90 mins or so.
Kung fu vampire horror
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The Witches Hammer (2007)
26th Jan 07
After dying at the hands of a vampire, Rebecca turns and becomes a fearless kung-fu vampire hunter. Her latest mission is to find a famous book and use it to stop the the souls of the damned wrecking our world.
Just when you thought every film coming out these days was either a remake of a 70s horror movie, a remake of a Japanese horror movie or a good old fashioned sequel, along comes something a little different. There are no long black hairy scary ghosts here, no broken down cars or cabins in the middle of nowhere, and no plot devices hinged on mobile phones or the internet, no sir. No one is lost or abandoned somewhere in Eastern Europe (the defacto new 'middle America' as far as murderous locals go) and no one is locked in a room playing mind games with a psycho. Instead The Witches Hammer treats us to something a bit more fun, opting for fangs, magic spells and quite a lot of surprisingly well done British kung-fu, all on what must have been a complete shoestring of a budget.
The plot is fairly straight forward and, not surprisingly, borrows liberally from a few of its influences. Opening in a dark alley, our heroine Rebecca (Claudia Coulter) is suddenly viciously attacked by a teenage hooded ASBO vampire and killed, or at least that’s how things first appear. After a confusing montage of spooky imagery and crazy sounds, Rebecca wakes up at what can only be described as Vampire School, where her fate is explained to her. Bitten by a bloodsucker and originally intended to be one, Rebecca is bought back from the brink of death by top secret agency ‘Project 571’ and told she will be trained as a lethal assassin and sent on missions to kill blood suckers instead. Cool eh?
And things start off okay, as we go through a plethora of training montages which reminded you of Nikita something rotten, with Rebecca learning how to use swords, knives, pistols and – bizarrely – a mini-gun like the one in Predator only it shoots special vampire bullets that kill people Blade style in a shower of yellow CG sparks. Then they let her loose, into the night as it where, orders in hand.
Several vampire hunts later, things all of a sudden go pear shaped. Project 571 is destroyed by a gang of vampires and Rebecca inadvertently ends up drawn into a quest for an ancient book with the power to unleash the souls of the damned; three grotesque beings from another dimension that plan to turn Earth into a permanent realm of darkness. The only things that stand in their way are Rebecca, a bearded priest of much conviction and the ever lovely Stephanie Beacham, who in this movie has a spot of magic in those fingers.
Now, The Witches Hammer is low budget film and suffers slightly from the baggage that brings with it, namely some ropey acting, dodgy props, some less convincing than others costumes and the occasional sparse set. But the film stock used is quite clearly 35mm, which instantly sets it apart from the myriad of shot-on-video or DV camera jobs we get sent all the time, and also gives the film a polished, richer look in the process. The special effects too are similarly well handled with not one blood sucker going out in anything less than a shower of CG sparks, making you think that either a sizeable chunk of the budget went on that or there are some really dedicated SFX guys out there. Also, I must mention the surprisingly convincing medieval Russian village flashback in the middle of the film which tells the story of Kitanya, the first witch, just because it's really well done. For a two minute segment in a film as low budgeted as this to go into such detail is quite something else, but then again that's soon what you start to expect as stretching the budget to make the film feel more expensive than it really is definitely one of strengths of the James Eaves and Laura Tennant director and producer partnership.
This aspect of their work comes across strongest in all the many well done fight scenes. Whether they're fighting hand-to-hand or with weapons the choreography is impressive, particularly for a film shot in the UK where, let's face it, you just don't see fantasy martial arts movies made. This is no Jet Li movie and Yuen Wo Ping's crown as king of martial arts choreography is not under threat just yet, but they do a decent job for sure, probably with much thanks to the obviously highly skilled Kris Tanaka, their talented fight choreographer. Think Versus or perhaps that style of kung fu you get in Bond movies and you get the idea, fun but effective.
And you're not short changed on the action either. From the vampire school segments to the several fights with Victor the assassin, through to the final confrontation where just about every surviving character dukes it out, there's loads of fun to be had. Of particular highlight though is the fight in the middle of the movie where Rebecca takes on a grey ninja who has the brilliant ability of being able to duplicate himself, just like that knight on the bridge at the end of She, if you've seen that, or any number of fighting games if video gaming is you bag. It's a scene that when it begins you expect the worst, but your fears are unfounded because it really does work, with clever editing making up for any budget shortfalls. Actually, that's not a bad statement to make about the movie in general.
So all in all The Witches Hammer is quite a surprise. Good direction, assured editing and a strong sense of fun can go along way (epecially in a vampire kung-fu movie) and in that respect you won't be disappointed. Oh, and keep an eye open for two characters called Charlotte (she's the quite chubby vampire) and Oscar (he's the midget clown vampire) who ham up every scene they're in - in a good way - and are easily one of the weirdest on screen couples you'll ever see. A kind of blood sucking Bonnie and Clyde, if you will, they even get the end of the movie epilogue gag scene, which fits in nicely with the sense of fun that oozes out of the rest of the film. Don't say I didn't warn you.