Genetically engineered vampires. Powerful sorcerers. Secret government agencies. Conspiracies. Killer dwarfs. Sounds like the recipe for a kick butt vampire action film, right? Unfortunately, in the case of The Witches Hammer, it is instead the recipe for a poorly executed vampire action film.
Rebecca, played by Claudia Coulter, is a loving mother who is murdered one night and scooped up into a shadowy government program, known as Project 571, where she is turned into an artificial vampire by the magic of modern science. Her funeral is faked, and she is trained in the arts of death, a la La Femme Nikita, in order to serve the government by killing all the real vampires out there. Things go south when Rebecca comes back from an outing to find her handlers viciously murdered. She fights off a handful of vampires and ninja-esque witches with her superior kung fu, but is finally drugged and carted off by a mysterious bearded fellow.
The bearded fellow turns out to be Edward (Jon Sidgwick) a witch who works for Madeline (Stephanie Beacham), a much senior witch, on Project 572, the successor to Project 571, now that the latter is defunct owing to the complete exsanguination of its staff. Edward and Madeline want Rebecca to help them retrieve an ancient book, the Malleus Maleficarum (more on this in a moment), and use it to defeat Hugo Renoir, a particularly nasty vampire who wants to release the souls of the damned on the earth, or some such thing.
Here begins one of the most annoying conceits of the film, providing the viewer with detailed background or origin information on minor characters. In this case, we are treated to the life story of Kitanya (Magda Rodriguez), the "first witch", who started off as a happy Russian peasant girl until a wicked priest (of the Catholic variety, evidently) passes through town, converts the townsfolk to Christianity and demands that Kitanya's infant child be sacrificed to his bloodthirsty god. Overcome with grief, Kitanya kills herself, but is possessed by some sort of evil force. She arises, bludgeons the priest to death with a hammer, and sits down to write the Malleus Maleficarum (that's the Hammer of Witches in Latin) a compendium of magical spells and miscellanea, but is soon found by the angry townspeople and killed, permanently this time. Even setting aside the gob smacking ignorance about Russian history, the development of witchcraft, and the actual Malleus Maleficarum, which was written by Heinrich Kramer and Jacob Sprenger, two Catholic monks, in the late fifteenth century to aid in the prosecution of witch trials, and can actually be purchased today in a good translation by Montague Summers, a copy of which is sitting on this reviewer's bookshelf at this moment, the entire episode comes across as uninspired padding, whose information could have been passed along much more efficiently.
Rebecca and Edward set out on a series of ridiculous adventures to retrieve the book and confront Hugo, most of which lack any dramatic tension and whose attempts at comedy fall entirely flat. On the way, they run in to Oscar and Charlotte (Jason Tompkins and Sally Reeve), a dwarf and his obese girlfriend, both vampires, who are also trying to get the book, while providing what purports to be comic relief. Rebecca and Edward also encounter supposedly master assassin vampire Victor Ferdinand, and a millennia old evil cardinal, both of whom, along with Charlotte and Oscar, are the subject of detailed bios. Soon enough, Hugo is confronted, and the whiz bang twist ending, with all its vampire kung fu and betrayal and pathos is upon us. It's nothing special.
The Witches Hammer has a lot of problems. There's no real tension, or concern for the characters, or originality, or humor, or even cool fight scenes. The action is slowly paced and meandering. The characters are flat. The fight choreography is limp and slow moving. The CG effects are laughable. (When stabbed through the heart, the vampires disintegrate in a shower of low quality sparks.) There are also some holes in the logic of vampirism. Rebecca is able to watch her husband and son visiting her grave in broad daylight, wearing riding leathers and a shaded motorcycle helmet. But she has to be confined to a coffin for a train ride on their quest to retrieve the book. It seems that a heavy veil and voluminous dress would offer the same protection as a helmet and leathers, but apparently not. And the nature of the shadowy government organization she works for is barely skimmed over. Important plot points and intriguing background are given short shrift, while inconsequential characters are given buckets of screen time. Everything has the feeling of being thrown together at the last minute. In short, there is precious little on offer for the viewer to enjoy, and what is presented is not enjoyable. This is definitely one to skip.