Ed. — From the Sunday, April 25, print edition.
BY JANE BLOODWORTH ROWE
Slandered, prosecuted and imprisoned during her own time, Grace Sherwood has since become the beloved hero of many local legends, and she is now featured in a recently released full-length fantasy film that’s available on Amazon Prime.
Pungo: A Witch’s Tale was written and directed by Philip Cook, who owns the Falls Church-based independent film company Eagle Films. Replete with supernatural characters and special effects, the supernatural film, which Cook describes as mild horror” and “science-fiction” is a classic tale of revenge, victims, villains and flawed heroes who find redemption through incredible acts of courage.
It is not a documentary.
The film tells the story of Grace Sherwood – a young astrophysicist – who moves into a house that presumably was once owned by her ancestor, Grace Sherwood the witch, and last occupied by the present-day Grace’s great aunt.
Like Dorothy of the Wizard of Oz, this innocent young woman is transported via a severe storm into another realm. She and two companions, after a series of adventures, eventually meet the witch, a vengeful Grace Sherwood who is seeking to right past wrongs by destroying her descendant.
Cook, the filmmaker, said he had never heard of Grace Sherwood before she was pardoned by former Gov. Tim Kaine in 2006. He did some research and talked to a few local people before deciding to spin the original into a fantasy film.
“It was a curious story,” Cook said of the historical Grace Sherwood, but he added that he thought that he could improve on it with special effects and supernatural characters.
The film makes no attempt at historical accuracy. It opens with a wrongly convicted Grace Sherwood drowning when she was ducked. The real Sherwood survived her ducking and served a jail term before being released.
Shot primarily in Falls Church, it depicts Pungo as a community of rolling countryside and arrow-straight roads, but a scene with the very real memorial marker and statue of Grace Sherwood was shot on site on Witch Duck Road here in Virginia Beach. None of it was shot in southern Virginia Beach, though.
The film’s main characters include a former Navy SEAL, played by Mark Hyde of Charlottesville, and an ex-firefighter, played by Matthew Sharpe of Centreville, who are now working as handymen and who serve as the modern day Grace’s companions. Cathryn Benson of Falls Church plays both Grace the astrophysicist and Grace the witch.
Hyde, who actually served as a Navy SEAL, said that he was stationed at Joint Expeditionary Base Little Creek while in the Navy and that he’d traveled south as far as the Dam Neck Annex, but was unfamiliar with the story of Grace Sherwood before he acted in the film.
He became interested in acting as a student at Virginia Wesleyan College, now Virginia Wesleyan University, and worked with Cook on other science fiction films, including Despiser and Malice. He and Cook had talked of integrating a witch into previous films, but it never developed until this one.
Cook has written and directed six features and some commercials. He said that he often used special effects design and created imaginary characters such as the wood golum featured in this film.
Pungo: A Witch’s Tale was shot on a “micro-budget” of under $20,000, he said. He began writing the film in 2017, and production began in 2019.
“I just hope that we entertain people,” Cook said. “We’re just trying to tell a fun story. It really does have a Wizard of Oz kind of vibe to it. The whole point is to have a good time.”
Hyde said that he thought that the three main characters, all of whom carry some emotional baggage, are relatable to the audience.
“The thing about the characters is that they were all damaged,” he said, “and I think that people can sympathize.”
The film is rated 16+ for teens. It is available to rent, buy or stream with a membership at Amazon Prime. You can learn more about the film by following its Facebook page via @pungowitchmovie.
© 2021 Pungo Publishing Co., LLC