The Last Witch Hunter (2015)

Brick Eisner

Vin Diesel - Kaulder
Rose Leslie - Chloe
Elijah Wood - Dolan 37
Michael Caine - Dolan 36
Olafur Darri Olafsson - Baltasar Ketola/Belial
Julie Engelbrecht - Witch Queen

Genre - Horror/Fantasy/Science Fiction/Action/Witches

Running Time - 106 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
The modern world holds many secrets, but the most astounding secret of all is that witches still live amongst us; vicious supernatural creatures intent on unleashing the Black Death upon the world. Armies of witch hunters battled the unnatural enemy across the globe for centuries, including Kaulder (Vin Diesel), a valiant warrior who managed to slay the all-powerful Queen Witch (Julie Engelbrecht), decimating her followers in the process. In the moments right before her death, the Queen curses Kaulder with her own immortality, forever separating him from his beloved wife and daughter in the afterlife. Today Kaulder is the only one of his kind remaining, and has spent centuries hunting down rogue witches, all the while yearning for his long-lost loved ones. However, unbeknownst to Kaulder, the Queen Witch is resurrected and seeks revenge on her killer causing an epic battle that will determine the survival of the human race.

You’d think a film where badass Vin Diesel battles witches would be awesome, if not at least fun, right? Unfortunately if you’ve watched 2015’s THE LAST WITCH HUNTER, you’d know the idea sounds cool on paper but the execution leaves a whole lot to be desired. It’s disappointing because I’m a sucker for any Diesel vehicle, but this film didn’t do much for me to be honest. If I wanted to watch the same story that THE LAST WITCH HUNTER tries to tell, I’d rather watch CONSTANTINE, VAN HELSING, BLADE, or any other film that tells a similar story in a more entertaining way regardless of their respective quality. For a film about hunting witches, it sure had no idea how to put me under its spell.

The best thing about THE LAST WITCH HUNTER and the only reason it was made to begin with is Vin Diesel himself. Diesel has a really interesting personality in which his muscular frame contradicts with how big of a nerd he is. Even though he can probably handle himself well in a physical fight, Vin Diesel seems more at ease playing "Dungeons & Dragons" or watching some sci-fi show like Star Trek. I think it’s really cool to see himself embrace his geekdom, making him relatable as a fan of these types of films. His character of Kaulder is actually based on a character he created while playing Dungeons & Dragons when he was younger, which in turn helped bring this film to life. Out of all the actors in the film, Diesel feels the most comfortable with everything, playing himself as a tortured man who hunts and kills evil sorcerers as an act of vengeance. His character is the only one that feels fleshed out in any way, making us care about him somewhat and giving us a reason to understand his actions along the way. The probably is that the film seems to be based on an idea of this Kaulder character without really knowing how to interestingly create a world for him to live in. It’s a cool idea on paper and Diesel is obviously game for it all, but it doesn’t matter if we don’t give much attention to everything else that’s happening around him.

It doesn’t help that the script isn’t all that inventive. Or creative. Or even silly enough for us to have fun with. THE LAST WITCH HUNTER takes its dumb concept too seriously and never lets the actors and their characters enjoy themselves along this adventure. The first half of the film is at least coherent, as we’re given an interesting mystery that allows the film to introduce characters and world-building elements to flesh out a universe in which Kaulder and company exist in. But the last half just meanders into a boring mess of a film that’s too focused on creating relationships for characters that never earn them, or plot twists that we see coming a mile away but don’t really matter at the end because they’re never given enough attention for us to care. There's a lot of potential going on here, but it's never fully realized whatsoever. It’s obvious with all the jammed-in subplots going on in the film, the producers wanted THE LAST WITCH HUNTER to begin a new franchise for Diesel. But studios have seemed to have forgotten that franchises are earned, not forced upon us because Marvel hit a major jackpot with their MCU success over time. Instead of trying to set up things for possible future movies, focus on a single-film narrative that would be good enough for audiences to want more. And judging by the lackluster success of this film, I think everyone involved probably realized that the hard way.

The direction by Breck Eisner, who also made the not-so-great SAHARA and a good remake in THE CRAZIES, is just there. It visually never feels innovative or passionate, instead feeling like Eisner was hired by a studio to film this in their vision rather than his own. The pacing is off at times, with the action scenes and the slower moments never flowing right. In fact, a lot of the middle portion of the film that involves Diesel and friends going around town to find out answers to the film’s mystery can feel downright dull in terms of its presentation. The action scenes are okay, but unfortunately are edited with quick shots and close ups that never allow us to feel thrilled by what we’re watching. The CGI is a mixed bag as well. Some characters, like the Witch Queen and the monstrous Sentinels look pretty damn good. But the rest of the effects look like a cartoon, taking me out of the film when they appear. It almost makes me wonder where the budget went if this is the best they can do with special effects.

