Monday, August 10, 2020

"You Don't Need Dinner in That Foggy City" - Warlock Moon (1973) - Film #184

It is time to consider another film in that classic category of works whose titles are questionably related to their content. In this case, 1973's Warlock Moon mentions neither warlocks nor moons, but it is a fine proto-slasher and precursor to The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) (though it was released after Tobe Hooper's film).

Some of your universe's critics, as usual, choose to look down on Warlock Moon. For example, reviewer Gafke writes repetitively, "This film plods along for a very long time and keeps plodding on." Reviewer nogodnomasters writes dismissively, "Sorry, but this is not a cult classic or drive-in classic." And reviewer  arion1 writes tediously, "Sometimes it seems as though the actors themselves are deliberately moving slowly so as to use up time blocks."

For a more accurate description of the seminal film Warlock Moon, please read on...

A man and a woman carry candles through what appears to be a haunted house. “I admit it, I’m scared,” admits the woman. Her companion hides in the dark. She asks him to come out of hiding. After walking through the house for a few minutes, she is surprised by another man who swings an axe at her. The film freeze-frames on her scream.

The film cuts to a young woman in a college class. The professor (played by the director’s brother) drones in monotone about deviancy: “Unfortunately, when we talk about deviancy in society, we face the problem of what is in fact normal. Of all the deviant behavior patterns we find in society, perhaps the most common is incest, followed closely by homosexuality. Both of these are culturally defined patterns and societal attitudes toward them vary from one society to another.”

The image cuts from the female student to the professor, who is indeed reading his notes monotonously from a notebook.

After asking the time, the professor ends class, adding, “On Monday, we’ll talk about another pattern that might be of interest to all of you: cannibalism. Have a good weekend.” (Clearly, incest and homosexuality wouldn’t interest college students, who are typically into cannibalism, of course.)

The student leaves class, where she is comedically harassed by a male student dressed in an overcoat and Groucho glasses who pretends to be Inspector Clouseau; his accent amusingly changes from French to German to British. After this “meet cute,” the couple, Jenny and John, drives through the desert on their way back to the university from an ill-advised picnic. Unfortunately, they get lost on a back road. Even more unfortunately, Jenny convinces John to drive up an apparently abandoned road that ends at a place called Soda Spring Spa.

“Probably an old resort,” John, a newspaper reporter, explains. “There used to be a lot of them in this valley in the 1890s.”

They get out of the car and look around the buildings, though the filmmakers show us immediately that there are other people watching them. Jenny wanders into a building by herself, where she is startled by the presence of an old woman.

The woman, Agnes Abercrombie, berates Jenny, and then John, for trespassing. She forgives them quickly—suspiciously quickly. “Would you like to see my rooms?” she asks. “I’m just about to make some tea. Would you like some?”

Perhaps unbelievably, they agree to walk across the spa complex to sit with Agnes and drink her tea. Agnes volunteers to give John a more detailed tour of the spa but Jenny feels dizzy so she remains in Agnes’s apartment. When they leave, she immediately goes to a drawer full of cotton balls, hypodermics, and drugs.

Jenny wanders outside to find John but her search is hindered by her dizziness and her spectacularly flared red pants.

After entering another building, she finds a room with a circle on the floor made of gravel. When she steps into the circle, various doors close and a two-by-four falls over, scaring her. She leaves the room, sensibly.

After seeing a ghostly woman in a white dress, Jenny finds John and Agnes outside. She joins the tour, which includes a massive old kitchen with some suspiciously locked cabinets. Minutes later, John says they need to get going. They climb into his car and drive away. Agnes waves pleasantly, but as soon as they are gone, she grimaces. The director freeze-frames on her face.

The second act begins with John dropping out of a tree to surprise Jenny, and then trying to explain why the people at the newspaper where he claims to work didn’t know him when Jenny called the office. John proposes “dinner on the town” Saturday, with the catch that they return to Soda Spring Spa for an interview with Agnes.

Despite the massive sketchiness of John’s invitation, Jenny drives her blue VW bug to the spa to meet him on Saturday. Alone, Jenny sees the spa has been vandalized, so she enters the main building. After looking at some damage, she returns outside, where she is startled by a man firing a hunting rifle. “No one’s lived here since the place closed down, and that was in the early thirties,” he tells her.

She presses him on the abandoned spa. He adds, “Back in the 1930s, on the fiftieth anniversary of the opening of the spa, they had a huge ball and banquet to celebrate. The owner’s daughter had been married that afternoon so they made her the guest of honor. Well, when everything was ready for the banquet and everyone was ready to start, the girl was nowhere to be found. So they waited and waited and finally they started the banquet without her. And then after everybody had finished eating, a couple of the guests went out into the kitchen to congratulate the cook on the wonderful dinner. And they found that, well, they found that the cook had killed the girl and cooked her and had fed her to the guests.”

The cook, it turns out, was a woman who disappeared that night, and people also saw the ghost of the bride wandering around the spa.

When John honks his horn, Jenny thanks the hunter for not shooting her. He guides her through the building, though he stops inside to light his pipe while she leaves. Then he hears a sound and investigates, soon finding himself on the wrong end of an axe.

Jenny and John are greeted by Agnes, despite the fact that Jenny found her rooms abandoned just a few minutes earlier.

Agnes drops a massive white pill into the tea before serving it to Jenny. The three of them sit down for tea while John explains that his editor wants him to write a story about the spa. Jenny feels dizzy again after drinking the tea, so she goes outside for fresh air. From across the spa, she sees Agnes putting something in one of the locked doors in the kitchen, and she also sees a rather disturbing sight in another room: two young men sharpening weapons while a body rests on a table.

