Film/Television Review: Witch Hunt (1994)


In 1990s HBO paved the way for today’s Golden Age of Television by conducting all kinds of experiments with films and shows that could be produced without content restriction of cinema or broadcast television. While doing it it had many hits, but it also had a lot of misses. Sometimes even hits lead to misses, like in the case of Cast a Deadly Spell, surprisingly innovative and entertaining mix of fantasy and film noir. In 1994 that film received a sequel under title Witch Hunt, directed by Paul Schrader.

The plot is set alternative mid 20th Century Los Angeles where modern world coexists with magic and various fantastic creatures like vampires, werewolves or zombies. Protagonist, played by Dennis Hopper, is Harry Philip Lovecraft, private investigator who, unlike the rest of the people, refuses to use magic. This doesn’t prevent him from being hired by Hollywood actress Kim Hudson (played by Penelope Ann Miller) to check marital fidelity of her husband, producer N. J. Gotlieb (played by Alan Rosenberg). Investigation gets complicated when Gotlieb gets killed by someone using magic. Lovecraft is determined to get to solve the mystery, which involves his old acquaintance, shady “private security consultant” Fin Macha (played by Julian Sands) and Larson Crockett (played by Eric Bogosian), ambitious and charismatic US senator who leads crusade against magic in Hollywood as “un-American activity”.

Witch Hunt was written by Joseph Dougherty, author of the previous film, but the rest of the cast and crew was completely new and, based on their reputation, the result could have been something much better or at least more ambitious than Cast a Deadly Spell. Most notable change was Paul Schrader, director who became famous for his screenplays during New Hollywood era. Dennis Hopper, one of the most formidable actors of his generation, has replaced Fred Ward from the original film. However, what audience ultimately saw on the screen was utter disappointment, and not only after inevitable comparisons between Witch Hunt and Cast a Deadly Spell. The new film was obviously made with lesser budget, which left alternative world of early 1950s Los Angeles with very little of fantasy creatures and even less humorous interactions between them and real world. Special effects, despite using some benefits of the early 1991 technology, look very cheap in this film. But the worst thing is poor script that uses weak mystery plot and tries to compensate for the lack of proper content with some weak attempts of social, cultural and political commentary. The most obvious is attack on 1950s real life anti-Communist hysteria embodied in McCarthy-like senator played by Eric Bogosian, one of the rare actors who delivers good performance here. Bogosian also plays senator’s counterculture doppelganger, introduced in interesting but ultimately to bridge generational gap between 1950s setting and 1990s audience. Hopper is, on the other hand, solid but unremarkable and same can be said of Penelope Ann Miller, who, despite all her charms and talent, can’t do much with her cliched character. Missed opportunities and shoddy production of this film manifest themselves in a scene where Kim Hudson is supposed to look mousy and plain, but still looks glamorous. Same can be said of character of Fin Macha, played over the top by Julian Sands, who is underwritten. Witch Hunt quite deservingly ended as one of the more obscure pieces of Schrader’s filmography and clear warning that sequels don’t work on cable just as they don’t work as regular feature films.

RATING: 3/10 (+)

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