Friday, March 30, 2007

The Witches Hammer – review

Directed by: James Eaves

Released: 2006

Contains spoilers

I received an e-mail from fellow vampire fan Leila, saying that she would love to hear what I thought of this film (knowing I had it on order) as she felt it to be “a flawed mess, with scenes of pure genius”. All in all that is quite a tough summary, leaving me wondering if the film would fall so low or attempt to reach so high?

The film is a British comedy/action movie in the tradition of Razor Blade Smile (1998) and begins with Rebecca (Claudia Coulter) walking down the street. She is being followed and is then attacked by a vampire and left for dead. As the credits role we see her being looked at in a body bag by a couple of suits, her eyes open and flicking frantically. We then see medical procedures.

She is awake and being questioned three weeks later. She wants to see her husband David and son Timmy. We see her watching them from a car the tinted window down and the sunlight burning her forehead. We also see a test, two pint glasses are placed before her, one with water and one with blood. She takes the water and comment is made that she is resisting, then she takes the blood. The logic of the test escaped me, they seemed to want to see her take the blood, but it was never explained as to why - was it to show that their experiments had been successful?

Rebecca is a vampire and we can only assume that had she been left as she was, post attack, she would have become one anyway. The procedure genetically manipulated her and she is now a good vampire, recruited by Project 571 to fight evil. We see her training and hear some of the key vampire killing rules, decapitation and heart piercing will kill, sunlight burns and if the exposure is too long will kill. Vampires don’t so much dust as flash away in sparks.

The training session seemed a little derivative of La Femme Nikita but with a main difference. Rebecca is free to leave, but will not be able to control herself near her loved ones. They are used as a carrot and stick; her instincts being the stick and the carrot being the chance to observe them, from a distance, safely. Rebecca starts off quite rubbish, she picks up a gun and shoots a tied up vampire in the knee rather than the heart. At the end she is picking up a minigun and ripping said vampire to shreds. Cool visual but ultimately pointless as the gun is never again used in the film and anyone would succeed in destroying their close range target with such a gun.

The first mission we see goes wrong. She is sent to rescue a hostage from a vampire and kill the vampire. Though she kills the vampire, the victim is bitten and dead so she shoots his corpse just as the police enter and shoot her in the head. Rescued from the morgue by her trainer she goes to observe her family – during the day. It seems that biker leathers and a helmet is adequate sun block – despite the fact that I could see flesh at the neck, which the sunlight must have been touching. Meanwhile we have seen a vampire, Hugo (Tom Dover), summon the Souls of the Damned. Hooded figures with glowing eyes and cgi maws that looked fairly rubbish. They give him a jar.

When she gets back to the Project everyone is dead and she ends up battling four vampires and then two witches. It is here that the joins in the sfx really begin to show. A decapitation is obviously fake. That said, for the budget the effect is pretty good but the point has to be made. The fight scenes have Matrix-esque slow motion moments but the use of them wasn’t as good as bullet time or as well placed. Once she is victorious a man, Edward (Jonathon Sidgwick), shoots her with a tranquiliser.

She awakes chained and before Edward and Madeline (Stephanie Beacham). They are project 572, concerning witches, and need her help in stopping Hugo. He has been bespelled by a page of the Malleus Malifacarum (the witches hammer of the title) and that has made him impossible to kill. They need to get the book, so that a counterspell can be cast at him, and then stop him destroying the world. Standing in her way are four enemies three vampiric and one a masked ninja type.

The story then is fairly simple. What the film does nicely is introduce a series of weird and wonderful enemy characters and also fill in back story for them. What it doesn’t do so well is tell the back stories, as they are all in the same format with Edward narrating and their presence, whilst good for rounding the characters off, seems obtrusive. I was a little unimpressed with some of the motivations for the characters, why some characters were involved was beyond me. There is a twist in the tale that if you do not spot from a mile away you’d be very disappointed with yourself.

Other vampire lore we get through the film includes the fact that holy water kills. Vampires cast a reflection. Another way someone can be killed and turned is to eat vampire meat, which almost instantaneously poisons the eater and quickly turns the corpse. We also get a set of ancient vampires so old that any light hurts them, including a flashlight - quite a novel idea.

The acting is varied, some is distinctly amateurish and some quite good. Coulter unfortunately seems to have trouble speaking with fangs in. The characters of the thirty stone vampire Charlotte (Sally Reeve) – so large that it is almost impossible to pierce her heart - and her dwarf vampire side kick Oscar (Jason Tompkins) worked quite well but they seemed derivative (dialogue wise) of Spike and Drusilla from Buffy. The masked ninja just didn’t work, from an actor point of view, perhaps it was in his bearing but I just didn’t buy it – plus his costume looked awfully cheap.

There is nothing wrong with Beacham’s performance, as you would expect, but she seemed a little under-used to me. If you get such a high calibre actress in this sort of independent movie then my advice is take advantage of her presence.

As I said, the action sequences had touches of the Matrix but were not nearly as professionally done. There is one (comedic) action moment where Edward is beating Oscar with a frying pan and it is clear that he is not getting anywhere near his opponent – which was sloppy. Coulter does, however, look great with a sword in hand bearing fangs.

The comedy fell a little flat to me, and seemed a little forced at times. That said I could see a hidden spark in the weird characters but something was off kilter. I think that they should have played the film more straight and let the comedy of the weird characters appear naturally. When gags were set up (such as searching for knives in a kitchen, failing to find them, and then we seeing they are hung behind the door the character used) they seemed forced and lost their edge.

There are, however, flashes of brilliance. Charlotte feeding from a victim by placing two straws in his neck punctures worked brilliantly and was a fantastic visual that reminded, ever so slightly, of the tap in the neck in the film Vault of Horror and yet maintained a feel of wacky comedy rather than being black humour – which is exactly what, I felt, the filmmakers were aiming for. In this case the scene was not pushed too hard and the humour did not feel forced, which to me is why it worked.

For the budget they must have had this is an ambitious film and they did brilliantly with what one imagines was very little. Yet it missed the mark in the main, which is a shame as there were flashes of genius occasionally and this could have been a cult classic. As it transpires it is below average at 3.5 out of 10 and you would probably be better seeking out Bloody Mallory, which is a similar film – a shadowy group of Agents fighting supernatural evil - but created with a lot more panache.

The imdb page is here.


Sally said...

Shame you didn't like our little film - but I'm glad you liked the straw in neck scene - it was a last minute rewrite as Charlotte was originally meant to be fighting Rebecca but I was 7 months pregnant at the time we shot it so we had Charlotte watching instead! I hope you didn't think my acting was amateurish!

Taliesin_ttlg said...

Sally many thanks for commenting - as I said in the review that scene had a flash of genius and I think your comment explains why. As a last minute rewrite perhaps it wasn't over-thought and thus the comedy came naturally if that makes sense.

Your character along with that of oskar did work well - and had some nice backstory - there was a touch of the Spike and Dru that came across iro the pair but that will be as much as they were written as anything.

Note that whilst I have said that it came out at 3.5 out of 10 that I also said that you all did brilliantly with what I imagine was very little, it was very ambitious film making.