In Excision and Tone-Deaf, writer-director Richard Bates Jr combined confrontational horror with family drama and oddball comedy. Here, in his breeziest picture to date, he drops the horror even though the subject is modern-day witchery – as practiced by folks who might admire The Love Witch as a style icon but probably wouldn’t use the craft the way she does. It’s sweet and acted with conviction, but admirers of Bates might feel there’s something not quite right about the picture – it never even feints towards nastiness, though there are several plot junctures where things could get darker if the auteur chose to go that route. Screening at FrightFest, the fact that the film doesn’t go there might be a distraction. Also, I’m not sure that all the jokes – running gags about Juliette Binoche and poo in butts, a turn from Ray Wise as imaginary Merlin – land, despite the efforts of a great deadpan cast to sell them.
Married wiccans Thorn (Matthew Gray Gubler – fresh from fifteen years of Criminal Minds) and Willow (Angela Sarafyan, from Westworld) are the high priest and priestess of a coven of California types – bickering gay couple Desmond (Johnny Pemberton) and Neptune (Josh Fadem), weirdly mismatched Percival (Andy Milonakis) and Rowena (Kate Comer), and slightly hyper Angus (Nelson Franklin) and quiet Echo (Emily Chang). Thorn has tattoos, a laid-back peacenik air and a failing garden ornament business (there’s a hilarious throwaway about his feud with Big Birdbath) – and the crisis in the film comes when he’s invited to his high school reunion and has to confess to Willow that he was once prom king, popular, voted most likely to succeed and played lacrosse. When he confesses these shames to the rest of the coven, he becomes and outcast and – thanks to accidentally-ingested drugs – walks off on a vision quest that naturally leads back to his hometown, his shrilly disapproving Mom (Barbara Crampton) and eventually that big reunion.
The joke is taken seriously, though it’s pretty elementary. The weirdos are conservative and intolerant of alternative straight lifestyles, but learn their lesson – which is enough to locate the film in its own fantasy universe. In reality, everyone has to be in something before they drop out – and Thorn’s background (as ‘Thornton’) can’t be unusual in coven circles. Indeed, leadership and organisational abilities ported over from his former ethos might well account for his success in mediating squabbles among his followers. Instead, we get a light, charming, odd parallel universe which is pretty much that of The Munsters – where the freaks plainly express bedrock values and normies are bad news. The plot builds up to an odd ritual whereby the prom king has to perform a solo dance at the reunion, with Thorn apparently the only two-left-feet pagan priest in the guru business and agonised that he’ll make a fool of himself.