Writer/director Elle Callahan’s sophomore movie Witch Hunt has great promise from its narrative premise. In a modern dystopian America, witches – women born with magical abilities – are persecuted, imprisoned and executed. Furthermore, a new amendment, Prop Six, has gathered mainstream approval amongst potential voters and would mean that anyone genetically related to someone confirmed as a witch would be criminally charged.
Indeed, film’s main character, asthmatic Californian teen Claire (Gideon Adlon), writes a paper in support of the proposal as part of a school assignment. At the same time, though, her mother hides witch sisters Fiona (Abigal Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell) to help them in their escape over a salt-lined wall to Mexico. Meanwhile Detective Hawthorne (Christian Camargo), a ruthless agent for the Bureau of Witchcraft Investigation, is using his pressure monitoring pocket watch to track down and murder witches.
The narrative bears the hallmarks of a suspense-filled horror, but, after the initial jump scares, the climax and latter moments come across as pedestrian and formulaic. Such a feeling is a particular shame as, initially, Callahan draws astute parallels between her dystopia and the realities of America and Western history: the discriminatory Prop Six echoes 2008’s Prop Eight proposal where the Californian state would only recognise heterosexual marriage; the smuggling of witches to Mexico draws similarities with the underground railroad, and the hiding of witches within the walls of Claire’s home has parallels with the Jewish experience during the Holocaust. These parallels, though, fall back into the socio-cultural mise-en-scène of the film as the developing relationship between Fiona and Claire, and the latter’s developing sense of identity, becomes the focal point of the second half.
Fortunately, Cowen and Adlon are strong enough actresses to command audience engagement and interest throughout. To help with the intrigue, Christian Camargo brings an icy menace to his villainous role, which helps to ratchet the tension when he begins to encircle Claire’s family, so convinced is he that the family are harbouring witches.
The problem is that prioritising this straightforward narrative reduces Witch Hunt to being formulaic and pleasantly watchable, when it had the potential to be more.
Witch Hunt is released digitally on demand on 5th July 2021.
Watch the trailer for Witch Hunt here: