Three years after her directorial debut Head Count, Elle Callahan returns with the allegorical Witch Hunt. A mixture of YA tropes, fantasy, and horror, Witch Hunt imagines an alternate Earth wherein witch craft is illegal in America to the point that the 11th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution bans the practice. Going even further, if you’re found to be related to a confirmed witch, your rights and access to everyday activities suffer from extreme restrictions. Reality and these elements within Callahan’s fictional Witch Hunt are not so dissimilar that Callahan’s themes are lost amid the teen angst within this coming of age tale. To a degree, Callahan’s Witch Hunt is as much a call to arms to destroy patriarchal systems as it is an examination of social responsibility. When we allow our fear to destroy our social bonds, burning a few so-called witches is not the act of a savior but the start of our destruction.
In a Southern California border town, Claire Goode (Gideon Adlon) lives with her widowed mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell) and twin brothers Corey and George (Cameron and Nicholas Crovetti). Everything about their existence is normal — go to school, meet up with friends — except for one thing, their mother helps witch fugitives evade the Bureau of Witch Investigation (BWI), which patrols the United States-Mexican border, to find asylum within Mexico. With each new witch who hides within their house walls, Claire’s frustration grows over the lack of normalcy and constant lying she must do with her friends to keep them away from the house. Everything changes for Claire when sisters Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell) arrive with BWI Detective Hawthorne (Christian Camargo) in tow. From that moment on, Claire must choose which side of the battle on which she’ll fight — the afflicted or the aggressor — but first she must decide which is which.
Let’s get into the meaty bits of Witch Hunt first.
There are layers of complexity within the script and a detail to attention within the world that make Callahan’s feature dazzling. Before we learn Claire’s name in the introduction, we’re shown her working in a small group with her friends in a history class. The audience already knows about the hatred for witches, the film even going so far as to show us the 11th Amendment as the camera pans to Claire, which makes the note her friends are passing around to torment a classmate, calling her “witch bitch,” very telling about the type of people these are. The phrase itself isn’t particularly clever for a high school, but it speaks to the patriarchal elements within female social norms. In a setting where an accusation of “witch” can get someone tossed into a witch camp or worse, the fact that these kids would write the words on a note and toss it at someone speaks to how deeply rooted within the culture the hatred of witches is. It’s almost worse than calling someone a “slut,” “whore,” or any other denigrating terms which bounce around high school walls. This isn’t just an othering because these kids have a disdain for the other girl, there’s real violence, a real threat to the safety of the girl with that accusation. With attacks on Asian-Americans on the rise due to increased anger at COVID-19, it’s not particularly far-fetched to presume that the title “witch” would be so casually thrown around at people drawing ire from their neighbors. In Callahan’s world, a new amendment is being proposed, titled Prop 6, which would extend criminal charges and punitive restrictions onto anyone genetically related to someone confirmed as a witch. Though this proposal is not explored heavily, it adds additional color to the narrative, particularly as it reminds this reviewer of 2008’s Prop 8 proposal which sought to add a change to California’s state Constitution making only marriage between a man and a woman recognized by the state. That Proposition passed, by the way, and was legal until the Supreme Court made a ruling allowing same-sex marriages to be recognized. There is a gigantic difference between same-sex marriage and being a person with magical abilities, but the use of government to restrict what its people can do is not so fictitious or far-reaching. Because of these aspects, those expecting Witch Hunt to be a straight horror film will likely find themselves disappointed. Aspects *are* horrific and Callahan has plenty in the tale to terrify, but it’s more of an unsettling feeling that gnaws at your mortality and sense of justice.
By far some of the more clever elements of Witch Hunt are the way Callahan makes the absolutely outrageous seem unequivocally normal. One would think, for instance, that burning people at the stake was left behind in the modern era, that, if one has possesses the moral high ground, one would choose the manner which would be the least painful method of executing an enemy of the state or convicted felon. In their reality, salt-firing weaponry, Sink Tests for high schoolers (a modern version of 17th Century swimming tests), and even burning are all standard events. In our reality, until November 2020, the notion of using anything but lethal injection (itself still argued against by some) was considered inhumane. Slowly, Callahan presents the facts of Claire’s world, revealing bit by bit that the fiction and the real have far too much in common. In the film, a video Claire watches proclaims that the family of the witch who killed her family in a car accident should be punished for the sheer fact that they are blood relatives. That they share the blame. Is that so different from how some view members of the Asian-American community now? Or how some viewed (and continue to view) followers of Islam in the wake of 9/11? Callahan seems to be asking us where our own line exists for safety and whom we’re willing to subjugate or punish just so we’ll feel safe.
Where Witch Hunt falters is in two areas: the YA elements and exposition.
Claire is a teenager in an unknown grade struggling between her do-gooder mother and adolescents. She’s angry about living where they are, she’s angry about refugees living in their home, and she’s angry that she can’t have a normal life like it was before her father died. That’s a lot of anger which leads to a few sequences that feel more CW-esque than intended. This is especially noticeable in the early interactions with Claire and her friends, with them complaining about witches like they are an inconvenience and not living people. That does eventually set-up to a rather nice verbal altercation, but the trip to get there is plodding. In addition, the fact that the character just-so-happens to be assigned a paper on the 11th Amendment means that she must do research on the amendment and look up the current temperature of the nation. As expressed above, the latter allows the narrative to explore elements of otherism, but the method of doing so feels predictable. Instead of Claire learning something she doesn’t know, it often comes across as a ham-fisted means of teaching the audience about the world. It gets to a point that the use of exposition becomes noticeable even in relationship-strengthening conversation so that the ending of the film loses the emotional edge it builds toward so beautifully.
Even with these elements, Witch Hunt is a rich dramatic coming of age horror tale that becomes a tad more chilling the longer you sit with it. It’s not that an alternate Earth wherein a fear of magic comes to define the government and social interactions of a country isn’t a staggering thought, it’s the degree to how close it is that reality is to our own. There is, however, an undercurrent, within Witch Hunt, of hope due to collective thinking and connection, an idea that pain for one is pain for all, but that strength of one strengthens all. Viewed through that lens, Claire’s tale is one of rising up to her own expectations and not the ones society places on her. To break free of the patriarchal shackles doesn’t just mean to get rid of men, but all who support and enact the laws which keep their systems in place. If all it takes is a little magic to bring it all tumbling down, perhaps the system wasn’t so strong to begin with and deserves to be torn asunder.
Screening at the 2021 SXSW Festival March 17th, 2021.
For more information, head to Defiant Studio’s Witch Hunt website.
Final Score: 4 out of 5.