By ANTHONY C. FERRANTE
It's that time once again: time for Fango fans to read a headline and groan, "They're making another sequel to that movie?!"
Fitting the bill this month is Warlock: The End of Innocence, but before anyone starts foaming at the mouth and preparing for the perfunctory filmmaker pleas that "what we've done here is really expand the Warlock universe," there's good news for a change.
Warlock: The End of Innocence is actually pretty good. Instead of simply recycling the plot devices of the first two movies and getting Julian Sands back in the Warlock duds (Necronomicon's Bruce Payne is the villain this time), and instead of making an out-and-out exploitation film, first-time director Eric Freiser (who co-wrote the script with Bruce Eisen) has put together one ofthe more impressive feature film debuts in some time.
Sure, Fango has said stuff like this before, but Freiser has delivered the goods with a studio-quality look to this low -budget effort that is one part a clever, creepy ghost story, and the other the titular Warlock's tale. While the requisite exploitation requirements are here (a sprinkling of nudity and gore), for once you actually get the feeling that there was a filmmaker at the helm and not someone merely cashing a paycheck.
"On this kind of film and budget, it's easy to find a direc-tor who would be willing to do it just for the money or to fill some time, but that was never the case with Eric--we never paid him and he still did it," laughs Eisen, who also served as the film's producer.
"Actually, he was really passionate about it," Eisen adds. "It was never 'This is just Warlock III' or 'Oh, it's only a genre film.' It was always
'We're making something special here,' and he went out of his way to make it the best he could." Fans will be able to judge for themselves when the movie (with a III added on the packaging) debuts from Trimark Home Video October 12.
So what does Freiser do that's different in his Warlock? For one thing, he goes for quiet, chilling moments instead of loud, bois-terous scares. Then there are the ingenious in-camera tricks instead of balls-out CGI trickery. He even landed a strong acting troupe that does not come off as Saved by the Bell castoffs like so many horror ensembles.
Before we made this, we talked about doing a Gothic horror movie from frame one," says Freiser. "If you're familiar with the old Hammer and Mario Bava films, I feel this owes a lot to those. Even our title is Hammer horrorish--that 'end of innocence, fall from grace' sort of thing."
The seeds for the latest Warlock were sown at Trimark when they were ap-proached by Luxembourg investors interested in financing a new movie in the franchise, due to some attractive tax breaks shoot-ing in their country would offer. "We said, 'Great, we'll produce it,' " says Eisen, who served as head of business affairs at Trimark before becoming a creative executive. "So we went ahead with it, brought in some writers. No one liked what they were doing. They were pitching ideas like Five Warlocks and a Girl. The great thing about Trimark, though, is that they give you an opportunity to branch out and enough rope to swing--or hang yourself. I did a little bit of both. "
So Eisen, who also produced The Dentist 2, pounded out a first draft of what would become Warlock: The End ofInnocence, with Freiser coming in later to polish the script and subsequently direct. The story centers around Kris (Hellraiser's Ashley Laurence), a young woman who has been trying to find out where she comes from and who her family really is. When she learns about house belonging to her birth family that she never met, she travels to Massachusetts to clear things out and hopefully find a few clues, to her heritage before the place is demolished.
Of course, her presence there unleashes the vengeful spirit of the Warlock (Payne) who has a little unfinished business to settle with Kris' lineage. When several college friends arrive to spend the weekend with her in the old house, the Warlock begins to infiltrate the group---winning them over with kindness one by one. Ultimately, we learn the reason for his manipulation as he begins to prey on their fears in order to get to Kris--leading to a battle of wills between the two.
"The haunted house idea with a group of kids was already in Bruce's original draft," explains Freiser, who tried to create a self-contained movie in his rewrites. "You don't really need to know Warlock. The only reference we really make to the other films is the fact that this movie begins with a prologue [establishing the character]." Eisen adds, "The idea [in the first draft] was very similar, but it didn't have the intellectual and emotional level that Eric brought to it. The Warlock needed to play on to people's neuroses and psychoses, and my characters were all well-adjusted."
During these stages, the Luxembourg deal fell through when the investors became interested in doing bigger films, so Trimark production vice president Darin Spillman (who used to work at Roger Corman’s Concorde/New Horizons) suggested they shoot at Corman's studios in Ireland. The team scouted, loved what they found and a deal was made. "The script pretty much stayed the same," says Eisen. "When we wrote it with Luxembourg in mind, we knew the deal required it be shot on stage, so we thought of this haunted house element with a bunch of kids there. When Ireland came up, it ended up being the same deal, so it ultimately all worked out for the better."
