There is a lot to like in writer-director Elle Callahan’s sophomore directorial effort, Witch Hunt, a sporadically engrossing coming-of-age supernatural thriller transplanting the puritanical paranoia of 17th century Europe to modern-day America. The film has great qualities: the script is often well-developed and pays lip service to a few genuinely interesting ideas, the cinematography is nuanced and belies the movie’s modest budget, and the performances are robust across the board.
Sadly, most of that goodwill is thwarted by some schizophrenic attempts to shoehorn schlocky horror elements into the plot – jarring, cheap jump scares and some truly awful VFX – which feel superfluous. The irony of attempting to hysterically assign horror elements to this otherwise sedate, character-focused thriller should not be lost on anyone aware of the historic witch trials.
Things start strong, with a woman’s grisly execution seemingly establishing a dystopian, alterative timeline where redheaded people are burned at the stake. It is later revealed that the woman was in fact condemned for practising witchcraft, a cardinal sin even in modern-day America. Her equally redheaded (a signifier of witchcraft) daughters – tragically unaware of the existence of hair dye – are then taken in by an underground railroad-type of organisation that works to smuggle these magical refugees across the border into the comparatively sorcery-lenient Mexico.
Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell plays Martha Goode, a sympathetic muggle who, along with her daughter Claire (Gideon Adlon), hosts the two girls in her home as she improvises a plan to get them out of the states. This is complicated by the increasingly suspicious federal authorities – basically modern-day witch hunters and ICE stand-ins – who begin to suspect something witchy is afoot and slowly tighten their noose around the whole operation.
The film is handsomely shot, utilising rich, dark interiors and flushing much of the colour from sunlit exteriors, drawing parallels to stylishly oppressive domestic horrors like It Follows and The Blackcoat’s Daughter. There are also several rather interesting modern revisions of witch-hunting lore, but these developments are frustratingly shallow and poorly developed.
For example, a scene in which students are strapped to chairs and ritually dunked into a school swimming pool in a twisted revision of the old ‘If she floats, she’s a witch. If she sinks, oh well, she’s with Jesus now’ method is visually arresting – all sterile grey tiles and slow, symmetrical, creeping camera movements – displays a very real sense of imagination. However, this moment isn’t anchored to any significant character or event, nor does it coalesce into anything significant, effectively wasting this potentially powerful, unique moment of tension on a throwaway scene. This is true of many of Witch Hunt’s best ideas, like the witch-repellent, salt-infused border wall.
Likewise, the social commentary aspect aims for several targets, but ends up harpooning itself by failing to properly commit to any of them. The persecution witches face is variously compared to the Holocaust, the modern dehumanisation of undocumented immigrants, and the societal judgement and repression of adolescent women. The problem is, most of the scenes drawing these parallels are fleeting glimpses of a world that’s not fully fleshed-out, and aren’t integrated into the story in any meaningful way. As far as social commentary goes, “When you think about it, witches are a bit like Mexicans” is not only one-dimensional, but also – one might imagine – a smidge offensive.
Far more successfully executed is the developing relationship between Claire and the older of the two sisters, Fiona (Abigail Cowen), whose engaging performances paper over the occasional technical misstep and provide much of the film’s humour and charm. However, most of the potential built in the first half of Witch Hunt ends up squandered in the second, more conventional half, with a late-stage plot reveal necessitating a Thelma and Louise-style dash to the border, constraining the narrative and leaving little room to tie up any dangling plot threads.
Witch Hunt is frustratingly close to being a recommendable addition to the supernatural genre. Mitchell, Adlon and Cowen elevate their scenes, the dialogue is sporadically memorable, and the muted palette and tasteful shot composition suggests M. Night Shyamalan at his miserable, brilliant early ‘00s peak. Whenever it starts to get enjoyable however, the film opts to indulge in some ill-judged, unimaginative jump-scares or resorts to some dodgy CGI, which only serves to make the whole thing feel like a TV movie. With a few script revisions, a tighter focus on Cowen and Adlon, a more fully explored world and less of the bargain-bin horror tropes, Witch Hunt could have been something special. To quote Darkplace’s legendary ladies’ man Thornton Reed: “It’s witchy woman wittering, and it wants snuffing out at the wick!”
Witch Hunt releases July 5th on DVD and digital platforms.