Witch Hunt (2021), the second feature from up-and-coming genre auteur director and writer Elle Callahan, does not hide the fact that its subject matter is meant to pertain to real-world fears and persecution topics.
Like so many other supernatural roles, the use of witches is ripe as parallel subject matter in expressing real-world topics and/or emotions.
The spectrum of witch cinema is such a deep and layered experience that it touches on almost all corners of genres and styles. Dramas, comedies, horrors, action flicks, or fantasies, using witchery and witchcraft is a creative choice that allows for so many avenues of storytelling.
From Sabrina to Harry Potter
Just on television, Sabrina the Teenage Witch (1996 – 2003) went from a wink-wink sitcom in the vein of after school stories with morals, to devil worshipping punk rock anarchist stories with… some intriguingly anti-hero morals.
Just in this one interpretation the use of witchery is delivered to say multiple things on a similar spectrum. That doesn’t even account for Scarlet Witch in the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the historically set and atmospheric A24 flick The Witch (2015), or the action horror that curdles underneath the South Korean thriller, The Witch: Subversion (2018). Should we even mention the use in Harry Potter?
However, with all of the subtextual material to be derived, one of the main running themes throughout witch films is the female experience in the world. For good or bad and in all of its complexity, the meaning of witch is littered with plentiful text and subtext to how women are treated as individuals and within a society.
Which witch is which?
One could easily argue that nothing in Witch Hunt (2021) could remotely be seen as symbolic.
There is no real misinterpretation in deciphering what the film is saying. It states it outright. Witches just happen to be the medium of statement. Women are persecuted for becoming too powerful by the systems around them and, in this story, it’s their magic that “justifies” the cause.
Whether the audience buys into how upfront Witch Hunt (2021) is with its social statements is the biggest obstacle to overcome. If anything, Callahan and her filmmaking cohorts are hammering home its statements with little in the way of nuance. It’s unrelenting at times and never apologizes for it.
If that’s an issue for its audience, consider this fair warning.
A spell cast in a dark, alternate world
In a world where witches have always existed, it’s not a stretch for the film to build that concept into a well-defined universe.
There are public burnings, a Bureau of Witchcraft Investigations unit complete with FBI-esque BWI jackets, and even an underground network that attempts to smuggle witches across a border (complete with a concrete wall) to a place where witchcraft hasn’t been deemed as a threat to society.
It might seem quirky on the surface, particularly with the Witchcraft Bureau, but there is such a sinister undertone to everything in the world that it’s impossible to ignore.
Tying young girls to chairs and dumping them in the high school swimming pool might seem like the set up of a teen comedy, but it’s one of the most intense sequences of the film and one that darkly rings too true. They are not weighing a woman on a scale with a duck to see if she floats in this one.
This is a film that attempts to create a realism in its fantasy, but also showcase the darkness seething underneath it all through its tone and atmosphere.
Coveting a coven?
Witch Hunt (2021) focuses on a family unit, led by a single mother – played with quintessential Big Mom Energy by Elizabeth Mitchell, who help witches find their way across the walled off border.
However, the initial conflict of the film is defined by the high school aged daughter of the family, Claire (played by Gideon Adlon), and her emotional wrestling of the family’s illegal activities.
Some people might remember Adlon from a role in another witch film, The Craft: Legacy (2020). Not that anyone remembers that film exists since it promptly went to the cinematic graveyard of forgotten films after release.
Nonetheless, she’s privy to both sides of the political spectrum on witches between her mother and her (obviously) prejudiced friends. It’s only when two new witches are left stranded at her house which, naturally, attracts a horrifyingly creepy BWI agent, that Claire is confronted with her feelings on the prejudice and its consequences.
It’s in Claire’s character arc – her navigation of her beliefs challenged – that the film finds its soul.
Under the themes of generational prejudice, the patriarchal fear of female empowerment, or the parallels to modern day politics, Witch Hunt (2021) tends to solidify its messages through familial bonds and indie drama character beats. For all of that, the theme of choosing who to love in the face of dissent works its own magic. No wonder Callahan chose to throw references to the iconic Thelma and Louise.
A slow burn at the stake
All in all, Witch Hunt (2021) is an intriguingly layered and nuanced modern witch’s brew of socio-political angles, indie film style, and meticulous pacing.
It’s not much of a thriller, sans a few intense moments, nor is the film leaning hard into the horrors it could have grasped – moving further into the dramatic beats than the director’s first film Head Count (2018), but the performances are grounded, the story is fantastical and punchy, and the film delivers on its thematic moments with relative ease.
It’s indie drama focus and slow, character-focused pacing may not be the most ideal style for horror fans, but with the right mindset and a bit of patience Witch Hunt (2021) does linger with its audience.
Could it have upped the ante with a stronger game of cat and mouse concerning the BWI and their investigation into the family? Sure, but the film still snags on a few thought strings to unravel some intriguing conversation pieces.
Artwork & Editor: Richard Williams
Writer, podcaster, cinema fiend, drive-in mutant, kung fu fanatic, horror hound, vulgar auteur, and sometimes human being. I’ve been writing about cinema for over ten years now, dedicating my time to all genre cinema. Co-creator of Blood Brother Film Reviews and co-host of the No Franchise Fatigue podcast.