The acting is just there as well. Vin Diesel plays himself, only as a witch hunter this time around. Since it’s based on a character he created, Diesel is totally into his role and made me wish he was in a better written film to really make it work. Rose Leslie as Chloe is cute and actually helps give THE LAST WITCH HUNTER some much needed personality whenever she appears. But she has a two-dimensional role that never really goes anywhere. Michael Caine came for a paycheck, but at least he seems in on the joke. I wish Caine was in the film more because he shared some nice chemistry with Diesel. Their banter was quite fun. Elijah Wood tried to make his role of Dolan 37 work, but he felt out of place for me. It didn’t help that he didn’t do much in the film besides look surprised or confused until the end. He’s usually reliable, but he didn’t seem all that invested here. And Julie Engelbrecht was a pretty bland villain, but she tried to act menacing. Meh.

THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is the epitome of an action-horror film that has a cool character idea, but never knows how to form an investing universe around it to execute the narrative properly. Vin Diesel is the only real redeeming part of this film, as he’s playing a character that’s probably close to his heart and is totally passionate about. But with a messy narrative that’s more focused on building a franchise rather than telling us a good standalone story, characters that aren’t fleshed out enough for us to care, visuals that are a mixed bag and actors who don’t get much to do because the script doesn’t allow it, THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is a disappointing and dull failure for the most part. There’s nothing bewitching about this one.

1.5 Howls Outta 4


Deadbeat at Dawn (1988)

Jim Van Bebber

Jim Van Bebber - Goose
Paul Harper - Danny
Megan Murphy - Christie
Marc Pitman - Bonecrusher
Ric Walker - Keith

Genre - Thriller/Action/Horror/Drama

Running Time - 80 Minutes

PLOT (from IMDB)
After one too many encounters with The Spiders, The Ravens’ leader’s (Jim Van Bebber) girlfriend (Megan Murphy) tells him to quit the gang or it’s Splitsville. He does so, but the leader of the Spiders (Paul Harper) is hellbent on revenge and arranges the murder of the girlfriend. That ticks off the boyfriend, who wreaks havoc with the two gangs, who have joined forces in order to pull off a security truck heist.

If you cross 1979’s THE WARRIORS and 1984’s COMBAT SHOCK, you’ll get 1988’s DEADBEAT AT DAWN - a low budget and ultra violent action-thriller that proves with just four years and $10,000 at his disposal, one man could make a gritty, grindhouse cult film that even over three decades later would still be talked about and admired. It’s gritty, violent and disturbing in all the right ways. When you can make THE WARRIORS feel tame, you’ve got something with your movie. DEADBEAT AT DAWN isn’t a complicated film, nor should it be. It’s your standard revenge film, where the protagonist loses a loved one due to a rival and just wants vengeance against this individual. It’s DEATH WISH, but more romantically punk and rough around the edges. 

What makes the simple story work are the major players that get most of the focus. It helps that DEADBEAT AT DAWN revolves around Goose, the leader of The Ravens who goes through a lot within 80 minutes. While a bit of a prick at first, we soon see how much he loves his girlfriend Kristy. So much so, he’s willing to step down as leader and leave The Ravens [which doesn’t settle well with the rest of the gang]. Even though he’ll sell drugs and steal to make ends meet for him and his girl, Goose comes across as caring and romantic in an unorthodox way that makes him likable and charming in his own unique way. Unfortunately, his life crumbles when Kristy is murdered, leading him down a path of drinking, doing drugs, and even dealing with a greedy drug addict for a father who is still suffering PTSD from his time in Vietnam. But when he’s forced back into gang life, he decides to finally take control of his own destiny by getting revenge on everyone who’s wronged him. Most 2 hour films barely have any character arcs that are as detailed as Goose’s in DEADBEAT AT DAWN. The man completely changes from the start of the film right to the film’s very bloody end. I’ll discuss Jim Van Bebber’s performance in a bit, but he really gives Goose life and makes us care for him to the point that no matter how he has to do it, you want him to get revenge on these bastards who took away everything that meant something to him. That’s the quality of an interesting, well-written (enough) character.

