Younger readers may not be aware of this, but there was a time before the streaming wars when a movie could still be profitable without having a successful run at the box office. In fact, the direct-to-video market used to be so huge that it was worth producing smaller projects specifically for video and DVD, especially when a wide theatrical release might result in them losing money. Unfortunately, the reduced budgets often resulted in cheap cash-grabs when it came to franchises, with most movie sequels decreasing in quality the further they strayed from their cinema screen origins.
However, there were exceptions to this trend, as the lowered expectations also meant that creative risks could sometimes be taken with existing properties – with filmmakers being allowed to innovate instead of simply rehashing what came before. One example of these creative outliers is the Warlock series, as the third movie is actually a marked improvement over the second entry despite its direct-to-video origins. With that in mind, I invite you to join us for the final installment in our three-part Warlock retrospective as we dive into what exactly makes Warlock III: The End of Innocence tick.
The original film had been a surprise hit for Trimark Pictures, as they had acquired the finished project for much less than its production budget, but Warlock: The Armageddon wasn’t the huge success that the distributor had been hoping for despite a greatly reduced budget. That’s why it makes sense that the next installment would cost even less than its already-discounted predecessor, with Warlock III being produced for a mere $2 million.
Naturally, Julian Sands jumped ship when he realized the limitations of the ensuing sequel, and even Anthony Hickox couldn’t be convinced to return to the director’s chair. Ironically, I believe that this is the source of the film’s unique charms, as a completely new (albeit budget-friendly) cast and crew ended up making The End of Innocence a completely different kind of movie, with the filmmakers under no pressure to tie things in with the stories that came before.
Helmed by Eric Freiser (who sadly only directed this film and one other TV movie) and starring Hellraiser’s Ashley Laurence as our leading lady, this sequel is more of a traditional scary movie than a fantasy/horror hybrid. Not only does the film introduce a surprisingly menacing reinvention of the titular Warlock courtesy of Bruce Payne, but it was also shot in Roger Corman’s Concorde Anois studios (infamous for its controversial genre productions) due to the new haunted house setting.
In the finished film, we follow the artist Kris Miller (Laurence) as she and her friends travel to her estranged family’s ancestral home in an attempt to find out more about her past before the place is demolished. Unfortunately, one of her companions accidentally unleashes a terrifying Warlock (Payne) who was trapped beneath the house, with the psychotic magician planning on using Kris as part of a demonic ritual in a mind-bending supernatural thriller.
We may have seen variations of this familiar premise before, but The End of Innocence is surprisingly well executed in spite of its inadequate budget and somewhat meandering narrative. To be honest, this might very well be the most consistent entry in the entire franchise, telling a self-contained story about family and ancestral curses that feels firmly rooted in a single genre and tone.
The side-characters are nothing to write home about – with the film featuring your standard early-2000s collection of disposable college students present in any number of horror flicks from that period – but the whole experience is grounded by two exceedingly charismatic leads. I mean, it’s impossible not to root for Laurence’s sensitive artist even if her friends leave a lot to be desired, and it’s pretty cool to see her face off against another disturbing supernatural force.
While there’s no getting over the absence of Julian Sands, I’ve got to hand it to Payne for making the role his own and completely recharacterizing the Warlock as a more manipulative and believably sinister figure. Gone is most of the over-the-top glee present in the previous films, with this newly resurrected Satanist (who might be a completely different Warlock) being a lot more direct with his evil schemes. Even critics of the time praised Payne’s performance as the highlight of the picture despite feeling that this was the weakest entry in the trilogy, claiming that his more calculating demeanor made him even more menacing.
Even so, Warlock fans are here for the supernatural shenanigans, and Freiser’s film manages to deliver some solid old-fashioned frights that feel directly lifted from the golden age of Vincent Price vehicles. They may not all work, with some mirror scares and silly dialogue feeling more cheesy than eerie, but the flick’s more subdued approach to spell-work (like turning a victim into glass or cursing a musician with deafness) is a lot scarier than the hilarious effects of the previous films.
Alas, The End of Innocence suffers from some major pacing issues, with a huge portion of the runtime dedicated to watching edgy college students wander around an old house and talk about their upcoming exams. I usually wouldn’t mind a bit of character development sprinkled throughout a creepy adventure, but the weak script makes these talkative segments dreadfully uninteresting in ways that often overpower the creative bits – though I admit that some clever direction and the early 2000s soundtrack help to make things more palatable.
Your mileage may vary depending on how willing you are to deal with boring exposition in order to get the death and witchcraft of it all, but I’d argue that there are enough good ideas in Warlock III to make it worth a watch. From clever homages to Mario Bava to a genuinely fun third act, I think this film deserves a better reputation even if it can’t quite reach the same heights as its more expensive brethren.
I’ve always been a sucker for moody early-2000s horror flicks ala Book of Shadows: Blair Witch 2, and that’s probably why I ended up enjoying The End of Innocence a lot more than I expected. It’s certainly no masterpiece, with only The Armageddon featuring a worse victim pool, but this direct-to-video gem is still a worthy entry in one of the strangest horror franchises of all time.
Other than the absence of Sands, my only real gripe with the film is the fact that it’s the last one in the series, as I’d love to see our favorite time-travelling Satanist make a proper 21st century debut…