Pungo: A Witch’s Tale (2020)

The witch of Pungo legend is interesting enough on its own, but when all was said and done, I don’t know if it warranted a movie. Director Cook uses the legend vaguely as a means of setting the stage for a larger scale narrative, as well as paying tribute to Virginia. In fact, the Virginia born director casts all Virginia based actors. It’s an admirable aspect to a movie that sadly falls apart and feels confused both in tone and genre. By the time the climax rolls around it never really makes up its mind.

Grace Sherwood (Cathryn Benson), an astrophysicist has just inherited her family estate in Tidewater Virginia, which is in desperate need of repair. She hires two local contractors, Bud (Mark Hyde, Despiser) a burned out ex- Navy SEAL, and Sam (Matthew Sharpe), an emotionally distraught firefighter suffering from PTSD. Things turn surreal when their renovation job becomes a journey to another world. When they’re sucked in to a black hole, they’re forced to find a way back home, while Grace is hunted by a band of masked hunters.

Director/writer Phil Cook does do a good job working around the budget. The cast is very small, the settings are limited, and the CGI is shockingly pretty sharp. Not many indie directors are bold enough to try to create giant monsters on a shoe string budget, but Cook takes the gamble and comes out of it pretty well. Cook seems anxious to create a fantasy horror movie, but he spends only about the first ten minutes of his movie implementing horror devices, and then dives headfirst in to dark fantasy. From there it’s a mostly confusing and scattered fantasy film that pays tribute to “The Wizard of Oz” big time.

Director/writer Phil Cook borrows a lot of the plot elements from the aforementioned story, and sneaks them in to his narrative whenever possible. This works against “Pungo” as it can never seem to decide if it’s a tribute to the story, or if it’s trying to offer up his own take on it. There are so many directions that the narrative takes, and I wish the script spent a lot more time on Bud and Sam, and their broken pasts. We get some bits of exposition with them in the first half, but there’s simply not enough that would help them feel well rounded. I was also left asking questions by the finale, trying to reconcile the random bits of story points.

Was Grace’s house haunted or was she being haunted by the witch? If the latter, why didn’t the witch try to grab her while she was hiding in the house? What did Bud’s dead daughter have to do with the whole narrative? Was the witch pulling the strings and trying to scare them away? Who gave Grace the necklace and what significance does it hold beyond being a memento? Does it provide the Sherwood witch bloodline powers? Were Bud and Sam fated to help Grace? If not, why the apparitions try to scare them off? Was anyone else sucked in to the small black holes?

There’s a lot of good stuff in “Pungo: A Witch’s Tale” especially as Phil Cook takes what is an obviously small budget and injects some pretty good effects and offers sharp production quality. Sadly, the rough around the edges script and somewhat jumbled narrative hinders the overall experience.

Now Streaming Exclusively on Amazon Prime Video.