One x factor that was still unresolved was whether or not Sands could be coaxed back into his Warlock ways for the followup, but when it became obvious the film couldn’t be worked into his schedule, other possibilities were explored. Eventually, Payne (of Passenger 57 and Howling VI, among others) was cast--though as an entirely different Warlock from Sands' character.
"Bruce brought to the film his own brand of evil intensity and the suave charisma that was required for the Warlock," says Freiser. "In the first two movies, Julian was very smooth as the character, but Bruce makes for a scarier villain. You feel he is capable of more evil than Julian."
With Payne cast, the next piece of the puzzle was securing a strong lineup for the younger roles. Freiser and Eisen found this much easier than anticipated, and pegged Laurence for the heroine. Laurence, of course, has had plenty of experience in the horror genre, from her early roles ,in the first two Hellraiser movies to later parts in Mikey, and CupidThe Lurking Fear. "I cast Ashley without seeing any of her other films," Freiser admits. "I knew she had done Hellraiser, but I had not seen it. All I knew her from was an acting class and her audition for this part. We knew she was right from the beginning and pretty much offered it to her. "
The actress, though, was a bit hesitant to jump back into the genre fray but was won over by the script and Freiser’s unabashed enthusiasm. "Initially I didn't want to do it because I didn't want to do another horror movie, and I didn't need to do it," Laurence admits. "However, because of the people involved, I decided to take the chance. When I first went in and auditioned, I loved how communicative Eric was. I realized that he knew how to deal with actors, and then I saw this short film of his called Take Out the Beast [1995), and that kind of solidified it for me. The script also allowed me to think about things and not necessarily say them regard-ing my character. Something was going on with her, and that was nice. I liked the subtlety and nuances that allowed me to actually create a human being for a change." Laurence was joined on the film by Boti Ann Bliss, Angel Boris, Paul Francis, Jan Schweiterman and Brain Damage star Rick Herbst, now acting under the name Richard C. Hearst.
With the cast in place, the production team packed their bags for Ireland. Shooting there was definitely a different experience for Freiser, but he notes that there were many benefits to lensing on the Emerald Isle, even though he still had a 27- day shoot (which allowed the team a week more of shooting than they would have had with the same budget in California). "Some things were clearly better and some things weren't," he says. "The best was that we all lived in a really luxuri-ous house about 50 feet from the stage. If the call time was 7 a.m., I could crawl out of bed at 10 to 7 if I had to, so that was a nice thing. When you're shooting in LA, sometimes you have to sit in a van and drive for hours to get to set. There, you wrapped and walked 50 feet, and you were home."
This close proximity also allowed the six American leads to form a camaraderie to match their onscreen kinship. "We had a great family, because in a situation like this you don't get a lot of rehearsal time," says Laurence. "We got very comfortable with one another, which was fortunate. Sometimes when you're in a situation with strangers and you don't get along, it's hideous, but we were lucky that we were all compatible."
Freiser adds with a smile, "By the time they had to be best friends, they were all best friends. By the time they had to kill each other, they were ready to kill each other. "
Well versed with actors, Freiser was not only interested in the substance they brought to their roles, but also the onscreen qualities he and cinematographer Andrew Turman could convey under the surface. One thing the director was committed to from the beginning was figuring out ways to do many of the film's key FX sequences in camera. "We did a lot of tricks that were used in the old movies," he admits. "I remember at one point we were trying to figure out how to do a gag where a knife goes right through someone. Bruce said, 'How did they do it in Abbott and Costello Meet the Invisible Man?' So we did it like that, harking back to the old-fashioned way of filmmaking, and I think that works better."
Having a little girl suddenly appear behind a curtain was also one of the key in-camera illusions Freiser is proud of. "It's the oldest gag going, but what we did was put the girl behind a scrim and lit the curtain from behind and in front," he says. "When the camera was on the girl and she was behind the curtain, when we lit behind the curtain, she appeared, and we turned it off and she disappeared. We knew we couldn't afford to do this digitally, so we tried this other technique and it worked brilliantly. It looks better than we thought it would and better than a digital effect."
