Before seeing it I had a sneaking suspicion, but now that I've actually watched the movie, I'm fairly certain that The Last Witch Hunter was made specifically for me. The Vin Diesel-starring fantasy adventure is gonzo and over the top in a way you rarely encounter anymore, especially in expensive mainstream movies, but it lines up damn near perfectly with my cinematic proclivities.
This is a movie that is going to get absolutely savaged by most critics, but if you’re a fan of insane, semi-mystical, campy exploitation-style horror romps of yesteryear, it might just entertain the hell out of you. If your tastes run towards the likes of The Wicker Man, Night of the Demon, and Witchfinder General, this may be right up your alley. The closest thing I can think of that we have in the current landscape are Ben Wheatley films like Kill List and A Field in England, though The Last Witch Hunter has neither the artfulness of those, nor the darkness.
More than any of those films, however, The Last Witch Hunter is inherently silly and shallow. I’ll never claim that it is great, or even particularly deep art, but as a piece of junk food cinema, a hearty helping of empty filmic calories, it’s a wildly amusing ride — if this was an artifact of the 1970s, it would be a bona fide cult classic among certain segments of horror fanatics.
Diesel stars as Kaulder, an 800-year-old witch hunter who was cursed with eternal life and has been wandering around hunting witches ever since. In order to stop a plague that will destroy all life as we know it, he must team up with a young witch named Chloe (Game ofThrones’ Rose Leslie) and his priest sidekick, the 37th Dolan (Elijah Wood), a little wiener of a man, to put a stop to this nefarious plan. On some level, this watches like a black magic police procedural.
There are a few more specifics, but that’s the main narrative thrust, and most of the plot details aren’t all that well thought out. You’ve got the ancient organization that Kaulder works for, the Axe and Cross, but aside from the fact that they’re old, vaguely Catholic in nature, and regulate witches, there’s nothing more to know — though the council of leaders does look like an ‘80s band, which one character correctly points out.
In a similar fashion, the plot involves a rogue coven trying to resurrect the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht), a comically shoddy looking CGI creature. Something about the plan has to do with Kaulder’s past, but the machinations could have come from any generic Dungeons & Dragons playbook. There’s basically zero effort put into any sort of backstory or explaining the hows or whys of the situation — at a certain point, all I could do was throw up my hands, say what the hell, and let it wash over me with giddy abandon.
The characters aren’t profound or nuanced in any way. Michael Caine shows up as Kaulder’s only friend, Leslie is a one-note sassy rebel, and Wood is, like I said, a wiener in a skin-tight white mock turtleneck. All the villains comically overplay their hand, shrieking ominous threats. Diesel, for his part, is essentially the same as he is in every movie, and you could have pieced his performance together from leftover Fast & Furious outtakes. Except for the hallucinatory flashback scenes to old-timey times, of which there are many, and where he has a crazy mammoth beard and pseudo mullet. Still, he’s likable and charismatic, and there’s some quality about him that’s hard not to watch.
Right now you’re probably reading this and saying to yourself that this movie sounds god-awful terrible. I have no doubt that, should you actually watch The Last Witch Hunter, many of you will have just that reaction. But there are those of you out there who are going to watch this and absolutely revel in the gleeful absurdity of the entire shebang.
At it’s peak, The Last Witch Hunter is like some epic adventure metal song come to life. There are magical butterflies, cupcakes full of maggots (maggots that are, somehow, also magical), faces being peeled off, swarms of diseased flies descending on New York City, a blind baker getting swallowed by an angry tree, and so many more WTF moments that leave the audience scratching their head. Did I mention there are flaming swords? No? Well, there are, and they’re awesome, which is to be expected because they’re flaming swords.
The Last Witch Hunter is totally bonkers, and is only occasionally aware of that fact. Diesel brings a self-referential sense of humor to moments, which are entertaining enough, but when it really goes off the rails, leaving the audience members laughing to ourselves asking, “What?” that’s when it is an absolute blast.
Hell, in a lot of ways, this is far and away the nerdiest movie of the year, way more so than any of the glut of comic book and superhero movies crowding the metroplex. With fantasy and magic, spells and witches and sorcerers, this is like a D&D campaign come to life, and with Vin Diesel, a longtime gamer himself, in the lead, that enthusiasm shines through, and it’s easy to get infected with this particular plague. Sure, perhaps The Last Witch Hunter is a dumbed down Game of Thrones, but if that sounds enjoyable, this is the movie for you. [Grade: B-]
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