Debuting recently at SXSW, director Elle Callahan brings to the screen a blend of horror and socio-political commentary in her latest young adult thriller Witch Hunt. Pulled straight from the set of Netflix’s Chilling Adventures of Sabrina, Abigail Cowen leaves behind the weird sisters to play Fiona, a slightly different kind of witch. The film is set in a quasi-dystopian America where witchcraft is prohibited by law. Callahan uses this metaphor as fuel for a fiery discourse on the dangers of media and governmental fear-mongering, as she deconstructs the witch archetype itself.
An opening still frame presents this premise in the form of two slightly differing dictionary definitions of the term ‘witch hunt’. As the first and arguably more palatable definition of the word is cast off the screen, leaving the second one to linger, it hints at the film’s progressive nature. It comes as no shock, then, that immediately after the rolling of the title, we are plunged into the classroom environment, with the 6th amendment “No person may practice witchcraft in the United States of America” spewed across a teacher’s whiteboard. When introverted Southern Californian student Claire (Gideon Adlon) is coincidentally assigned this as the topic of her essay, it becomes clear that this is a film bent on teaching its audience a lesson.
This lesson begins to take shape as we are introduced to Claire’s mother, who is played by Elizabeth Mitchell (Lost, The Purge: Election Year). It comes to light that she in fact runs a covert organisation aiding young witches to cross the border into Mexico, where they can then seek asylum. Claire is unsupportive of her mother’s scheme and the dangers it poses. With the Bureau of Witch Investigation (BWI) led by sleazy Detective Hawthorne (Christian Camargo) patrolling the streets relentlessly and shooting witches on the spot, her hesitancy is understandable.
However, as Claire begins to form a bond with Fiona, one of the witches her mother has taken in, Claire starts to wonder whether she’s been blinded by her own prejudices. The script contains some subtle allusions to the way in which injustice can be encoded into our institutions as well. For example, Fiona throws about words like ‘idem’, a word with legal connotations, to suggest a sameness between herself and Claire. Coupled with references to the US constitution and hints of corruption in the corridors of power, it seems like the film is pointing to flaws in society’s institutions that must be overcome.
The plot is predictable, but Callahan sprinkles in some Thelma and Louise references here and there to reinvigorate it. She even goes as far as to drop in some self-referential material (we notice Claire’s younger brother reading a book seemingly written by the director herself). In effect, these references call attention to themselves, showing us just how contrived the world of the film can be. We are just as conditioned as our central protagonist to follow along with the narratives and laws prescribed to us.
Much like in Fate: The Winx Saga, where our modish fairies are stripped of their pixie ears and wings, Witch Hunt also boasts a modern spin on the witch archetype. Here, we find ourselves facing a much tamer iteration in the shape of Fiona and her younger sister Shae. Quite unlike the glass-eyed and wart-riddled occultists of Drag Me to Hell and The Witches, it seems that the only real defining characteristic of these witches is their flaming ginger hair. There’s a certain amount of irony in this, as Callahan employs the usually villainous archetype of the witch to illustrate the monstrosity of their ignorant persecutors. While it’s a poignant premise when extended to the current climate, it ultimately leaves us with a disconnect between message and genre. Jump-scares and other horror elements feel out of place in a film more focused on its political point than on providing shocks.
The horror elements in themselves, however misplaced, are still fairly impactful. Particularly impressive are the visual effects from Salvatore Sciortino, who creates smoke-filled screens to indicate the flashback segments. Paired with an asthmatic Claire, who reaches for her inhaler multiple times throughout the film, these are a clever way of symbolically linking Claire with the generations of witches burned at the stake. It may not be a legacy she wants to inherit, but the visual language of the film indicates that her fate is inextricably bound to those that have gone before.
All in all, despite generally being a slow burn, its wall-hiding witches and uncanny real-life references make Witch Hunt a film truly fit for the times. As it tones down the fantastical and horror elements, with a broader appeal that acknowledges its young adult audience, it adds an element of believability and therefore accessibility to its didactic message. On some level, it warns of the dangers of a politically, socially and culturally credulous younger generation, inviting viewers to question their own set of beliefs beyond the film itself. Yet on another level, it shows how the dystopian world of Witch Hunt isn’t all that fantastical after all.