On the face of it, James Eaves' "The Witches Hammer" is just another low-budget indie horror flick. (The dropped apostrophe in the title is, apparently, intentional -- for aesthetic reasons!) Take a closer look however, and one will find a compelling concept underpinning a stark narrative, cunningly constructed from a mixture of recent and recognisable horror/fantasy elements, but also sprinkled liberally with a regard for classic British horror institutions; and exhibiting touches of the offbeat quirky humour of cult '70s television. This is obviously a personal venture for James Eaves - who writes, self-produces and directs the picture — and its creator makes a convincing stab at avoiding the obvious headache-inducing pitfalls of indie film making: namely, amateurish acting, bad picture quality and unimaginative, derivative ideas.
Ideas are, fortunately, one thing this movie certainly does not lack: "The Witches Hammer" comes crammed to bursting-point with self-generated mythology. At first it may appear that the story shamelessly steals from a variety of recently successful genre films, but its sources are so diverse, and are combined in such interesting ways, that the film soon leaves its influences behind and develops a character and style all of its own. One can definitely see shades of "Underword" and "Kill Bill" in the development of film's pissed-off, raven-haired, sword-wielding vampire protagonist; and the "Underworld" influences are carried through to the plot, which posits an underground war between witches and vampires taking place clandestinely in modern-day Britain.
There are also detectable echoes of the recently cancelled U.S. tv series "ALIAS" in the film's portrayal of an elaborate web of secret Governmental organisations — here, battling a host of competing vampiric mafia gangs — and the ensuing espionage and counterespionage tactics deployed by both sides. You would think a combination of elements such as these is bound to produce something worthwhile, and that does indeed turns out to be the case!
It begins with an attractive woman being attacked and murdered in a dark, shabby London street; her assailant tearing a chunk out of her neck! The woman - Rebecca (Claudia Coulter) — does not remain dead for long though. She is transported to a top secret agency called 'project 571' where her body is scientifically reanimated as a vampires, created specifically to destroy a sect of vampire criminals led by the arch-villain of vampires, Hugo Renoir (Miguel Ruz)! Rebecca is understandably not too pleased by this development, especially as she must remain apparently dead to her husband and small son (she can only secretly watch them from a safe distance as they tend to her sham grave) to protect the top secret status of the project. After intensive training in swordplay and martial arts techniques, Rebecca seems set to take up the life of a lethal assassin — very reluctantly!
However, events take another unexpected turn. After being sent on a mission to rescue a kidnapped agent, during which, even a shot to the head turns out to be insufficient to stop a vampire killer, she returns to 'project 571' headquarters (located in a rather shabby warehouse space, somewhere in London) to find the entire personnel have been wiped out! Project 571 is no-more! The gang of vampire assassins responsible for this try to take Rebecca out as well, but she is able to fend them off until finally darted and drugged by another mysterious protagonist.
This turns out to be Edward (Jonathan Sidgwick): a priest assistant to a one-eyed witch called Madeline (Stephanie Beacham) who claims to be the head of a sister-organisation to project 571, named — logically enough — project 572. This branch of the organisation is concerned with recovering a powerful book of diabolical spells, known to the world as Malleus Maleficarum (or The Hammer of Witches): the 15th century book of material apparently compiled by James Sprenger and Heinrich Kramer and endorsed by the Catholic Church, which purported to prove the existence of witchcraft and sorcery.
In fact, Madeline's account of the writing of the book proves rather different to the offical version. According to her, the book was written in anger by a witch called Kitanya (Magda Rodriguez) who lived in the middle ages in the Russian countryside. It contains a page that can, in the wrong hands, release the souls of the damned from Hell and plunge the entire world into eternal darkness. It seems Hugo Renoir is planning on doing exactly this, and Rebecca must now team-up with Edward and Madeline in order to get to the book before he does.
Things are not that simple however, for there is a menagerie of strange and dangerous characters who also want possession of the book for their own ends. This disparate group of people includes a psychopathic vampire assassin named Victor (Miguel Ruz), and a bizarre pair of vampire lovers made-up of circus midget, Oscar (Jason Tompkins) and obese Victorian vampiress, Charlotte Eppo (Sally Reeve)! Soon Edward and an imperious Rebecca find themselves assailed on all sides by supernatural threats conjured up by their nemesis, Hugo Renoir, which include among their number a faceless black-clad ninja fighter with the rather handy ability of being able to dematerialise or duplicate himself at will!
Eaves' film certainly still wears its low budget on its sleeve; the 35 mm film used instead of the now almost standard digital format helps give it a classier appearance than most of its competitors, but its real strength lies in the inventive storytelling and a fair amount of attention given to making sure the fight and action scenes look persuasive enough to an audience well-schooled in pacey, tightly edited action cinema. The results may not be the most spectacular you will ever have seen, but they look professional enough to pass muster. The film's other strength is that it is not content to be judged only on its gore levels or its action sequences: the plot twists and turns throughout, and the drama, horror and action elements are neatly complemented by a weird sense of humour and Eave's penchant for creating outlandish, macabre characters.
The quirkiness of the film exhibits itself most strongly in several flashback sequences, which serve almost as loving pastiches of British horror from the past. Kitanya's back-story is told in a flashback that looks like a surprisingly authentic tribute to late Hammer films such as "Vampire Circus" or "Twins of Evil", while the bizarre story of Victorian matron Charlotte Eppo, and her midget lover, Oscar, is told in a mock silent film vignette, complete with inter-titles and digitally rendered damage to the black and white film! These digressions are utterly superfluous to the main plot, it's true -- but they work in making the film quite unpredictable, and lend it a knowing, slightly camp air that recalls the attitude of some of Britain's great fantasy drama of the sixties and seventies, like "The Avengers" and "Department S". In fact, the quality of the ideas behind the series and the number of inventive, strange and fantastic characters it showcases makes me think that this could work as an offbeat modern TV series!
I think the greatest strength of the film for me though is its superb cast -- in particular the two female leads. Stephanie Beacham is, of course, no stranger to genre films; and unlike many of her contemporaries, who worked on many a Hammer horror flick or camp TV serial in decades past, she has always spoken up for this period in her career while others have glossed over their involvement in such product, dismissing it as trash they would rather forget. In fact, Beacham has appeared in many well-loved classics such as "Dracula AD 1974" and "When the Screaming Starts", or "House of Mortal Sin", as well as endearingly dodgy fare like "Inseminoid", and has always been willing to supply commentary tracks or interviews for any of these works. It's good to see her back in a genre flick, and she immediately brings an extra jolt of authenticity to the beautifully suitable role of Madeline the witch, playing it at just the right hysterical pitch to remind one of why those old films are still so watchable.
One must also pay tribute to the striking lead actress Claudia Coulter, a relative newcomer who UK viewers may recognise from the BBC's recent adaptation of "Jane Eyre", in which she played the small but important role of 'the first wife in the attic'. Here she comes over like the sexy, sassy heroine of many a modern horror flick but with the striking features and edgy persona of a latter-day TV female lead -- a kind of cross between Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Cathy Vale. The hint of a French accent, long raven locks and a subtle 'power pout' add to the impression of a convincing, well-rendered action heroine. The fact that she is also a vampire adds just that extra sprinkle of spice, though it's a shame that there is not enough time to flesh out the character even further.
All in all, "The Witches Hammer" is an enjoyable, quirky tribute to a host of genre faves, put together very professionally by a promising up-and-coming young independent film maker and enlivened by a committed cast. It's out soon on DVD in the UK and definitely deserves your support.