Jenny, we are lost before we even begin. Spano starts off the film playing a combination of Charles Boyer, Herman Goering and Lord Mountbatten as he tries to seduce Jenny with the stalwart of 70s cinema the varying continental accent routine. Realizing that he can't possibly win a girl over with his nasal 'Welcome to the Valley' whine, he resorts to the international language of ethnic stereotyping to woo the wench. Yet as nutty as a pecan roll as that routine is, it is no match for John's one-man show in the drained shallow end of the spa's swimming pool. Trying to convince Jenny that he is her knight in nearly shining armor, Spano turns John into a monster, a hero and 'the son of Dracula', all before going bonkers and swinging a stick within an inch of Jenny's jawbone over and over again. This visualization of Spano's inner battle with imaginary pixies of Hate is hilarious, a real over the top moment in a movie thriving on a somber, sober atmosphere of dread.
So, how does Jenny respond to this ridiculous battery filled rant? She cowers and then forgets all about it. Indeed, that is the Method modus of Laurie Walters throughout most of the movie. A ghost spooks her, and after being mildly devastated, she shrugs it off like it happens everyday. She is tormented by an axe-wielding reject from a Renaissance fair and upon allowing herself the luxury of being momentarily frightened to death, she's up and about and ready for more. Gun goes off near her head? Merely the normal routine for an early 70s coed. Old lady tries to poison you and serve you up to her Satanic god? Register some mild shock, and then remember your Emily Post and say "please" and "thank you". Walters is wonderful as the screaming servant to scare central in Warlock Moon. Her reaction shots are on the money and filled with the proper fear factors. Just don't expect her to remember how she acted once it's all over, or even consider the creep-out a life-altering incident. Thanks to Herbert's hackneyed approach to personality, Jenny/Walters occasionally feels more schizo than the psychos running around making tourists tartar for their matronly madam.
Still, Warlock Moon deserves some decency for moving away from the typical 'fiend in a frenzy' foundation for its thrill killers, and instead, going for a more bohemian broadsword angle. Steve Solinsky and Richard Vielle play "The Axemen" here never given real names and each one has an iconography that's ripe for flights of fun free association. On the one hand, you have a red-headed Hagar disciple, a Norse god as hired goon kind of creep who runs about in a tank top t-shirt and grubby jeans like a Valhalla version of Stanley Kowalski. With a face that resembles Flea from the Red Hot Chili Peppers mixed with a child-molesting Santa Claus and the physical demeanor of a failed USC fullback, our Henna horror is one striking wedge wielder. His partner in slime crime time is an overall wearing roadie for the Allman Brothers band who has a constant look on his face like he forgot where he put Dickie Betts' stash. Even when he's attacking Jenny, he barely registers an emotion above bong-hit bemusement. As part of this Odd Couple of cannibalism, our big blond bozo is a fetid Felix to our maroon moron's offal smelling Oscar, and yet they appear to have a very successful working relationship together (one look at the well stocked pantry full of hippies and human exposition points confirms their overflowing joint venture). So while they may look like refugees from Day Laborers: The Musical, our duo of death bringers actually amplifies the already surreal spooks in Warlock Moon. Together with that already well-known face of evil the kindly old lady we get a triptych of twisted terror that keeps this low budget bumbler from falling all over its own loose ends.
Indeed, for everything that plays as pathetic in this movie, for the seismic mood swings experienced by Jenny, the buck-toothed balderdash expelled by John or Mrs. Abercrombie's Mickey slipping, Warlock Moon manages to right itself and actually deliver on a few panic components. Though it is occasionally as incoherent as one of the pro-peace pamphlets passed out on the college campuses of the late 60s/early 70s, and does feel like a weekend jaunt into the country for a few friends, a Panaflex, and a batch of 'wake and bake' brownies, there is still enough of the eerie here to warrant a watch. With the help of a location that more or less makes up for about 47 pages of scripted scares and a completely crazy concept of how cannibals shop for groceries, Warlock Moon is a resplendent, rancid raspberry, a bold Bronx cheer in the face of normalcy and logic. Had director Herbert gone full out, had he abandoned all hope of mainstream acceptance and turned up the psychotic psychedelia to Electric Prunes level, this film could have been a lost gem, a bright bauble in the bottomless cask of under appreciated horror films. But with its constant careening back into convention and the desire to stuff all the skittish stuff at the tale end, Warlock Moon becomes a faux-failed experiment in creep showboating. When Jenny and John went motoring into the country for a little afternoon delight on that calm, collegiate day, little did they know that they would come face to face with a fractured narrative, an abandoned oasis and a dinner date with the serving plate. Warlock Moon is an adequate digression into the decidedly deranged. But in many ways, the after taste is far more potent than the main meal itself.
