Monday, July 20, 2020

I Saw Goody Good With the Chardonnay!

Witches are having a moment, and it's something every feminist I know is loving. A movie about a modern witch hunt using names from the Salem witch trials made by a man doesn't quite seem like the next step in a movement, but let's take a closer look at the super low budget Amazon Prime offering of Witch-Hunt. We might find something. 

Quick Plot: Four lifelong gal pals get together to celebrate the birthday of Bridget, their ambitious blogger friend with bigger dreams of getting a book deal. Party planner Suzannah organizes the soiree, using her new acquaintance Rebecca's home. Conveniently enough, Rebecca runs a successful publishing company and immediately causes drool to roll out of the birthday girl's mouth.

After the wine is poured, the ladies decide to honor Bridget with her favorite activity: gaming! 

If you've ever played Werewolf or Mafia, you'll get Witch-Hunt. Using a retro cassette tape, the game requires to players to draw a card and use strategy to figure out which one has been assigned the role of the witch. Easy enough, but with just a few tweaks, it becomes psychological torture meant to divide the group. 

Rebecca, you see, has an ulterior motive for hosting someone she barely knows friend's party: back when the women were in preschool, they accused their teacher of ritually abusing them. Satanic panic was in full swing, and the ladies have seemingly buried the scandal for 20+ years. Rebecca smells a successful book, and has even assembled a pair of researchers to dig into the women's psychological profiles to help make the evening reach the deal she needs.

Witch-Hunt is the debut of writer/director Philip Schaeffer, made on what I assume was a shoestring budget for tennis shoes with very short laces. For its opening ten minutes or so, I really thought I was watching someone's audition video for a job as a production assistant on a Lifetime movie. There's some dialog stumbling that makes you wonder if scenes were done in one take, with conversations between women that feel very much written by a man (sample line of a character discussing her friend: "Isn't she pretty? But I always thought she was more talented than she was pretty" -- WHAT?!).

At a certain point though, Witch-Hunt clicked. Many successful low budget films tend to do that: it simply takes a little easing into the movie's limitations to accept what you're getting. Over the course of its 90 minutes, Witch-Hunt turns into a thriller purely based on dialog and character. I can't say that it fully works, but I was genuinely involved in seeing how it ended. 

I don't know much about Philip Schaeffer or the genesis of Witch-Hunt, but I'll certainly keep my ears open for more. I'd love to see this same film remade on a larger budget or with added time to smooth out some of the inevitable first-time kinks. There's something here, and while you have to sift through some messiness to find it, it might be worth the work.

High Points
It's hard not to admire a filmmaker who clearly wanted to tell a story about women, going so far as to limit his 7-person cast to all females. While there is some creakiness to the dialog, Schaeffer gives his core five characters plenty of depth and individuality, avoiding stock stereotypes within the confines of his brief story

Low Points
Look, I understand that a low budget and quick shoot can limit your possibilities, but that's no excuse to have your party planning experts keep the white wine sitting on a room temperature counter all night

Lessons Learned
A book deal is the holy grail for a blogger

Who needs event planners when there are candles and party store decorations?

You can't just not ice someone because they have a noose around their neck

It's not a birthday until the birthday girl has a meltdown

Most traditional horror fans are not going to get much out of Witch-Hunt, and will probably give me a sharp head tilt if they watch it upon my recommendation. But those who want something different and have the ability to see beyond its (lack of) window dressing might find something here. Have at it on Amazon Prime. 

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