Supernatural Noir: Witch Hunt (1994) by K A Laity

Supernatural Noir: Witch Hunt (1994)

I am so grateful fabulous film critic Anne Billson retweeted a reference to this into my timeline. She has great taste in films as well as encyclopaedic knowledge (seriously, check out her work). Also it could not be more on-brand for my stuff: a mash-up of witchcraft, horror, hard-boiled and noir: The film takes place in a fictional Los Angeles where magic is real, monsters and mythical beasts stalk the back alleys, zombies are used as cheap labor, and everyone—except hardboiled private investigator H. Philip Lovecraft (Hopper)—uses magic every day. 

It turns out to be the sequel to a film also penned by Joseph DoughertyCast A Deadly Spell, which is more directly Lovecraftian (and which I have also ordered). Witch Hunt, however, is really hard to get hold of unless you want to pay a steep price for VHS (the horror, the horror). But it’s available on the site you probably guess it will be in the mean time: there must be some kind of rights issue.

Just peep at that cast list: Dennis Hopper, Penelope Anne Miller, Debi Mazar, Eric Bogosian, Lypsinka – Julian Sands! And veteran director Paul Schrader at the helm. There’s a lot good here: a satirical take on both the crime classics and on the ‘witch hunt’ against Hollywood in the 50s. So much potential: somehow it never gels. A few laughs land and land squarely: having the fabulous witch Hypolita Laveau Kropotkin (Sheryl Lee Ralph) summon Shakespeare just to get him writing pictures. Priceless final sight of him, face up against the window of limo wheeling him away to be chewed up with all the other screenwriters.

I think the basic problem is Schrader: he’s great at building tension but awful at comedy and even worse at action. Almost everyone plays their part well: almost no one connects to anyone else playing theirs. To have that sort of Hammet fast-talking wit you can’t have so much space between the actors. Miller is great as the actress who fears her career has just walked off with her producer/husband. She has a great balance of brittleness and ambition. Debi Mazar is so great that I expected her part to be bigger. Bogosian as the McCarthy stand-in is a combination of smarm and sleaze. Lypsinka makes a wonderful villain running a ring of high-class magical call girls. There’s a nod to the film noir tradition with a snippet of The Big Combo playing in a drive-in.

Even Sands isn’t chewing scenery too much as ‘Finn Macha’ (hahahaha) but his cod Irish accent often slips into something, I dunno – German? He does good menace as a foil to Hopper’s investigator.

Hopper just isn’t there. I’m looking forward to seeing Fred Ward play the same role. I suspect he will be better. I haven’t looked up any of the reviews of the film at the time. Not sure what was going on with Hopper: after his stellar turn as the über creepy Frank Booth in Blue Velvet this would seem to be a great role, but he never seems involved. There’s certainly no believable chemistry with Miller. Ralph does her part in trying to portray their uneasy relationship as friends with adjacent offices, both helping out people in trouble.

There’s a lot to like about the story: it could easily be redone with most of the script intact. Dougherty seems to have stepped into production work instead of writing, but I bet he’d take another chance at having this done right. See it while it’s free.