★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
Teen horror and social commentary make for a fine union in this feature about a deadly U.S. government clampdown on witchcraft and the women who practice it.
Directed by Elle Callahan
Witches are hunted down, given sink-or-float tests, and burned at the stake. The time is the present day, and the place is the United States of America. Writer/director Elle Callahan’s Witch Hunt takes this premise and creates a riveting film that combines teen horror movie elements with political commentary to strong effect.
Claire Goode (Gideon Adlon), her widowed mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell), and her twin brothers Corey and George (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti), live on a somewhat rural property in a Southern California border town. Much to Claire’s chagrin, Martha gives temporary refuge to fugitive witches to help them escape to Mexico, where witches are granted asylum, and to evade the Bureau of Witch Investigation (BWI), a government entity that seeks to capture and punish witches, usually by death.
Witchcraft can be a result of family biology in the film, and two of the witches are sisters who witnessed their mother being burned at the stake. Teenager Fiona (Abigail Cowen), who is right around Claire’s age, and her younger sister Shae (Echo Campbell) come to stay at the Goode house, but the person who is supposed to pick them up for the next phase of their trip across the border never shows up. Claire slowly goes from being perturbed by the sisters’ presence to bonding with Fiona, leading toward BWI Detective Hawthorne (Christian Camargo) — a sort of modern-day Matthew Hopkins — becoming increasingly suspicious of the Goodes and what they may be hiding.
Callahan shines a light on racism and other prejudices, along with the patriarchy, in a screenplay that includes intriguing ideas and solid dialogue. Witch Hunt attempts to tackle a lot for one film, and mostly succeeds. A few plot points border on being heavy handed but never quite cross the line. The updating of centuries-old witchcraft punishments to the present day and the acceptance of such are both done well, and the suspicion of neighbors and schoolmates parallel bigotry that is seen all too often in today’s headlines.
The cast is terrific. Much of the focus is on Fiona and her mindset toward witches, caught between the generosity of her mother that endangers the family and the prejudices of her friends. Adlon does a fine job portraying the frustration and confusion of her character. Mitchell gives a fine performance as a sympathetic woman who must lead her family in living lies daily so as to not alert authorities. Cowen and Campbell give good turns, too, with the former having fine chemistry with Adlon. Camargo plays the main evil protagonist nicely, using a chilling iciness to inhabit his character.
Callahan has crafted a highly watchable horror feature that mixes the topical with thrilling premises. Witch Hunt is certain to leave viewers with a good deal to chew on regarding its messages.
Witch Hunt screened as part of SXSW Online 2021, which ran from March 16–20, 2021.