The other major characters are memorable as well. Goose’s girlfriend, Kristy, is obviously the inciting incident that sets everything to its downward spiral. But she’s an interesting love interest as she dabbles in witchcraft, meaning as a means to protect her boyfriend from getting hurt, or even killed. She’ll talk to fortune tellers, play with Ouija boards, and even create magical amulets for Goose to wear as protection even if it will cost her hers. She doesn’t have a whole lot of depth, as she’s the typical girlfriend character, but these other elements give her enough to stand out. On the other side of the spectrum, we have Danny - the leader of the Spiders. Talk about a character we were born to love to hate. Not really sure what his deal with Goose is, but it’s probably due to Goose defeating him in every fight and pretty much owning his turf. When he ends up ordering for Goose’s death but gets Kristy’s instead, he uses it to his advantage to get one up on his rival. It also doesn’t help that Danny is an abusive creep, beating up his loving girlfriend - in one case, punching her when she declares her love for him. What a stand up guy you want taken care of by the end of this film. His sidekick, Bonecrusher, is no better. The guy is a psychopath who enjoys hurting others and proudly using it to get a reaction out of others. Bonecrusher probably has the best dialogue in the film and it’s no surprise why he’s considered a cult fave. The dude is nuts. Another person of note is Keith, who was Goose’s second-in-command but turned leader when Goose leaves The Ravens. His disapproval of Goose’s quitting turns him into a creep, becoming power-hungry and even working with his enemies just to get a quick payday. While we don’t know their life stories or anything deep like that, the supporting characters fit their archetypes well and help create a bleak atmosphere that makes the actions of these characters tolerable and understanding to watch unfold.

If there was any flaw with the script, it would be that sometimes the film has exposition or moments where characters talk about something that doesn’t really contribute a whole lot to their characters or the plot. A lot of exploitation films do this to compensate for a lack of a major budget and/or to beef up the run time. It doesn’t detract much from DEADBEAT AT DAWN, but you can tell when the film is trying to fill up time before the next major incident happens. I also would have liked a bigger backstory about the rivalry between Goose and Danny, but again doesn’t really hurt the film since Danny makes things really personal within the present story. 

The direction by Jim Van Bebber [who also wrote, produced, and even plays main character Goose] is pretty good, considering Bebber didn’t have a ton of resources to use while filming. Shooting around Dayton, Ohio provides a ton of gritty atmosphere, as the location looks like a place no one would want to live in and would shape people into violent and heartless folks. I’m surprised that Dayton looked really dirty and bleak back in the late-80s. You’d think it was pre-90s New York City or something. The editing and sound design at times can be a bit rough, but it sort of brings a certain level of charm to the film. I did think the fight sequences looked and felt as realistic as possible, despite a lack of polish choreography. There are some cool gore effects, including a hand being shot off, fingers bitten off, throats being pulled apart, and even decapitations. Plus, Bebber is awesome with a pair of nunchucks, kicking major butt with them. The film also has a nice flow and moves pretty quickly for its 80 minutes. It looks and feels like an exploitation film made for grindhouse theaters, which is probably why DEADBEAT AT DAWN works better than it should. The most interesting thing about the film is that while bleak and sort of depressing in terms of its premise, the execution plays out as this over-the-top fun time in terms of its violence and oddball characters. Bebber had a clear vision and did a great job visualizing it on film.

The acting isn’t the greatest out there, but it works for DEADBEAT AT DAWN. Paul Harper plays a really hatable villain in Danny, a role I’m sure Harper had a lot of fun to play. Marc Pitman is even better as Bonecrusher, portraying a nut job with gutso, enjoying himself while quoting the film’s most memorable lines. Megan Murphy and Ric Walker are good in their respective roles. But the real star is Jim Van Bebber as Goose. The man is captivating on film, portraying a man with so many layers, it’s hard not to care and root for the guy. He’s a force on screen, peeling every layer out of Goose from start to finish. From happiness, to grief and to angrily vengeful, Van Bebber creates a fleshed out human being that we wish deserved a better run at life than he actually does. The man also did his own stunts and can wield a wicked pair of nunchucks like nobody’s business. DEADBEAT AT DAWN exists because of this man and he makes the most out of everything. Nothing but respect and appreciation for his performance and his behind-the-scenes work.

DEADBEAT AT DAWN eluded me for decades, but I’m glad I finally got to catch up with this awesome exploitation film. Gritty and violently fun, it’s a film that won’t win any awards but will keep your interest at how well done it is considering it is super low-budget. You have a revenge story you can understand, over-the-top gore that will either shock or impress you, and a strong performance by jack-of-all-trades Jim Van Bebber that more than keeps the film afloat for its short runtime. Fans of ultra-violent exploitation action films should get a kick out of this one if they haven’t already.

3.5 Howls Outta 4

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