Writer/director Elle Callahan (Head Count) opens her new film Witch Hunt on a harrowing note as two young girls Fiona (Abigail Cowen, Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) and her sister Shae (Echo Campbell) watch their mother burned at the stake. But this isn’t Medieval England or colonial Salem, this is modern-day America. An America where witchcraft is illegal under Amendment 11 of the Constitution and agents of the Bureau of Witch Investigation (BWI) hunt down and execute practitioners of magic.
Martha Goode (Elizabeth Mitchell, Lost, The Purge: Election Year) is part of an underground railroad that helps smuggle witches out of the country. She’s aided by her conflicted daughter Claire (Gideon Adlon, The Mustang) and younger brothers Corey (Cameron Crovetti, The Boys) and George (Nicholas Crovetti).
When circumstances keep Fiona and Shae at Martha’s longer than planned Claire, for the first time begins to bond with one of the witches. She also begins to suspect she has powers of her own. But as this is happening, the BWI, led by Detective Hawthorne (Christian Camargo, Europa Report, Penny Dreadful) starts to close in on them.
Witch Hunt operates both as a horror film and as a young adult dystopian thriller. And like most dystopian works the film has its share of political allegory. It’s along the lines of The Craft meets The Handmaid’s Tale although it wouldn’t be hard to see it as referring to any oppressed group.
The film does a nice job of setting up its world. From small details, like a girl being denied entry to a theatre because she’s on a list of those related to witches. To much more chilling scenes, such as Detective Hawthorn dousing a vehicle containing a suspected witch with gasoline and casually burning her alive, no warrant needed or questions asked.
In another scene, several girls from Claire’s school are only checked for marks indicating that they’re a witch. Those that fail are then tested by the old method of tossing them in water. If they float they’re witches, if they sink they’re innocent. The reaction when this causes an accidental drowning is as chilling as the testing.
Witch Hunt gives us very few clues about how this version of the United States came about or what kind of government is running it. Perhaps to avoid being called partisan this is all pretty much ignored, although the presence of a border wall might be intended as a clue. I do wish that aspect had been better fleshed out to give the film’s world a better sense of reality. That said, Hawthorn serves as an extremely hateable face for the government and its policies.
The film’s supernatural element only really comes into play in the last act. Up until then, Witch Hunt is more of a thriller that involves witches, but not much in the way of witchcraft. When they do let their powers loose it’s hampered by some extremely bad CGI, particularly the fire creature that turns up near the film’s end. On the other hand, the effects of the girl’s mother burning are certainly convincing enough to make their point.
I wanted to like Witch Hunt a lot more than I did. It is a good film and it does get its point across. But for some reason, it never really manages to be better than that. Giving the film’s horror element a bit more edge probably would have helped. So would at least clarifying if this is an alternate reality version of America or some kind of post-revolution one. And just because the film Thelma and Louis plays a part in the story there’s no need, apart maybe from a budgetary one, for a Harry Potter Meets Thelma and Louise style ending.
Signature Entertainment has released Witch Hunt in the UK on DVD & Digital platforms. Australia and New Zealand will get it on August 18th.