By: Brendan Graham
Horror is a complex genre, more than it gets credit for. It can be entertaining, it can be terrifying, and it can also be thought-provoking. Horror as a representation of social and political commentary is not a new concept, and has crossed over many subgenres. This time around, we see a representation of our current social climate by the persecution of witches on a federal level, and they make little attempt to disguise the ties to the real world.
WITCH HUNT, written and directed by Elle Callahan, modernizes the Salem Witch Trials and imagines a present-day America where witchcraft is not only real; it’s illegal. Utilizing the idea of witchcraft as a genetic condition that is passed on to children, the United States government seeks to contain and eradicate those with the gene. The film takes place in Southern California, where we are introduced to Claire (Gideon Adlon), a teenager who lives with her mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell), and her two younger brothers. Claire just wants to be a normal teen, who gets to hang out with friends, work on essays with classmates, and just have a normal existence. Her mother, on the other hand, disagrees with the government, and treats her home as a stop on an Underground Railroad-like operation, where young witches are transported from home to home until they can be safely delivered to the Mexican border. There it is legal to practice witchcraft.
Their situation becomes more complicated with the arrival of two sisters: Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell), who come to stay at their home, months after their mother was burned at the stake. Claire and Fiona begin to grow closer as federal agents start to snoop around town, and Claire realizes that she may have a genetic link to witchcraft. With time running out, and the danger of being caught becoming far greater, Claire must find a way to help her new friends escape before they, too, get captured and executed.
From the get-go, the movie succeeds in hooking the viewer into its world, emphasizing the dangers of this dystopian-like America. The opening scene sets the tone with a wicked display of mob violence, showcasing one of the best effects of the film. With WITCH HUNT being her second feature film, Callahan and the crew do have a lot to be proud of. The cast has great chemistry, and is quite talented, particularly our young protagonists who shine the brightest here. I appreciated the theme of sisterhood and discovering the beauty in our differences. The nod to Thelma & Louise was a nice touch as well. Some sequences are genuinely chilling. The float test sequence was especially tense and haunting. The movie plays out more like a supernatural drama, rather than a straight-up horror flick, which makes it friendlier for teenagers, or folks who are hesitant about horror (despite its R rating, it’s fairly tame).
The movie starts strong, but stumbles in Act Two, and never fully recovers. Rules that are established in the first act get overlooked, or even broken, towards the end of the film. The ending is clumsily spoiled halfway through the film. The visual effects are more on the distracting side, looking unfinished and sometimes silly. Genre fans looking for thrills and chills, beyond the sequences of torture, might be disappointed towards the end of the movie, as things become more predictable and the jump scares become more frustrating than frightening.
It often feels rushed, and sequences sometimes feel random in context to what happened just before. The biggest issue with the movie is the lack of diversity. Most of the characters, and all of the witches, are predominantly white. The witch gene, previously discussed earlier in the film, seems to solely focus on white women with ginger hair, and places them in situations that are strikingly similar to real trauma caused to persons of color. It’s borderline appropriation, insensitive, and it’s often careless in execution. Some viewers may be offended.
In a lot of ways, WITCH HUNT is a solid effort. It features a talented cast, with strong female-led performances. It catches your interest from the beginning, and the movie doesn’t overstay its welcome, lengthwise. However, the movie doesn’t reach the heights it shoots for, and the lack of diversity is disappointing. It’s a hit-or-miss experience that may divide horror fans, but it’s worth checking out if you’re curious.