Witch Hunt (1994)

“Cast A Deadly Spell”, a made-for-HBO TV movie which starred HP Lovecraft as a private detective in a noir-ish 1940s LA where everyone uses magic, was a surprise thumbs-up from us; and it seems, from lots of other people, as they made a sequel to it a few years later.

Gone was director Martin Campbell (although writer Joseph Dougherty returned); he was replaced by Paul Schrader, who is more famous as a writer – he gave us “Taxi Driver”, “Raging Bull” and “The Last Temptation Of Christ”. Gone is the entire cast of the first movie, most prominently Fred Ward as HP Lovecraft – he’s replaced by Dennis Hopper, who was in the stage of his career when he seemed pretty happy to coast in lesser projects. The other main draws are Eric Bogosian as Senator Larson Crocket, Penelope Ann Miller as Kim Hudson, a movie star and wife of a murdered studio executive, and Julian Sands as the mysterious Finn Macha, for some reason trotting out a genuinely bizarre Irish accent.

So. This is more something that uses the same basic building blocks to tell a completely different story than it is a sequel. Gone is the noir look of “Cast A Deadly Spell”, to be replaced by a much more TV-movie looking bright LA, kind of Sunset Boulevard crossed with the paintings of David Hockney (although nowhere near as interesting as that would actually look). It’s set in 1953, although it’s very vague on the details, having tons of props that people who pay more attention than me have dated to 1958 at the earliest.

They’ve made it a red scare movie, but replaced communism with magic. I’m not entirely sure this works? Okay, both are easy to learn, simple to understand and very beneficial to life, but communism was never as widespread and as beloved as magic is here. Senator Crocket is trying to ban magic, organises rallies and Senate hearings against it; at the same time, the murder of the producer is pinned on his wife, who was being fazed out of his movies in place of a younger starlet. Lovecraft investigates and the two come together (obviously, or this would be a very strange movie indeed).

There are some fun touches, such as near the beginning when a group of execs summon Shakespeare from the 16th century, who looks horrified, only to be glimpsed in a later scene having completely transformed into a typical LA scumbag; and the running gag of Lovecraft never being able to produce the right business card, carried over from the first movie. And, in a curious bit of continuity, a main character being a transvestite. But it just doesn’t work.

I’ve been trying to ponder a way to describe this. Imagine a “Friday the 13th” sequel that’s a political thriller, where Jason just sort of idly wanders through a few scenes not really doing anything. Having HP Lovecraft as a character in a movie where there’s no mention of his mythos, and where magic is an extremely flimsy metaphor, just seems pointless? It’s also really not helped by Hopper, who’s indifferent to proceedings, and director Schrader, likewise. I wonder what persuaded either of them this was worth their time? Did HBO throw a lot of money at them, or were they both working cheap that week?

I’m sorry to report that nothing really works. It’s not a good detective, horror, or comedy movie, and everyone gives off a strong vibe of wishing they were somewhere else. The world only needs one HP-Lovecraft-is-a-private-eye movie, and this isn’t it.

Rating: thumbs down

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