Witch Hunt is written and directed by Elle Callahan is a taut revenge drama that doubles up as a terrific horror film. Set in modern America, the film revolves witches, witchcraft and a teenage girl (played by Gideon Adlon) who has to face her own demons. It is only after that she finds the courage to help two young fugitive witches to evade law enforcement that sees them as criminals. The movie traces their efforts to connect and cross the southern border to seek asylum in Mexico and it’s the mix of both that makes this supernatural thriller what it is. That and Callahan’s nuanced, layered writing that weaves an immersive narrative. The story-telling is fueled by performances by Adlon and others.
Witch Hunt is not just a genre film because it also serves as a commentary on the law of the land that will burn people at stake if they dared to claim free will. Filmmaker Elle Callahan’s passionate telling of the same assures insight as one gets invested in the modern yet dystopian world. Apart from Adlon who was seen in Blockers, the film also stars Fate The Winx Saga actor Abigail Cowen and Lost star Elizabeth Mitchell. And boy, do they deliver! The cinematography has been done by Nico Aguilar and Tommy Oceanak, while the film has been edited by Nick Garnham Wright.
The film doesn’t waste time; it begins right where it should, hinting at what viewers can expect from the rest of the movie – the condemning of a woman because she has realised her powers. Hence, a threat to ‘man’kind and should be burned at a stake. She is apparently so dangerous that several men of law enforcement are pointing rifles at her as one sets her ablaze. The imagery is powerful in this one and so is the rage. Especially when two impressionable young girls, seemingly her daughters watch her skin melt. The authorities are calling themselves BWI and they are dedicated to see that more of her kind are met with their fate and they will not stop at anything.
Parallelly we meet a teenage girl who carries the same prejudice and believes witches are criminals. But while she goes ahead to write papers on witchcraft for school, her mom played by Elizabeth Mitchell has a mind of her own. In fact, she has a system of rescuing witches who are being chased and persecuted and making them cross the Southern border to seek an asylum in Mexico. One fine day, the two siblings who lost their mom earlier lands at her house, a temporary refuge and that is where the story takes a turn. Gideon Adlon’s Claire is suddenly conflicted, and is opening up to one of two sisters albeit hesitantly. Unsurprisingly, she even bonds with Abigail Cowen’s Franie and together they talk about feminist movies like Thelma & Louise and alternative endings. And honestly, it’s so beautiful that another critique could be the feminist reading of the scene alone. It was like I came in expecting something and I’ getting it with an added bonus of young girls becoming the women they want to be. I might have cried a little.
Adlon has done a solid job in the portrayal of a teenager who is going through the most uncertain time of her life. Her Claire is vulnerable yet strong-willed and the actor brings the duality of her character to the fore with finesse, no less. And details like chipped nail polish only added more layers to her on-screen personality.
Witches and witch-hunt are not alien concepts. As an Indian, the subjugation of women after being branded as a ‘witch’ is not unheard of. Magic or no magic, the stakes are always setup, flames are always fanned and it is done to set an example. So that no other woman dares to think she has free will to just be. And it is so everywhere. Which is why it was so comforting the way Callahan unified women in misery. Cause sometimes knowing that you’re not the only one being repressed gives you strength to overcome the same repression. The movies gave me that strength.
Now, let’s talk about Callahan’s treatment of the subject. It is that of a horror movie with better scares and jump scares than any decent ghost flick out there but with enough nerve and nuance that sets it apart from just a spooky act. Yes, it’s spooky and has all the makings of a compelling horror film–with vivid nightmares and sleepwalking to other dimension–but that’s not even the selling point. While the film takes a drop right in the middle of the drama and fails to engage enough, it makes up for it during the climax with a plot twist that’s both obvious and surprising.