The title Pungo: A Witch’s Tale immediately lept out to me, as it is a town that I have passed through on more than one occasion en route to Virginia Beach. The burg itself is a quaint, if unremarkable, little hamlet that’s perfectly content to rest in the shadow of the neighboring coastal destination. The same could be said for the film, which seems quite satisfied with being a slight diversion that entertains without relying on heavy spectacle.
Though it flashes that it’s “based on a true story,” writer/director Philip J. Cook’s grasp on actual events is tenuous at best. The movie is based on the legend of Grace Sherwood, the last known person in Virginia to be tried as a witch. She was charged with livestock death, crop damage, and turning herself into a cat. She was eventually cleared… 300 years later. In 1706, villagers are dunking Grace into the water. For those unfamiliar with the practice or who have never seen Monty Python and the Holy Grail, if she floats, she was guilty and executed, and if she drowned, she was innocent. Grace does the latter.
Flash forward to the present day, and we are introduced to Grace Sherwood (Cathryn Benson), a distant relative of the dead witch. The astrophysicist has just been handed the family estate, which is in desperate need of repair. Hence, she hires two local contractors, Bud (Mark Hyde, Despiser) and Sam (Matthew Sharpe).
“…the three of them team up to figure out the cause of the hauntings.”
Bud is a former Navy SEAL, and his goofy young protégé Sam, a former paramedic, is just happy to be along for the ride. After an initial inspection of the property, Bud witnesses his deceased young daughter emerging from a room. Sam is spooked by a woman crawling from a pried-open closet. Grace herself also experiences some strange events, so the three of them team up to figure out the cause of the hauntings. Soon, the trio faces a significant threat, with swirls of foreboding storms forming all around the property. Grace’s role as an astrophysicist has her rationalizing the events with her field of experimental quantum physics and time-space hiccups.
Cook is an industry veteran, starting way back in 1987 with the sci-fi B-flick Beyond the Rising Moon (aka Outerworld). His years on set are clear through several inventive shots and creative After Effects touch-ups. Not all of them work, as quite a few look a bit dodgy, but those are easily forgiven as long as they keep the action moving at a decent clip with a solid story. For the most part, Pungo: A Witch’s Tale succeeds in achieving this modest goal. Aside from the historical legend, the filmmaker fleshes out an engaging modern entanglement for his characters but could benefit from just a few more revisions to the script.
Despite the obvious budgetary limitations, there is still something oddly engaging about the horror tale that holds the interest of those looking for a lightweight supernatural saunter that never takes itself too seriously. While all three leads are engaging enough, it is Sharpe as the dim-but-well-meaning Sam that walks away as the MVP. He finds just the right balance of dopey and diligent, ensuring Sam is always a joy to have in the frame.
Pungo: A Witch’s Tale is keen on the audience knowing the tricks up its sleeve and merely wants to entertain while riffing on a local legend. And if the audience can overlook its limitations, the film succeeds in its illusion.
"…Sharpe as the dim-but-well-meaning Sam...walks away as the MVP."