Witch Hunt (1994) / Fantasy-Mystery
MPAA Rated: R for language and a scene of nudity
Running Time: 100 min.
Cast: Dennis Hopper, Penelope Ann Miller, Eric Bogosian, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Julian Sands, Valerie Mahaffey, John Epperson, Debi Mazar, Alan Rosenberg
Director: Paul Schrader
Screenplay: Joseph Dougherty
One could call Witch Hunt a semi-sequel to a 1991 film entitled Cast a Deadly Spell, a fairly obscure made-for-cable film which starred Fred Ward (Short Cuts, Remo Williams) as detective H. Philip Lovecraft, a private investigator working in a fictionalized 1940s Los Angeles, where there are many people who have the ability to use magic. You don't need to see that version to understand Witch Hunt, but at least you might have a better sense of context, as it's an even stranger film otherwise.
Dennis Hopper plays Lovecraft this time out, somewhat older in the 1950s, where a McCarthy-esque Senator Crockett (Bogosian, Talk Radio) is holding investigative hearings to root out the magical influence in Hollywood, which he sees as evil and destructive. Miller (Carlito's Way, Kindergarten Cop) gets the sexy vamp role as Kim Hudson, the wife of a big shot producer who she thinks has been having an affair with one of the stars of the new movies he is making, and she hires Lovecraft to get more information. It's a crazy town, and Lovecraft refuses to use his own magic to solve his case, and with the ambitious Senator cracking down, he finds there is much more than meets the eye.
Witch Hunt plays very much like a low-budget, lesser-inspired version of Who Framed Roger Rabbit? with magicians as the persecuted players, instead of cartoon characters. There seems to be all of the elements in place to make a decent flick, perhaps even a cult classic, but somehow these parts never really gel into a cohesive whole. The cast is very likeable, the direction by Schrader (Affliction, Auto Focus) is lively, the writing by Dougherty (who also penned Cast a Deadly Spell) is interesting, and the sets and costumes are nicely handled. However, it still falls far short in the overall presentation, mostly due to this looking like a made-for-tv movie all of the way, from the lighting to the cinematography. There is a lackadaisical quality to the plot development, and cheesy special effects only detract from the momentum in suspending the disbelief of the fantastical. In short, it's an initially promising but completely languid experience.
Strictly for die hard fans of the main players, or the curious souls who enjoyed the first film. For all others, you'll probably come to the ironic conclusion that a film which is all about the magic of Hollywood should really have something magical of its own going for it.
©2004 Vince Leo