There’s a chance that any person who sees The Last Witch Hunter will think it’s been made specifically for him or her. The Vin Diesel-starring supernatural adventure is obviously for fans of the kinds of semi-mystical, campy, exploitation-style horror romps threaded throughout the late ’50s, ’60s and early ’70s, but it’s so over the top, so game, one would be hard pressed to not find something to love. 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 things we have in the current cinematic landscape are Ben Wheatley films like Kill List and A Field in England —if The Last Witch Hunter was an artifact of the 1970s, it would be a bona fide cult classic among certain segments of horror fanatics.
In it, Diesel stars as Kaulder, the 800-year-old titular witch hunter who was cursed with eternal life and has been wandering around, performing the titular with-hunting 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 of Thrones’ Rose Leslie) and his priest sidekick, the 37th Dolan (Elijah Wood), who compared to Diesel is a little wiener of a man. On some levels, it plays like a black magic police procedural.
There are a few more specifics, but that’s the main narrative thrust—meanwhile there’s also the overseeing presence of an ancient organization, the Axe and Cross, for which Kaulder works, but aside from the fact that they’re old, vaguely Catholic, and some sort of regulatory board for witches, there’s little more to know (though the Axe and Cross’s council of leaders does look like an ‘80s band, which one character correctly points out). Also: a rogue coven is 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, the machinations of which could have come from any generic fantasy novel.
As expected, one shouldn’t look for nuance in any of the characters. Michael Caine shows up as Kaulder’s only friend; Chloe is a one-note sassy rebel; Wood is, again, a wiener in a skin-tight white mock turtleneck; and all the villains overplay their hand. Diesel, breezily likable and charismatic, is essentially the same as he is in every movie (you could have pieced his performance together from leftover Fast & Furious outtakes), except for the flashback scenes to old-timey times—of which there are many—wherein he has a mammoth beard and pseudo-mullet.
At its best, The Last Witch Hunter is like some epic metal song come to life. Magical butterflies, cupcakes full of maggots (maggots that are, somehow, also magical), faces peeled off, swarms of flies descending on New York City, a blind baker swallowed by an angry tree—so many WTF moments make this movie worth checking out with gleeful abandon. Plus: flaming swords. Flaming swords.
The Last Witch Hunter’s saving grace is how Diesel brings a self-aware sense of humor to what is far and away the nerdiest movie of the year—so much more so than any culled from the glut of comic adaptations and superhero chronicles setting records around the globe. Like a Dungeons & Dragons campaign come to life—and with Vin Diesel, a longtime gamer, in the lead—The Last Witch Hunter shines with an infectious enthusiasm. Perhaps The Last Witch Hunter is a dumbed down Game of Thrones, but since when does that have to be a bad thing?
Director: Breck Eisner
Writers: Cory Goodman, Matt Sazama, Burk Sharpless
Starring: Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Michael Caine, Elijah Wood
Release Date: October 23, 2015