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Non-Review Review: The Last Witch Hunter

There are quite a lot of things wrong with The Last Witch Hunter, to the point that it’s almost endearing that the film sends so long setting up a potential sequel. (The Second Last Witch Hunter, perhaps?)

The Last Witch Hunter is a misbegotten mess that feels like the work of five different writers working with five different directors and a surprisingly consistent VFX team. The film is stilted, illogical, clumsy and ill-judged. Indeed, it seems like the production went wrong from the moment it was decided that Vin Diesel would be the perfect actor to convey the enormity and tragedy of immortality. Diesel is a reliable screen presence, with considerable gravitas, but he is not ideally suited to this sort of pathos.

... and carry a big sword...

… and carry a big sword…

The Last Witch Hunter stumbles from half-formed idea to half-formed idea, through a mess of CGI and misjudged direction. There are point where the action can be difficult to follow, whether through the script’s dependence on liberal amounts of exposition or the fast-paced editing that makes it difficult to get a sense of character or location in the midst of all this computer-generated mayhem. There is something frustrating to all this, given the faintest hints of interesting concepts that are smothered in rip-offs of other better films.

The audience might well wish that it really is The Last Witch Hunter.

Any witch way, but loose...

Any witch way, but loose…

A certain amount of the movie’s problems might be inherited from the premise. Witches seem to be going through something of a pop cultural renaissance with films like Hansel & Gretel: Witch Hunters and television shows like American Horror Story: Coven. Witches are something of an underrated horror movie monster, lacking the matinee appeal of vampires or werewolves. While there are any number of memorable films about witches – The Witches or The Witches of Eastwick come to mind – they are not as ubiquitous as their monstrous kin.

The Last Witch Hunter suggests a number of possible reasons why witches never caught on with the same fervour as zombies or other ghouls. On a level of pure plot, witches lack the elegant simplicity of the undead. Although the finer details change from film to film, most movie fans are roughly familiar with the “rules” for vampires and werewolves and zombies. There are a number of logical and organic limitations and expectations that come with a horror movie based around a vampire or a werewolf or a zombie. Most viewers even know how to kill one.

As the world burns...

As the world burns…

Witches are more complicated and messy. There is no steak through the heart, no garlic; there is no crucifix or silver bullet. The archetypal witch is more about appearance than “rules.” Indeed, The Last Witch Hunter has a bit of fun with the familiar associations; one witch jokes that her best friend is a “cat person”, while complaining about the stereotype of green skin and pointy hats. Sadly, nobody rides a broomstick. As a result, it is very hard to figure out how exactly witches are supposed to work as a generic antagonist in a “secret war” film like this.

The script to The Last Witch Hunter has no idea what to do with witches, and so devotes considerable space to awkward world-building and clumsy exposition as characters relate details and stories that everybody involved in the conversation must already know. This muddles what should be a fairly simple plot, as the action pauses for pseudo-magic techno-babble that attempts to impose order on the story as it ties together “dreamwalkers” and “memory potions.” More often than not, witchcraft works according to whatever is easiest for the plot.

He really beard his soul...

He really beard his soul…

Even allowing for the logistical difficulties of trying to fashion witches into stock horror baddies, there are other potential issues. Most obviously, witchcraft has a very long and complicated history in western civilisation. While zombies might actually exist in Afro-Carribean culture, they are markedly different to the ghouls popularised by George R. Romero. In contrast, witchcraft is tied to pagan religion and philosophy, anchoring it in something akin to the real world. Indeed, paganism has undergone a resurgence in the past few years.

This puts The Last Witch Hunter in a somewhat awkward position, given the historical association between witchhunting and religious (or political) repression. After all, the word “witchhunt” is seldom used in the same context as “monster hunter.” It is not as if audiences are anticipating the long-awaited sequel to Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter titled Joseph McCarthy: Witch Hunter. Given the historical tendency to burn people alive for accusations of witchcraft, not to mention other contexts, this could get awkward.

This is where the magic doesn't happen...

