Friday, February 10, 2017

Past Misdeeds: Warlock Moon (1975)

Through the transformation of the glorious WTF-Films into the even more glorious Exploder Button and the ensuing server changes, some of my old columns for the site have gone the way of all things internet. I’m going to repost them here in irregular intervals in addition to my usual ramblings.

Please keep in mind these are the old posts without any re-writes or improvements. Furthermore, many of these pieces were written years ago, so if you feel offended or need to violently disagree with me in the comments, you can be pretty sure I won’t know why I wrote what I wrote anymore anyhow.

College student Jenny (Laurie Walters) lets herself be talked into a nice little picnic out in the country surrounding her native San Francisco by a guy she has just met on campus. It seems that a combination of bad jokes, a Groucho Marx nose and beard and a painful Inspector Clouseau imitation are the direct way into this girl's heart. I think I'm gonna put that into my book of sure ways to charm the ladies.

When he's not joking, John (Joe Spano) introduces himself as a junior reporter for a local newspaper.

After their picnic, Jenny and John end up at an old, abandoned looking health resort (where the audience has already witnessed a woman being axed by a very backwoodsy looking gentleman in the teaser sequence). Some walking through perfectly moody abandoned buildings ensues, until the young people meet an old woman (Edny MacAfee) who lives in the place. At first, this Mrs Abercrombie is a little grumpy, but it doesn't take long until she falls into the typical nice old lady routine, tea and everything you'd expect included. Jenny very suddenly begins to feel woozy, and so decides to stay behind while Mrs Abercrombie gives John an official tour of the place. The young woman uses this opportunity to get a little nosy, and at once finds a nice set of drugs and syringes in a drawer. Jenny doesn't seem to think much about it, though, and so just decides to take another little stroll through the spa herself. The young woman sees and hears quite peculiar and disturbing things on her way around, but - surprisingly - nothing truly terrible happens to her. She's just left with a less than pleasant impression of the ruined spa, and probably promises herself never to return there.

Her aversion to the place notwithstanding, John manages to talk Jenny into visiting it a second time a few weeks later. This decision turns out to be a mistake that will put Jenny into an ideal position to learn things about the local black magic cannibal cult and the unpleasant history of the spa she never dared to ask.

Warlock Moon is another one of these strange and beautiful independent, regional US horror productions of the 70s and 80s I love so much. As is so often the case with films like this, Warlock Moon's director, writer, editor and producer Bill Herbert only made this single film and then never was heard from again (yeah, I know, the commentary track on the DVD would probably enlighten me regarding Herbert's further career, but where's the mystery in that?). But really, what need for making more movies could there have been after Herbert had made a perfect specimen like this one?

Herbert's movie isn't one of those local productions that look like they were made by blind and deaf men barely knowing in which direction to point their cameras, not to speak of things like properly lighting a scene. Although Herbert's direction shows a certain lack of experience and the rawness that comes from making a film on the very cheap, a lot of the film works quite beautifully. The director has an especially good eye for the long scenes of Jenny walking through the impressive abandoned buildings most of the film takes place in, using what is one of the perfect locations for a film like this with relish. The ruin's of the health resort are possibly the film's main attraction, and certainly its star, imbuing Warlock Moon with the striking instant eeriness of actual places that can be found so often in the independent US horror films of its era.

Warlock Moon is also a true film of its era. Seen from a distance, its plot doesn't make much sense, and the plan of its occult cannibal conspiracy does even less so. However, the plot is of course just an excuse to show scenes of Spano, MacAfee and her assistants being creepy and of Jenny losing herself (quite like this viewer) in the atmosphere of the abandoned houses. In its 70s stubbornness (or perhaps just the confusion that seems to have infected much of the pop culture of its time), Warlock Moon does not seem to believe in clear explanations for anything that happens in it. The audience is allowed to learn that evil is afoot here, and understand that Jenny's role is going to be very unpleasant, but the film prefers to leave many of the questions a viewer will ask unanswered. We never learn what makes Jenny a special case affording special rituals, for example. Why is she a stand-in for the bride whose killing seems to have been the original sin of the cannibal cult? The connection between the spa's sordid history and the things happening there now is also kept ambiguous (is it the same cult as decades ago, or a new one making use of a place already filled with occult meaning?), as are Jenny's meetings with what might be a ghost or just a hallucination caused by drugged tea and frightful stories. While I'm talking about the ghost - why does the ghost at first seem to want to help Jenny, yet later drives her into the direction of her doom? Like Jenny, we are only allowed hints, portents, and suggestions. The truth stays occluded even for the people bound to die for it.

Of course, the film's wallowing in mood, sense of place and ambiguity has drawbacks other than the unclearness (and problematic believability, but what horror film is believable on its surface?) of its plot. For much of the film, there might be just too little happening on screen for many people's tastes, and what is happening is surely not happening fast. There are also scenes of John acting incredibly peculiar, in fact quite exactly like the sort of guy any woman with a brain would avoid instead of date, yet in their skewed way, even these moments just add to Warlock Moon's attraction (again mirroring Jenny's experience, which might of course be pure chance).

As I said, much of the film is given to scenes of Jenny walking through empty, half-ruined buildings with a puzzled look on her face, and while I can't help but love the movie for these scenes, I can imagine others feeling kind of bored by them. It's a little sad that I can imagine such empty lives, but I can.

If there is a sub-genre of the horror movie about people walking through deserted and desolate places (and I'd argue there is), Warlock Moon is one of its prime examples.

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