Witch Hunt (1994) is a lesser-known sequel to the popular HBO movie Cast a Deadly Spell (which I covered in my last post, “Harrowing Shadows: 11 More Macabre Masterpieces of Horror Noir”). While keeping the same urban fantasy premise (the practice of magic is widespread throughout mid-20th Century Los Angeles), Witch Hunt is a much different film from its predecessor, and definitely more adult-oriented (in its inclusion of vulgarity and nudity). Gone are the cosmic horror overtones of Cast a Deadly Spell; there’s no Necronomicon-summoned pseudo-Cthulhu monstrosity here (nor any creatures such as werewolves, gremlins, or gargoyles, for that matter). The sense of a classic hardboiled-noir mise-en-scene is also lacking in Witch Hunt, which features plenty of sunlit exteriors and bright office spaces. Dennis Hopper steps into the Fred Ward role of magic-averse gumshoe Phil Lovecraft, and gives quite the lethargic performance. For all its shortcomings, though, the film does have something to recommend it: a clever variation on a mob scene.
Senator Larson Crockett (Eric Bogosian)–who heads the Subcommittee on Unnatural Activities and is driven to rid Hollywood of magic–blames Lovecraft’s friend, the licensed witch Hypolita Kropotkin, for the murder of a movie mogul, and decrees that she be burned alive (not just as punishment for her alleged crime, but for “the enlightenment of the general public”). The staged event that follows plays out like a cross between a political rally and a public execution. Indeed, the wooden stake awaiting Hypolita is propped right next to Crockett’s podium. There’s band-music fanfare (matched by enthusiastic cries of “Burn the Witch!” from the sign-wielding bystanders outside the arena), as well as baton twirlers on stage to warm up the flag-waving crowd. This putatively patriotic gathering serves as a satire on American politics, and a reminder that when it comes to witch-hunting, persecution and power-hunger historically have been interconnected.
But the perversion of justice takes an unexpected turn. The two-faced senator, hexed for double-crossing another magic practitioner, collapses mid-speech, and his inner self literally erupts from the prone body and rises in unadulterated obnoxiousness. Dressed like Andrew Dice Clay, the outed inner-Crockett launches into a profane rant that costs him his Presidential hopes (not to mention his freedom). Thus the attempted burning of the good witch Hypolita spectacularly backfires, as it’s the career of the duplicitous and overzealous politician that gets reduced to ashes right before the public eye. Never has a mob scene proven so redemptive, both within Witch Hunt‘s narrative itself and by virtue of its saving what otherwise would have been an utterly forgettable filmic endeavor.