The magic put on display in Elle Callahan’s Witch Hunt — which premiered at the 2021 South by Southwest Film Festival — is somewhat ill-defined. But the movie’s tale of powerful women being persecuted and brutalized for their natural-born gifts is more than recognisable, at least if you’ve been paying attention to the countless stories of undocumented immigrants living in America under constant fear of deportation and violence.
Witch Hunt makes various attempts at turning popular elements of witch lore into facets of its world meant to reflect our own reality — like all of the heady concepts about state-sanctioned violence against “illegal” peoples and how racism is baked into American culture. But what becomes obvious as you settle into the film’s plot is how profoundly committed it is to centering the experiences of white women within a larger narrative about multicultural witchcraft that the filmmakers seem to consider thought-provoking.
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Witch Hunt tells the story of Claire (The Craft: Legacy’s Gideon Adlon), a teenage girl living a relatively normal life with her mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell) and younger twin brothers Corey (Cameron Crovetti) and George (Nicholas Crovetti) in Texas near the border between the U.S. and Mexico. Claire goes to school, hangs out at the movies, and kind of just vibes the way most modern-day on-screen social outcasts do. But unlike her peers, who all share a common loathing and fear of witches, Claire tends to hold her tongue whenever the opportunity presents itself to disparage them because of what her family does in secret. Unbeknownst to their neighbours, Martha works as part of a country-wide network of witch sympathizers who coordinate to help the women escape to Mexico where their existences aren’t criminalized.
Witch Hunt is far from the first piece of fiction to riff on the idea of the actual Underground Railroad, but the way the film goes about it is one of the clumsiest in the genre. Fascinating a premise as it could be however, you seldom get the sense that Callahan had any idea what to do with it beyond feebly aping other stories involving witchcraft which you can tell inspired both her writing and direction.
As someone who grew up being taught to recognise the humanity in witches, Claire’s faced with the challenge of resisting the urge to give in to the way society normalizes and encourages their eradication. Even for those witches who aren’t forced into hiding by the U.S.’s draconian laws, those deemed “legal” still have to live under heightened scrutiny and restrictions that render them second-class citizens and the targets of public scorn and harassment. Little things like the way the film addresses how old witch trial practices have modernised over time come close to being interesting, but whenever Witch Hunt starts to actual sizzle a bit, it flames right out, like in a strange scene that ends with a human girl being drowned in a wholly avoidable accident.
While most of Witch Hunt’s worldbuilding comes in small chunks by way of conversations between its characters, the film establishes a rather heavy-handed, though important aspect of its world early on. After witnessing witches being burned at the stake, you may be forgiven for thinking it’s set in the days of the Salem Witch trials. However, it’s revealed to be set in the present day which the movie clearly thinks will be a twist for some viewers (it’s part of the movie’s trailer). This wouldn’t be so much of a problem if it weren’t for the fact that the story essentially plateaus there in terms of its ability to creatively weave together the different ideas it’s playing with. What ends up making Witch Hunt feel stale is how the movie predictably heaps most all of its violence and cruelty onto its handful of supporting characters of colour, while Claire, Martha, and the family of white witches they bring into their home become the sympathetic, and surprisingly clueless, heroes you’re meant to root for.
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Claire throws all of her defences up when Martha brings witch sisters Fiona (Fate: The Winx Saga’s Abigail Cowen) and her younger sister Shae (Echo Campbell) into their home as they try to figure out a way to make it across the border. With Claire and Fiona, Witch Hunt makes a go at becoming a story about two girls becoming friends, and perhaps something more, despite their differences. But because the script never spends any time building out a proper concept of what sort of lives witches live beyond being others, the movie ends up inadvertently highlighting how it’s asking you to conceive of white women as being the primary targets of systemic racism.
Even though this is a world where witches have presumably been hunted for centuries, none of Witch Hunt’s sorceresses seem to have developed any necessary skills to protect themselves or the kind of general cultural awareness that typically comes with being a member of a persecuted class. Fiona and Shae have powers that introduce an unsettling element of the film’s more suspenseful moments, but for the most part, it renders them as helpless victims whose survival depends on Claire and Martha’s willingness to shield them.
Were Witch Hunt a bit more thoughtful about the way it tries to tap into the real-world pain of people of colour who’ve been historically marginalised, it might feel like another interesting facet of our current bout of fascination with witches. Instead, though, the movie comes across more like a crystallization of the same kind of inert white feminist energy that often hamstrung series like WandaVision, The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, and the original Charmed series that all came before it.
What’s ultimately most disappointing about Witch Hunt is that, on a technical level, it’s a solid film that showcases both Adlon and Cowen’s respective ranges as they inhabit these two girls who, in a more compelling take on this story, you might want to see more of in these kinds of movies. Instead, Witch Hunt exists as a reminder of how genres can hasten their own overdone-ness by clinging to traditions they should have done away with long ago.