Producers: Igor Pronin, Yulia Zayzeva, Max Pavlov, Svetlana Punte, Adel Nur, Yu-Fai Suen and Mauro Barrelli   Director: Mauro Barrelli   Screenplay: Reggie Keyohara III, Scott Svatos and Mauro Barrelli   Cast: Robert Knepper, Jackson Rathbone, Lou Stassen, Aglaya Tarasova, Anna Paliga, Ieva Seglina, Joshua Burdett, Timo Willman, Fredrik Wagner, Ben McKeown, Terence Maynard, Matt Mella, Lorenzo de Moor, Elliott Wooster, Christopher Hunter, Ale Mills, Hervé Edouard Pictet and Dainis Grube   Distributor: Saban Films

Grade: C-

If you judge by the movies, U.S. soldiers driving into Europe in the D-Day invasion had a lot more to worry about than the Nazi army, because supernatural, or quasi-supernatural, powers had to be reckoned with too.  In 2020’s “Ghosts of War,” they were the spirits of a murdered family (although, to be fair, it turned out that the men weren’t really serving in World War II at all).  In “Overlord,” of two years earlier, the GIs confronted zombie super-soldiers created by a mad German scientist.  And if you’d like something from the opposite side, check of Michael Mann’s 1983 cult flick “The Keep,” in which a Nazi unit faced off against an ancient spirit in a Carpathian fortress.

Now we have “Warhunt,” in which the list of producers, executive producers and co-producers rivals the size of the cast.  In this low-budget international movie, shot in Latvia, the unfortunate group is a supposedly elite squad of twelve commanded by Sergeant Brewer (Robert Knepper), a gruff and grizzled veteran.  They’re ordered by the even gruffer and more grizzled Major Johnson (Mickey Rourke, wearing an eye patch but not a proper uniform or military hairstyle, preferring a raggedy Jesus look) to go into the Black Forest, where a plane carrying has been brought down (as a prologue shows us, by a flock of angry black birds), in order to retrieve its mysterious but precious cargo.  At Johnson’s insistence they add his own trusted surveyor Walsh (Jackson Rathbone) even though he’ll be the thirteenth man.

The mission goes south almost immediately as the squad encounters the exsanguinated bodies of German soldiers hanging in trees; they find a lone survivor, but he’s catatonic.  Shortly afterward a strange, seductive woman appears, and begins to entrance the men.  She turns out to be one of several witches guarding the so-called Tree of Life, which, it’s eventually revealed, must be nourished with the blood of warriors. 

Without going into too much detail, suffice it to say that the squad is eliminated one by one, the men giving in to their fears and desires and Sergeant Brewer going completely berserk.  Only Walsh remains, and finds his way to the cavern where the Tree exists in a pool of blood.  Johnson, back at his camp, has been urging a callow cryptographer to decipher an old volume he believes to be the key to life’s mysteries—a book that refers to the Tree of Life.  Unfortunately he has only the first volume of a two-book set, but the work reveals enough for him to decide to go to the Forest himself.  He links up with Walsh, and together they fight the witches, donning masks to protect themselves against the mustard gas from the previous war that they find and release.  A twist ending suggests that they might not have succeeded in the battle against evil. 

If all this seems silly, that’s because it is, and the ridiculousness is made all the loonier by the ultra-macho dialogue scripters Reggie Keyohara III, Scott Svatos and Mauro Barrelli have put into the mouths of their cardboard characters.  Under Barrelli’s direction, which vacillates between hysterical and subdued, none of the supporting cast, including the witches (despite their exotic garb), make much of an impression, and of the leads only Rathbone comes off at all well, playing the goofy material with a stoic demeanor that suggests he’d rather be elsewhere.  By contrast Knepper chews the scenery with gusto, spitting out his lines as the tough-as-nails sergeant, and Rourke ambles his way through his scenes as if he were reading the dialogue off cue cards.

Shot in Latvia, this is a poverty-row piece of work.  One has to sympathize with production designer Arnis Vatass, tasked with trying to make the Tree of Life and its grotto impressive on a meager budget, and the visual effects team, who offer some none-too-convincing mists to depict creatures appearing and characters disintegrating.  Eric Gustavo Petersen’s cinematography is unrelievedly murky, either an attempt to mask the shoddy visuals or just part of them, while Ed Marx’s editing is scattershot and Teo Liu’s score is bombastic. 

There are a few intriguing notions rattling around in this goofy World War II horror movie, but whatever interest they might have had is snuffed out by the inept execution.  In this genre “Overlord” still reigns supreme, though “The Keep,” despite the fact that it’s just a mangled shard of Mann’s much more ambitious vision, retains cult value.