FILM REVIEW – THE LAST WITCH HUNTER. With Vin Diesel, Rose Leslie, Elijah Wood, Michael Caine, Julie Engelbrecht. Written by Cory Goodman and Matt Sazama & Burk Sharpless. Directed by Breck Eisner. Rated PG-13 for sequences of fantasy violence and frightening images. 106 minutes.
Ah, October, when we get a glut of horror films in the hopes that one or more will hit the pre-Halloween sweet spot. Well, time’s running out, but for those looking for something slick and supernatural and just a bit goofy, THE LAST WITCH HUNTER is an enjoyable treat with a few tricks up its sleeve.
After a muddled prologue in which Kaulder (Vin Diesel) kills the Witch Queen (Julie Engelbrecht) but not before she curses him with eternal life, we move 800 years to the present. Kaulder works for a secret Catholic society called the Axe and the Cross whose job it is to enforce the truce beween humans and witches. Key to the truce are the magically endowed not doing anything to interfere with the mortals they live among.
Kaulder is aided by a priest designated as “Dolan.” Michael Caine, of all people, plays the 36th Dolan, and he’s getting ready to retire, to be replaced by number 37, played by Elijah Wood. Such casting ups the ante for the film in that we expect this to have a little more dramatic heft to it. While no one will confuse this with the Oscar bait offerings the movie is competing against, it does get sufficiently complicated when an unexpected death causes Kaulder to have to search his memories.
Naturally this doesn’t mean simply recalling something. It means getting a particular memory potion whipped up by a feisty young witch named Chloe, played by Rose Leslie. She has already amassed credits ranging from “Downton Abbey” to “Game of Thrones” to the chilling horror film “Honeymoon.” She is clearly someone to watch and a name to remember.
As the story progresses there are betrayals and reversals, and a mysterious bad guy named Belial (Ólafur Darri Ólafsson) who is trying to bring the Witch Queen back to life. The plot mechanations are sufficiently creative to keep you guessing while the cast makes you believe–during the running time at any rate–that somehow it’s worth following. Just as important are the special effects which are imaginative and well-executed.
Of course at the center of it all is Vin Diesel, who sometimes can impress as an actor and sometimes seems to be another disposable action star. Here he knows that he–and the effects–have to carry the film, and he hits the right notes, now comic, now brooding, as he wins us over to his mission. Indeed there’s at least an implication that this might not be the very “last” witch hunter, although Kaulder is supposed to be the last of his kind. Hollywood, though, has its own spells for keeping things alive, with Diesel announced for three different upcoming sequels (to “xXx,” “Guardians of the Galaxy,” and the next “Fast and Furious” installment). So what’s one more?
“The Last Witch Hunter” will be gone by the time there’s snow on the ground, but in the meantime, it’s as much as part of the season as costumes and pumpkin-flavored-everything.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books. His most recent book is “Shh! It’s a Secret: a novel about Aliens, Hollywood and the Bartender’s Guide.” He lives in Somerville, Massachusetts.