In a shocking slow-motion sequence, Jenny tries to get through a door, but one of the men reaches through the door to attack her, then bizarrely smashes through the door to chase her.

John and Agnes find Jenny cowering on the floor. They put her on a couch and Agnes insists they stay for dinner because she might be coming down with the flu. “You don’t need any dinner in that foggy city,” Agnes says. “You’ll get pneumonia for sure.”

While Agnes prepares dinner, Jenny and John check out the rooms they’re invited to stay in. John convinces Jenny she only imagined the axe attack. Then they examine a dry swimming pool, where John bizarrely acts out the climax of a monster movie in which he plays the monster and Jenny plays the heroine. John introduces a twist at the end: The hero who rescues the heroine is in face Dracula’s nephew and he kills the heroine in the end. This twist disturbs Jenny, though not enough to convince her to drive her VW bug far away.

At dinner, Jenny asks, “What kind of meat is this, Mrs. Abercrombi? Is it beef?”


“Well then, lamb or pork?”


“What is it then?”

“An old secret family recipe. I call it Hunter’s Stew. It’d spoil all the fun if I told you how I made it.”

“It’s delicious,” Jenny says. “Before I go, promise you’ll tell me how to make it.”

“Yes. I promise to tell you how I make it before you go.”

Instead of screaming and running away into the night, Jenny finishes her Hunter’s Stew (which doesn’t look much like stew, but does look like it could be a hunter).

Then Jenny sees Agnes drop a big pill into the wine. Jenny, sensibly, chooses a wine glass that hasn’t been poisoned, after which Agnes “accidentally” spills the other wine glass.

Later, John again convinces Jenny that nothing is wrong. At this point, the audience has begun to suspect John might possibly be untrustworthy, but Jenny trusts him nonetheless.

At night, Jenny is (perhaps unsurprisingly) menaced by a man who appears at her window, and she is (perhaps unsurprisingly) calmed down by John and Agnes, who try to convince her nothing unusual is happening. She tells them to leave her bedroom, where she remains, only to be visited by the ghostly bride. “Jenny, come with me,” she says in an echoing voice before backing somewhat awkwardly out the door. Jenny follows her out of the room and across the spa’s grounds. Instead of rescuing Jenny (or simply suggesting she get in her VW and leave), the ghost exhorts her to get the key to the locked room by the kitchen so she can prove to John something is going on.

Meanwhile, presumably for the benefit of the audience, Agnes explains the plan to John. “Remember, we waited for tonight for a reason. So that it can be just the same. She must die between midnight and six in the morning.” (Jenny must be the victim because she resembles the original bride.) “Most important, the circle. She must enter without us forcing her.” (We never see the circle again.)

In a stroke of good luck for Jenny, she spies on Agnes as Agnes replaces the key to the locked door in a book. Jenny retrieves the key and unlocks the door, only to find—to her great shock and the audience’s somewhat lesser shock—that Agnes is storing corpses in the room!

The ghost bride appears and says, “Did you find what you were looking for?” She laughs maniacally.

Jenny runs, but she is lured back to the spa when she hears John crying for help (apparently still believing John is innocent, against all evidence and common sense). 

In the climactic chase, Jenny shoots one of her pursuers with the hunter’s rifle. John “rescues” her, but predictably he leads her to Agnes and reveals his deception. “I’m sorry, Jenny, but you are so perfect.”

Agnes injects Jenny with an anesthetic. (Perhaps at this point it is too late to offer her some drugged tea or wine, though I believe the odds would be close to 50/50 that Jenny would fall for such an offer.)

Jenny wakes up surrounded by Agnes, John, and the remaining unnamed young man. Agnes promises, “In a moment, you’re going to learn the recipe for my Hunter’s Stew.”

After Agnes anoints the two men with blood (or possibly red paint), they begin their ceremony, which involves anointing Jenny and then stabbing her in the chest at midnight while yelling, “Die, child!”

Jenny, for unexplained reasons, is able to shake off the anesthetic, roll out of the way, and stab John in the stomach. Finally, she runs to her VW and drives away, killing the other man in the process.

The film’s coda plays out artistically behind the end titles. We see Jenny pleading in the darkness to an unseen police officer that “It was all here.” Apparently, the spa was deserted after Jenny called the police. Through dialogue, we find out the police find marijuana in her car, and they throw her in jail—not a communal holding cell but what looks like a prison cell. In a shocking twist, her bunk mate turns out to be a knife-wielding Agnes.

The film ends on a freeze-frame of Jenny’s screaming face.

One of the tag lines for Warlock Moon calls it "A horrifying tale of the supernatural." This tag line highlights the ambiguity of the film, one of its great strengths. Is it horrifying? Yes. Is it a tale? Yes. Is it supernatural? Perhaps. The film never reveals whether the ghost bride is really a ghost or one of Agnes's colleagues. It also fails to explain what Agnes and her group ("cult" is perhaps too strong a word) needs to perform a ritual at a particular time with a particular victim. Are they attempting to summon a demon, or perhaps bring back the bride back to life? Do they want to return to a time when the spa was thriving, for some reason? Or are they simply cannibals who enjoy Satanic rituals in their spare time? The filmmakers never reveal their goals, which makes the randomness of their activities all the more chilling.

Let Warlock Moon (the title is never explained) be a lesson to all young people who are cajoled to go on picnics by people who are incredibly, incredibly annoying. Don't do it! It will result in an elaborate sacrificial ritual that must occur between midnight and 6:00 a.m. You could be as intelligent as Jenny in the film--who could guess a secret recipe called Hunter's Stew could involve cannibalism?--and you will still be sacrificed because the local police have allowed disguised cult members to hide in your jail cell for some reason. Be warned!