Here’s something I just learned—deep underneath the William Penn hotel in downtown Pittsburgh is a chamber where a council of religious people, called The Axe and the Cross, hold meetings to keep the witch population in check.
Who knew? I occasionally park in the Mellon Square garage … little did I realize the fate of humanity was being decided on the other side of the wall.
Meanwhile, tucked high above in a William Penn penthouse lives an immortal human being employed by The Axe and the Cross to hunt down the world’s evil witches so they can be imprisoned in caves under the William Penn.
And you thought Pittsburgh’s only claim to fame was chipped ham.
Welcome to the very weird world of The Last Witch Hunter, a horror action film starring (and produced by) Vin Diesel.
I should probably say that, in actuality, The Last Witch Hunter is not set in Pittsburgh. All of the action takes place in New York City. However, the movie was shot in Pittsburgh and much (if not most) of the fun of the film is seeing a beautiful aerial shot of Manhattan’s nighttime skyline … but when we go in close for the scene we’re in a Pittsburgh location. Look, it’s the Strip District! Cool, that’s a bakery on the South Side! Hey, isn’t that the church yard of that cathedral downtown I can’t ever remember the name of?
There’s lots of local actors as well and, having spent a number of my younger years trapped in the gulag that is Pittsburgh’s theater community, it was a hoot spotting old friends in bizarre costumes. (I actually know four members of The Axe and the Cross council and I’m pissed they didn’t tell me they were saving the world—could that be the reason they never return my calls.)
But unless you live in or are from Pittsburgh I can’t imagine that The Last Witch Hunter is going to hold much interest for you. It’s mildly interesting at the beginning but, like most contemporary films, collapses in on itself halfway through thanks to loopy logic and a craving for needless, if stylish, violence.
The film opens in 1211 as an earlier version of The Axe and the Cross are trudging through Eastern Europe in search of the Witch Queen. Witches, you see, have been trying to rid the planet of people since the beginning of time and now the Witch Queen has created demonic wasps to spread the Black Plague over the land. The group finally reaches her and one of the members, Diesel playing a guy named Kaulder, kills her … but not before she curses him with immortality.
We then jump forward 800 years, most of which Kaulder has spent putting down similar plots of domination by evil witches. In the intervening years, the Axe and the Cross have always assigned a priest to function as Kaulder’s factotum. The latest, played by Michael Caine (does he really need money this badly?), is retiring and the replacement is a young techno-geek priest played by Elijah Wood. (See parenthetical remark above.)
This film, directed by Breck Eisner, takes its time at the beginning setting up it’s cosmology. This was by the far the most interesting part of the movie – although I might be the only person who would think so. It’s all about the bureaucracy of The Axe and the Cross with it’s various rules, regulations and history. (And, as befits a Catholic organization, there’s a lot of bureaucracy.)
We even get to visit a witch nightclub!
As you would know if you paid attention during the Harry Potter movies (or listened to Billie Burke) there are good witches and bad witches. The good witches are allowed to do as they please—as long as they never hurt humans. (It’s the bad witches who’ve got The Axe and the Cross panties in a twist.) And when Kaulder meets up with a quirky, sexy witch bartender named Chloe you immediately understand some of the complications ahead.
But all too soon these exposition scenes fade away and the plot rears its head. As it turns out there’s a particularly evil witch who is looking to bring the Witch Queen back to life; this involves a lot of people dying in novel ways. The next thing you know we’re racing through the streets of Pittsburgh … er, New York as Kaulder and his band are killing whoever they need to to stop the return of the witch.
I was halfway through this movie before I realized that I’d never seen a Vin Diesel film. There’s all those Fast and Furious films which, without almost any effort, are very easy to miss. He has two additional franchises as well: The Chronicles of Riddick and xXx. You know what? I missed them, too.
So there I was having my first Diesel experience … and I was fascinated. It’s not that he can’t act. I mean he can’t, obviously. But what I found most fascinating is that it doesn’t matter. He’s found a script and character where, if anything, acting would be a hindrance. So the improbability of him being up there on the screen turned out to be, in a weird way, captivating; there’s something about his flat, affectless acting that you can’t look away from.
But I guess I shouldn’t complain too much about Mr. Diesel since he did bring a lot of work to Pittsburgh and some of my friends will be able to pay their rent for the next few months. And, too, it’s amazing to think that the necropolis guarded over by the Axe and the Cross council was actually inside a warehouse underneath the 31st Street Bridge.
But don’t take that movie money for granted, Pittsburgh! I’m just reading the box office tallies from the weekend and the movie has turned out to be a big, fat bomb. So it looks like the first Last Witch Hunter will, in fact, live up to it’s title.
Ted Hoover is a Pittsburgh based critic and writer.