In a modern America where witches are persecuted and practicing magic is illegal, Witch Hunt sees teenager Claire (Gideon Adlon, seen in The Craft: Legacy) be forced to challenge her own prejudices and help two fugitives leave the country.
Claire’s mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell), despite her daughter’s objections, is part of an underground network smuggling witches out of the U.S. and over the border into Mexico, where witches are granted asylum. The family’s home is one of the last stops before the border wall – just one of many references to the Trump era –, an old farmhouse with a maze of crawl spaces between the walls. Tensions rise as the federal Bureau of Witchcraft Investigations begin to close in, right as Martha’s newest intakes are scheduled to be transported south. These two sisters, Shae (Echo Campbell) and Fiona (Abigail Cowen, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina) have no choice but to extend their stay with Claire and her family until the way is clear.
Writer-director Elle Callahan finds an interesting tonal balance between the campy, teen fantasy fun of the aforementioned Chilling Adventures or The Craft, and the grave socio-political allegory of The Handmaid’s Tale or Snowpiercer. Though it forgoes much character exposition or world-building, there is a distinctly grounded quality to Witch Hunt. Swap out witches for undocumented immigrants, and the FWI for ICE, and there’s little to differentiate this fictional America from our own. The political commentary does not stop there: a montage of newsreels and dashcam footage shows police shooting unarmed women in the same way we see Black Americans repeatedly gunned down; witches hiding in attics as enforcement goes door to door conjures images of Nazi Germany; mass incarcerations; mob paranoia; media propaganda. The list goes on. It’s by no means subtle, but it gets its point across.
With this in mind however, though the high-minded concept of Witch Hunt is appealing, there is something uncomfortable about the fact that all the witches we see victimised are white women. When witchcraft appears employed as an allegory for race, it’s concerning that it might try to equate the persecution faced by women for something hidden to the historic and systemic racism of today.
And though Witch Hunt’s setup has great potential, the second half of the runtime slips into – perhaps by comparison – a disappointingly conventional supernatural drama. The slow, thoughtful pacing gives way to stock genre elements and cheap scares that take away from the narrative and ambience. Ultimately however, while it falls short of the high expectations set in its first act, Witch Hunt remains a smart, memorable film with captivating performances from Adlon and Cowen that tackles issues of xenophobia, intolerance, and prejudice with appropriate force.
Release date TBA. Witch Hunt screened as part of 2021's SXSW Festival.