There is good news and bad news about Media Blasters DVD incarnation of Warlock Moon. The benevolent basics are that this 32-year-old film is presented in a 1.66:1 anamorphic widescreen image that looks surprisingly acceptable for something this old and unknown. While we witness lots of negative flaws (scratches, dirt, jagged jump cuts) and some strange transfer issues (watch for the falling fly during one of the image's odder moments) this picture is passable but far from perfect. Naturally, this leads us to the dark side of this discussion and it's not very pretty, not at all. Media Blasters has obviously painstakingly run this film through a digital remastering machine, accenting the colors, removing faded facets and heightening the contrasts. Sadly, you can see every reconfiguration in the image, especially in night and shadow scenes. Like pixelated colorization, you can make out the computer-generated corrections throughout the transfer. Backgrounds ghost and jitter with tint-based tremors and characters disappearing into darkness can be faintly viewed via their binary bitmap alter ego. While it almost adds another level of supernatural unreality to a film already filled with such falderal, the less than professional pigmentation of this movie may cause purists some minor concern that is, if they are even giving Warlock Moon the time of day to begin with.
As if to give away its age outright, the Dolby Digital Mono soundtrack for Warlock Moon is flat and fairly lifeless, with little spatial or aural openness. There is a great deal of overdubbing in this film, awkward ADR that is obvious to even the untrained ear. When Jenny and John meet-cute around the Berkeley campus, you can hear the recording studio echoes (not to mention witness the amateur lip sync) as the actors recapture and rerecord the moment. In addition to the cacophony as orchestration mentality present in the musical scoring, and the complete lack of appropriate foley (footsteps sound like mini A-bomb explosions), this is a film with sonic stigmas in abundance. Still, the dialogue is usually clear and the volume levels are viable and well maintained. Overall, Warlock Moon sounds pretty good just don't expect some manner of channel challenging exposition and you'll be fine.
If you are interested in some of the other product offered by Media Blasters, or how Warlock Moon itself was marketed, you may enjoy the trailers presented as part of the bonus material inside this DVD package. There is also a five-minute silent alternative opening sequence that, when matched with the one in the film itself, highlights a substantial lack of red-headed weapon wielding (verdict: the version in the actual movie is better). But frankly, the main reason most people will be even remotely interested in this title is the full-length audio anarchy (along with a nice 5 minute introduction reminiscent of the old Movie Channel days) by Grapevine, Texas' favorite cinematic son of the soil, Joe Bob Briggs. If you have ever heard one of Mr. Briggs' alternative narrative tracks before, you know he can be pretty hit or miss (with a great deal of the discussion going directly toward the target). He is either a wealth of basic information or a whirling dervish of weirdness. Well, rejoice all you fans of the passion pit provocateur, as this is one of the man's best joke-fests ever. A good subtitle for this exercise in expression would be "Joe Bob vs. the Witches". Indeed, this is a hilarious commentary track loaded with anti-enchantress rants. When he gets on a tear, Briggs is brilliant, deconstructing the whole Goddess/goodness angle in new age Wiccan wombattiness with devastating accuracy. He also has a lot of ironic issues with the movie itself, spouting out questions that you, yourself, are thinking as the perplexing plot plays out. Between his personal speculation on the identity of William Herbert to the brain draining attempts to explain the plot, this is a great added feature to the Warlock Moon DVD, and proof positive that JBB needs a job back on TV ASAP.
Had it kept the original Bloody Spa title and scattered the concept of lunar loving male wizards to the foul four winds, it is easy to see Warlock Moon being a well-remembered diversion in the post-Peace Decade delirium on the 1970s. While it may not have reached Texas Chainsaw Massacre magnitude or survived the oncoming Halloween onslaught, there is still a lot to like about this minor macabre. Viewed through our more modern glazed eyeglasses, at least director William Herbert is trying his damnedest to escape the doldrums of most location based booby hatchery while mixing his menace metaphors to cover all the dark ride basics. Like another long lost example of eccentricity mixed with environment, Jack Hill's Spider Baby, Warlock Moon wants to have its flesh feast and flabbergast it too. Referencing several of the genre's more memorable ideals (haunted house, cul- like cabal, wandering wanton bloodlust) and then adding in its own goofy sense of self, this is a twisted tinker's dam of a delight. If you expect professional paranormalcy from beginning to end, with cogent plotting and sensible characterization, you would be best advised to continue on down the Devil worshipping road to one of the 70s other satanic sensations. No, Warlock Moon is lost in the afterglow of its own goofiness and is not afraid to express its excess to the rest of the world. Thanks to an abandoned fat farm somewhere in the California wilderness, William Herbert managed a minor miracle. How heaven-sent you feel the film is will be in direct proportion to the amount of story, setting and scare slack you're willing to part with. While a lightyear or two from perfection, this is still a strangely engaging film. You too may find yourself howling at this Warlock Moon, for intentional and unintentional reasons.
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