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.