Review: ‘Witch Hunt’

The magic of Hollywood is quite literal in this brisk, detailed telefilm that pits politicians against prestidigitators. "Witch Hunt's" combination of a whodunit with wacky characters and stunning special effects should satiate cable viewers searching for slightly different fare.

The magic of Hollywood has a very literal meaning in this brisk, detail-laden telefilm that pits politicians against prestidigitators. “Witch Hunt’s” combination of a whodunit with wacky characters and stunning special effects should satiate cable viewers searching for slightly different fare.

But the icing on the cake is the top-drawer perfs delivered by its talented cast, which are bolstered by killer visuals, ranging from clothes to architecture.

At the centerpiece of the tale is the use of magic in everyday life circa 1953, with housewives and hairdressers capable of conjuring up perfectly brewed coffee and perfectly coifed hair. Witches and warlocks roam unencumbered, casting spells and mixing potions while dressed like Ozzie and Harriet.

But the motion picture studios seem to be benefiting the most from witchcraft , hiring expert spell-casters to bring back scribes such as William Shakespeare to punch up sleepy scripts.

Story advances as the use of magic in the movies comes under congressional fire while private eye H. Phillip Lovecraft (Dennis Hopper) is called upon by studio system actress Kim Hudson (Penelope Ann Miller) to identify the current mistress of her studio boss husband, N.J. Gottlieb (Alan Rosenberg).

But Gottlieb croaks before he can be investigated, setting off several story lines that include inquiries into Gottlieb’s last days at both a beach house and a fashionable residence in the hills above Hollywood.

Lovecraft, unlike his contemporaries, works “clean”– i.e., without the aid of sorcery — as he endeavors to solve the murder and clear his friend Hypolita Kropotkin (Sheryl Lee Ralph), who has been accused of the crime.

Hopper brings to the table his trademark dry wit and staccato delivery, moving between comedy and drama without missing a beat.

Julian Sands, as Finn Macha, a wicked gumshoe and quasi-nemesis of Lovecraft, works up a no-holds-barred perf. Along with John Epperson in dual roles, Sands helps keep pic from getting bogged down in Raymond Chandler territory.

Although Eric Bogosian barely veers from his well-trod repertoire, he nonetheless wails as congressional blowhard Larson Crockett.

The vidpic, exec produced by Gale Anne Hurd, advances the premise raised in the ’40s-set “Cast a Deadly Spell” (the HBO prequel to this made-for). Scripter Joseph Dougherty works up a story that has more twists and turns than Laurel Canyon while weaving in a biting satire of the McCarthy hearings.

Director Paul Schrader (“American Gigolo,””Light Sleeper”), making his first move into cable, cements the strong script with style, and draws out performances from the cast that are among their best work.

Production designer Curtis Schnell similarly deserves a hearty nod for helping to create a visually tasty pic, with the unique use of locales, such as the Frank Lloyd Wright house in the Hollywood Hills as a high-class brothel.

Witch Hunt

Sat. (10), 8-10 p.m., HBO


Filmed in Los Angeles by Pacific Western Prods. for HBO Pictures. Executive producers, Gale Anne Hurd, Joseph Dougherty; producers, Michael Joyce, David Gale, Betsy Beers; director, Paul Schrader; writer, Dougherty.


Camera, Jean-Yves Escoffier; editor, Kristina Boden; production design, Curtis Schnell; art director, Michael Fox; sound, Jim Stuebe; music, Angelo Badalamenti; visual effects coordinator, Michael Muscal; costumes, Jodie Tillen.


Cast: Dennis Hopper, Penelope Ann Miller, Eric Bogosian, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Julian Sands, John Epperson, Valerie Mahaffey, Debi Mazar, Alan Rosenberg, Gregory Bell, Terri Camilleri, Christopher John Fields, John Durbin, Victoria Diffy, Zaid Farid, Ellen Gersten, Clifton Gonzalez Gonzalez, Robert Goolrick, Mark Habit, James Harper, Aaron Heyman, Kristin Kahler, Nancy Linehan Charles, J. Patrick McCormack, Julianne Morris, Dennis Paladino, Jill Pierce, Alan Poul, Phil Reeves, Steve Susskind, Michael Taliferro, Lynn Tufeld, Steve Vaught.
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