With the regular shocks getting practical enhancement, Freiser reveals that a bit in the "hell room" (where two characters are brutally tortured) was also considerably improved by an old-fashioned approach. "One of my favorite sequences in the movie was the hell room scene," the director admits. "The challenge was to have Bruce Payne open a door in this house and literally make the audience feel they're in hell itself. Andrew Turman and myself talked at length about how to do this. Ultimately, we settled on a series of techniques Andrew had used often in commercials which were hyper, shaky camera movements, rapid focused refocus and erratic swish pans. At one point, the camera crew was aghast when Andrew was grabbing the camera and shaking it loose off its mount; but the effect works really well in the film and makes it seem unlike the hell we've seen in other movies.'"
While saving money by not going digital was definitely a concern for many of these sequences, Freiser notes that you do pay for it in the long run either way. "You are saving money, but when you're doing stuff in camera, it takes a long time to set up and really get it right. So you pay for it in time."
Still, most FX movies wouldn't be com-plete without a little CGI assistance, and Freiser acknowledges Hammerhead Productions for doing a strong job on a key computer FX-driven sequence in. which .a character is turned to porcelain and smashed to bits by the Warlock. "Hammerhead did the dolphins in Titanic and some stuff on Flubber and the last Batman movie," says Freiser; the company also produced and did the remarkable low-budget FX for Bram Stoker's Shadowbuilder. "Those guys are friends of mine and did this as a favor to me. They really stepped up to the plate and gave me a studio- level effect for nothing. I couldn't be happier with the way it looks. "
Although Warlock: The End of Innocence does have its share of gore FX (created by Robert Hall's Almost Human company), they are pretty tame by Fango's standards. Still, that didn't prevent the MPAA from having concerns. "We did have a throat rip that we cut back considerably," says Freiser. "They made us take a little out of the hell room, too. They thought there was 'too much suffering in hell---though it was quite arbitrary. I would have gone through a lengthy appeals process to fight them, and the stuff they wanted out was not asking for too much. Ultimately, we made them happy by remov-ing like five frames from the scene, and that isn't too bad on a movie like this. "
While Warlock's Irish shoot went like clockwork, lensing far from the comforts of Stateside services did provide the production with a few one-of-a-kind experiences--as when Freiser and co. realized that the stuntman initially intended to stand in for Payne was not going to work. "He was a short guy who was supposed to double for Bruce during all the lair fight scenes," says Freiser: "He had one tooth and was short, and so I told Bruce, 'Come on, Bruce Payne is 6 feet tall, blond and Nordic-looking--this is not going to work. Ultimately, we got a guy who looks a little closer to Bruce Payne and had teeth, but that's what it was like. We didn't have the things available to us that we would have shooting in the U.S."
By that same token, you also don't see a cow stampede in Hollywood every day either--which is what Freiser and several of his cast and crew were almost trapped by. "One day we were driving to the big city nearby, and this guy was running with his cows down a road," says Freiser, laughing now. "I had never been afraid of cattle before, but here we were almost in a stam-pede. There were like 10 cows at full gallop toward our car. All of us had the same reaction: We all felt helpless. We were sitting in one of those tiny little European cars with cows stampeding toward us. Eventually they swung wide of the car, but that's an experience you would not have in America, or at least not in the LA production zone. "
Although Warlock: The End of Innocence turned out better than anyone had anticipated, the notion of a theatrical release for a low-budget genre film--even one with a high-quality theatrical feel--is always a tough call for Trimark. "In this country, you can't really go theatrical with smaller genre films like this, "says Eisen. "The problem is, you spend $2 million making it, and then the [release] is going to cost another $10 million. This is not a film you could slowly build word of mouth on. You have to just put it out there, and to do that is $10 million, and it's very hard to recoup that. The marketplace is very crowded, and the risk is great."
For Laurence, the satisfaction came from working for Freiser and his team in Ireland under such tight, close circumstances, and she claims Warlock to be among her favorite gigs to date. "I had some of the best experiences working on this film, because we were under such pressure so often to do things there," she says:"I really believed we were getting to the heart of making more of an art film, where the communication between us was so open and dynamic. I felt very protected creatively, and that's a rarity and quite meaningful when it happens."
Warlock Photos: Saeed Adyani/ Copyright 1999 Trimark
© Copyright 1999 Fangoria
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