Director/Screenplay – James Eaves, Producers – James Eaves & Laura Tennant, Photography – John Raggett, Music – Mark Conrad Chambers, Visual Effects – Dark Raven Digital, Special Effects Supervisor – Arif Majothi, Makeup Supervisor – Helen Chambers, Production Design – Kristin Allin, Fight Choreography – Kris Tanaka. Production Company – Amber Pictures
Claudia Coulter (Rebecca), Jonathan Sidgwick (Edward), Stephanie Beacham (Madeline), Sally Reeve (Charlotte Apone), Jason Tompkins (Oscar), Tom Dover (Hugo Renoir), Miguel Ruz (Victor Ferdinand), Adrian Johnson (Linda), Beryll Nesbitt (Nana), Magda Rodriguez (Katanya), Andrew Cullem (Polite Man), Liza Keast (Aggressive Woman)
After being attacked in the street, Rebecca is brought around by two mysterious agents from Project 571. Rebecca’s only interest is in returning to her husband and son but the Project 571 operatives tell her that she cannot because she has ‘changed’. Rebecca learns that she is now a genetically modified vampire. They place her into a tough training regimen, forcing her to cooperate with the promise of being able to see her family again. Rebecca soon emerges as a highly-trained assassin. She then returns from an assignment to find that everybody at Project 571 has been slaughtered. She is rescued by the witch Edward and taken before Madeline, the witch who heads Project 572. Madeline says that they need her special skills to retrieve a book of spells known as ‘The Witches Hammer’, written by the Russian witch Katanya. This is needed in order to kill the vampire Hugo Renoir who has made himself invulnerable and can only be eliminated by using one of the book’s spells. However, as Rebecca and Edward set out on their journey, both rival vampires and the minions of Hugo Renoir seek to take the book from their grasp.
The Witches Hammer is a low-budget independent horror film from England. Director/writer James Eaves had made his debut with the low-budget horror Sanitarium (2001) and then went onto co-direct the horror film Hellbreeder (2004), which he has disowned after the distributor forced substantial reediting. Subsequently, Eaves and Amber Films made the horror film Bane (2009), as well as episodes of the horror anthologies Bordello Death Tales (2009), Battlefield Death Tales (2012) and 60 Seconds to Die (2016).
James Eaves has conceived The Witches Hammer as a mix of vampire and action film. The film that The Witches Hammer reminds of the most is Razor Blade Smile (1998), a similar British-made micro-budgeted film that also featured a tough kickass vampire heroine who worked as a trained killer for a top secret organisation. The Witches Hammer throws up an appealing initial concept – I must admit to being kind of annoyed as it is an idea that I had a few years ago and thought would make for a cool vampire film – that of conducting a vampire variation on Nikita/La Femme Nikita (1990), the Luc Besson film wherein a woman was abducted and forcibly turned into a lethal assassin for a covert organisation.
What I liked about The Witches Hammer was the way that James Eaves has made a concerted attempt to craft a back-mythology. There is something here akin to what Underworld (2003) and its sequel Underworld: Evolution (2006) attempted. (In fact, I actually preferred what the low-budget The Witches Hammer does to either of the A-budgeted Underworld films). The background of the supporting characters is treated with imaginative depth – one especially liked the character of the Victorian vampire Charlotte Apone who devours her own father and is so overweight that no vampire hunter can locate where her heart is. Eaves throws all sorts of interesting ideas into the mix – a breed of vampires who are so old that they cannot withstand any light, even moonlight, and must hide in crypts. There are some amusing interpolations of classic vampire imagery – like Claudia Coulter returning to her coffin aboard a train as morning comes and asking Jonathan Sidgwick to tell her a bedtime story. The film swings an ambitious story – the only complaint might be that there could have been more in the way of background given over to explaining what Projects 571 and 572 are and why there are such things as genetically engineered vampires.
Eaves also offers up some smart pieces of writing and wry dialogue. Adrian Johnson wakes Claudia Coulter up from a morgue table after she has been shot whereupon Coulter grumbles: “I’ve just spent six hours in a cold body locker listening to the autopsy of a hit-and-run. I’m tired; I have the hangover from Hell and pieces of my own brain in my hair. If you say a sentence with word ‘plan’ in it, I will rip your throat out,” which gets the response, “So who’s a grumpy bitch then?” Or where Coulter and Jonathan Sidgwick venture into the crypt and she complains about him calling his flaslight’Mr Torch’ – “Mr Torch? Why not Mrs Torch or Ms Torch?” and then as it abruptly goes out “I stand corrected – definitely a Mr Torch.”
Eaves eschews much of the go-for-the-throat impact that other low-budget horror filmmakers usually aim for – the level of gore is very light, there is no nudity and only the slightest suggestion of eroticism. (Indeed, it would take little editing for The Witches Hammer to be issued with a PG-rating). On the minus side, Eaves tends to be a little too reliant on special effects to carry his story rather than mood or his actors. The vampires spend a little too much time baring their fangs and snarling and having their eyes digitally flash, which is something that has become a cliche in modern low-budget vampire films. Eaves is a self-confessed fan of tv’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2003) and employs the effects that were used there – of vampires instantly turning to digitally-rendered dust when staked (which Buffy came up with in order to get around having to show vampires getting stakes through the heart on tv). What we end up with through this though is a film that is too reliant on digital flash when a much more modest realistic impact may have had much more effect. There is also too much of a tendency towards comedy relief whenever it comes to the characters of the vampire Charlotte (Sally Reeve) and her dwarf manservant Oscar (Jason Tompkins) – especially a sequence with Jonathan Sidgwick trying to brain Tompkins with a saucepan in a kitchen, which overtly topples into slapstick.
The action scenes tend to feel like they have been boiler-plated in as set-pieces at regular intervals – but these are convincingly done and come with a stylish, well-choreographed kick. Argentinean-born model Claudia Coulter has an impressive presence as the heroine of the show. She has a natural ability with all the lithe poses when it comes to kicking the requisite ass – a lot more so than Sarah Michelle Gellar ever did in Buffy. Unlike many action heroines, she is not buffed and hyper-masculine but sexy and tough, while movinh through the acting scenes with a tightly controlled presence.
View the film’s site at Amber Pictures.