This is where the magic doesn’t happen…

The Last Witch Hunter tries to laugh off the comparison. The eponymous witch slayer laughs when he is described as an “immortal fascist.” There is a really cringe-inducing sequence in the middle of the film where the characters allude to the Salem Witch Trials, with the title hunter making it clear that he was totally not cool with that. The film does suggest that he was only not cool with it because innocent people (and not witches) were burnt at the stake. There is something uncomfortable about a film that decries persecution only when the wrong people are persecuted.

It does not help matters that The Last Witch Hunter actively plays into this sort of iconography. Care is taken to cast male witches and female watchers, but The Last Witch Hunter is essentially the story about a bunch of patriarchal men (who are members of the Catholic Church) who hunt down a pagan religion that hopes to resurrect its “queen.” There is something rather tone-deaf about all this, particularly when The Last Witchhunter casts its female pagan antagonist as representing an indigenous population and its hero as a masculine colonist.

It really grew on him...

It really grew on him…

“You are trespassing in our world,” the witch queen insists in the film’s opening sequence. The Last Witch Hunter retains a visual association between the witches and nature – a reflection of paganism that naturally leads to bug-scares and also to a variety of tree- and greenery-related imagery. This has the awkward effect of positioning our hero in opposition to nature and suggesting that mankind’s history is ultimately one of usurpation and colonisation. The Last Witch Hunter seems to have absolutely no problems with this.

Then again, the problems with The Last Witch Hunter are more fundamental and more obvious than all this. The script seems to have been sutured together from a number of different stories. The operates according to no internal logic, rotating through characterisation and motivation without any consistency. Early scenes establish our protagonist as a playboy and a ladies’ man, before later scenes transition to stoic melancholy. Elijah Wood finds himself cast in the role of sidekick, before the film promptly trades him in for Rose Leslie.

Tree of life...

Tree of life…

The direction fares little better. The CGI is impressive, but the editing is confused. Big set pieces are lost in a mess of quick cuts and odd angles, making it quite difficult to figure out what is going on – as if an action adventure has been filmed through the lens of family friendly PG-13 horror. Vin Diesel looks singularly out of place, asked to convey the tragedy of an immortal who has lived for centuries watching the world change around him. Diesel is a reliable action star, he is not a convincing tragic lead.

The dialogue is woeful, with the script refusing to leave an ambiguity or nuance. When a character assures our hero that something is impossible, he responds profoundly. “Is it impossible?” When another character outlines a moral compromise that was made in the name of the greater good, our hero is outraged. “That wasn’t your choice to make!” he shouts, pushing the subject of his wrath up against a wire mesh. There is not a piece of cliché dialogue overlooked.

Swords and sorcery...

Swords and sorcery…

A lot of The Last Witch Hunter feels safe and generic, as if recycled from other better (and popular) films. Michael Caine is cast in a role that recalls Alfred. When the witch queen prepares to attack our hero at the climax, her nails are shot in a manner recalling Wolverine’s claws. Confronted with a vision of a world where the witches triumph, our hero appears to have wandered on to the set of I Am Legend. All these cues and references suggest better films while robbing the movie of a chance to establish its own identity.

There are only a few glimmers of what might have been a stronger – chirpier – movie buried underneath all this mess. During the sequence that establishes our hero in the present day, Vin Diesel finds a moment to flash a reassuring smile at a frightened child; it is a small humanising touch that plays more to the actor’s strengths then endless monologues about death. There is a delightful reference to “mind-altering bugs.” There is something endearingly odd in the way that Diesel’s character insists on calling Caine’s character “kid.”

I Am Not Legend.

I Am Not Legend.

These elements suggest a more unique and idiosyncratic film that the stitched-together version that made it into cinemas. A mess of different ideas and characterisations built around a familiar skeleton, The Last Witch Hunter ironically feels more like a Frankenstein’s monster.

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4 Responses

  1. Has Vin Diesel have ever carried a film that was not Fast and Furious or some of the Riddick films? I’m not clear why he keeps being given these vehicles.
    I would love to see Josheph McCarthy: witch hunter.

  2. Considering the current 17% its got over at Rotten Tomatoes, I was gonna steer way clear of this one. But this review has pushed it squarely into Netflix, maybe even rental, range.

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