Witch Hunt Movie Review
Written by Joel Harley
Released by Signature Entertainment
Written and directed by Elle Callahan
2021, 97 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
Released on UK VOD 5th July 2021
Elizabeth Mitchell as Martha Goode
Abigail Cowen as Fiona
Gideon Adlon as Claire
Like so many other things, the term ‘witch hunt’ has taken on a more charged meaning of late, co-opted by a bunch of fishy arseholes as a way of squirming away from the things that they blatantly did. It’s especially cruel, given that the actual victims of actual witch hunts were actually innocent. And even if they were witches, what would be so wrong with that anyway? Elle Callahan’s Witch Hunt supposes that witches were, and are, real – and remain persecuted in modern-day America.
Young Claire (Gideon Adlon) lives with her mother (Elizabeth Mitchell) in small-town California, where they offer refuge to young witches, helping them to safety in Mexico. Fiona and Shae (Abigail Cowen and Echo Campbell) are their latest house guests, on the run after their own mother was burned at the stake. With the already unsympathetic government cracking down on the children of witches, the children will want to stay well out of the Witch Hunter’s way.
This all might sound familiar to anyone who has had their eyes even remotely open for the past five or so years, and Witch Hunt is not terribly subtle in its real-world influences. It may star The Craft: Legacy’s Abigail Cowen, but it bears more in common with the likes of Jojo Rabbit and Handmaid’s Tale. This is a fairly familiar coming-of-age story, set against a backdrop of state-sanctioned prejudice and misogyny. And it’s the film’s world building that is Callahan’s greatest asset, combining real-world practices (kids in cages) with those of old-timey Witchfinders (dunking chairs, burning at the stake) in a way that feels eerily plausible (a ring of salt around the Mexican border wall). Does it cheapen these real world issues by applying them to a fantasy one? Perhaps if Callahan had made some more room for its characters and actresses of colour, the film may have had more bite. As it is, its question is a depressingly familiar one: what if we treated white women the same way as we do minorities and people of colour?
Although there are few true surprises, the story is well told by Callahan, who elicits some great performances from the young cast. Adlon and Cowan are particularly good as the young friends, the latter helping Claire to think outside of her own bubble and come to terms with who she is herself. Elements of the story are unfeasible – the girls drawing attention to themselves by practicing magic in a bar - but grounded by said performances. It has an especially great villain in Christian Camargo, the black-suited man doggedly hunting down the young witches. Think Jeffrey Combs in The Frighteners, or Michael Shannon in The Shape of Water.
While the film could have been sharper and more incisive, this is a solid work of YA fantasy. Callahan sets up a world ripe for exploration, employing some surprisingly effective imagery within its low budget. It doesn’t quite hold up when you go beyond the surface level, but there are some wicked ideas there, regardless.
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