*NOTE: This review was originally part of our 2021 SXSW Film Festival coverage. Witch Hunt opens in theaters, digital, and VOD on October 1st.*
Imagine the Salem Witch Trials on a national scale and you’ve got the basic idea behind the SXSW Midnight entry, Witch Hunt. Writer/director Elle Callahan’s followup to Head Count blends the high school fantasy of The Craft (clearly some influence) with serious-minded topical discussion on race, hatred towards women, and xenophobia. It’s an uneven balance, but an exceptional premise that reflects on America’s history of mistreatment of minority classes, along with nods to the heightened climate of today, makes this a witch’s brew worth bottling up and saving.
After a prologue finds a New England witch burned at the stage while her two young daughters watch helplessly, Witch Hunt moves the action to SoCal where high schooler Claire (Blockers star Gideon Adlon) just wants to fit in with the popular girls who are prejudiced to those red-haired witches (they all seem to have red hair) who have “magic in the blood”. This is made difficult by Claire’s home life, where her mother (Lost alum Elizabeth Mitchell, a personal favorite) helps shepherd wayward witches to safety in Mexico via an underground network. Her mother’s actions have drawn the attention of the BWI, a group of government-sanctioned hunters who combine classic and modern anti-witch tactics, but she still decides to take in two more refugees, Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell), the two girls who watched their mother burned. Despite all of her prejudices, Claire takes a liking to them, and sets out to help get them to safety. All of this against the backdrop of Claire writing a school paper on Amendment XI, which makes witchcraft illegal. So you know she’ll have some lessons learned just in time to question the Constitutionality of such a thing in her evening’s homework.
Callahan doesn’t attempt to be subtle, perhaps because the film is aimed at the teen demographic. The metaphors to today are clear, not just to racism but to the dangers of xenophobic leaders passing legislation to attack their enemies, something we saw first-hand in the previous Presidential administration. Also the fear and degradation of women, as the witches are dehumanized as making a “choice” to be evil when that’s not at all the case. Those expecting the chills of a Midnight selection will instead find pointed political commentary, putting it the same orbit of The Purge movies. While production values are clearly constrained, Callahan makes the most with what she has by leaning on the rural landscape and the performances of her cast. Adlon, who has already dabbled in witchcraft as part of The Craft: Legacy, handles like a seasoned vet Claire’s struggle to find herself in a world of many biases. While Witch Hunt is more traditional than its initial premise would suggest, it’s a welcome reimagining of witches and the kind of world-building that has you hoping Callahan can conjure up another with greater resources at her disposal.