In the 2020 alternate universe of writer/director Elle Callahan’s Witch Hunt, practicing witchcraft is a capital crime that can result in a woman’s public burning because of the U.S. 11th amendment. Considering the actual 11th amendment in the U.S. (one concerning judicial matters) was passed back in the 1790s, it’s fair to assume the law had been on the books for a very long time in this alternate-universe. In the 2020 election, Prop 6 risks stripping witches’ biological relatives of their rights, such as access to driver’s licenses. The story focuses on Claire Goode (Gideon Adlon) whose mother, Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell), hides witches in their home and helps to transport them to safety. Early on in the film, Matha takes in two sisters, Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell) who lost their mother to a public burning at the start of the film. When a tragedy results in Fiona and Shae not being able to move to the next safehouse, Claire forms an unlikely bond with Fiona even as Claire works to cope with new, terrifying visions.
The film borrows attributes of a wide variety of other systemic human rights atrocities and resistance movements such as hiding individuals targeted by the S.S. during the Nazi regime and the present-day conflict at the U.S./Mexican border. Unfortunately, the film fails to contextualise these enough, making it feel like appropriation that whitewashes the racial and ethnic implications of those historical struggles (something Abby Olce touches on in her review as well). Witch Hunt’s world-building is at its best when it creates, rather than appropriates, oppressive elements that make sense for the marginalisation of witches. One such device is the inclusion of “sink tests” that gauge whether teenage girls float or not, since floating was a stereotypical tell-tale sign for witches during the Salem trials.
Instead of a horror film, Witch Hunt feels more like a dystopian drama with some truly startling jumpscares. When watching with my earphones, I found myself having to lower the volume so I could barely hear the dialogue just because the jumpscares were mixed painfully-high and they often came out of nowhere during otherwise calm moments. The scenes around the jumpscares don’t add necessary tension to make the film’s parts add up to a cohesive tonal whole, begging the question of whether the horror elements were needed at all or if the film would stand better as a high-concept drama.
Although the first half of the film is very slow, the second half picks up pace and adds many rich layers, so much so that it feels like a different film because of the quality increase. Claire and Fiona’s relationship offers some very sweet, well-shot scenes that demonstrate how powerful bonds between teenage girls can be during times of stress. Because Fiona and her sister have lived their life on the run, they haven’t enjoyed many things normal adolescents have, including many movies, so in one scene, Claire conveys her adoration of the film Thelma and Louise with Fiona. In one of the best moments of the film, Fiona remarks that perhaps the 1991 film ended on a freeze-frame because Thelma and Louise were both witches and flew the car to safety, but the filmmakers had to “censor” this. Fiona’s reading of the film might remind feminist viewers of the desire to look for implicit readings in films that help transform them into empowering texts for marginalised audience members. Witch Hunt is at its best when it leans into the curiosity, vulnerability, and strength that often accompanies teenage girls, even in times of crisis. Adlon and Cowen give solid performances as Claire and Fiona, with both elevating even some of the weaker scenes they’re in.
All in all, the film’s appropriation and unexplained erasure of real-world immigrant issues overshadows some really beautiful acting and character moments in the film, making it hard to recommend. For feminist audience members—particularly aspiring writers and media scholars—interested in depictions of witchcraft and relationships between teenage girls, Witch Hunt may still prove a useful source of study. It’s uptick in quality in the second half does come with some admirable filmmaking aspects as the film strives to find its own world-building separate from what it over-steals. Witch Hunt’s shortcomings are a cautionary tale about the importance of being sensitive to the struggles of other marginalised peoples even as you make art that advocates for the rights of one particular group, magical or not.
Witch Hunt is available on DVD and VOD from July 5th
by Bishop V. Navarro
Bishop V. Navarro (they/she) is a poet, writer, and media studies scholar from Tampa, Florida. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of South Florida and currently pursues a PhD in Communication at USF. Her scholarly work examines boundary vulnerability in horror and science fiction media. You can find her on Twitter, Letterboxd, Instagram, and Tumblr @vnavarrowriter