I love me a good witch movie. Having cut my teeth on The Craft in the roaring ’90s, I spent the majority of my youth seeking out deviant content with girls behaving badly. Which meant lots and lots of witch movies.
Falling in line with present-day cinema’s trend of ‘movies with a message’, Witch Hunt takes a fresh spin on the Craft-esque teen content by mirroring some rather sinister elements of modern history. Prejudice is at the heart of this film, and witches are just the placeholder. The witches of Witch Hunt live in a world of hatred and systemic injustice – not a far cry from what Jewish families experienced during the Holocaust, or African Americans faced during slavery in our very real, and very dark past.
“..Witch Hunt takes a fresh spin on the Craft-esque teen content by mirroring some rather sinister elements of modern history”
Written and directed by Elle Callahan (Head Count, 2018), Witch Hunt stars Gideon Adlon as troubled teen Claire (which is a weird niche typecasting for Gideon as she also appeared in 2020’s The Craft: Legacy). Claire lives in a farmhouse with her little twin brothers and mother Martha (played by Elizabeth Mitchell of The Purge: Election Year). In Claire’s world, witchcraft is very real, and also very outlawed. Having grown up with this belief imposed upon her, Claire struggles to see witches with empathy and compassion, which is a very frequent struggle, considering her mother is part of an underground group that secretly take in, care for, and transport witches to safety.
Their witch-harboring secret is threatened when Gina (Ashley Bell, The Last Exorcism) , one of the witches once in their care, is captured and burnt alive by the modern-day witch-hunting ‘FBI’ head Hawthorne (Christian Camargo). Armed with a magic-tracking device, witch-detective Hawthorne closes in on the family, and the magical secrets they keep.
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Witch Hunt is at its best when Claire is out and about in the sinister, witch-hating world in which she lives. Whether hitting up Thelma and Louise at the local theatre with her friends, or seeing schoolmates being subjected to ‘sink tests’ (in which witch hunters believed they could single out witches from ‘regular’ people by submerging them underwater to see if they’d float and or…. drown?), the eeriest and most interesting moments of the film are seeing just what a modern-day witch-hunting world looks like. Though magic in this universe is quite fictional – there are fire bursts, shapeshifters, and floating butterflies – fear, belief, and witch-based injustices have also occured in our history; most notably during the Salem Witch trials of 1962/1963, where judge Hawthorne (familiar name, perhaps?) oversaw the trials of over 200 accused witches and 19 of which were ultimately executed.
While the themes at the center of Witch Hunt are horrific, the film keeps things tightly bound to a younger core audience, Claire deciding whether to help her mother protect witches, or be a witch-hating teen like her cool new friend group plays a bit like an after school special to the seasoned horror fan. And likewise, the witchy jumpscares of the film will make you sit-up in your chair for a split second, but there isn’t any guttural, lasting terror or tension to the flick.
“[Witch Hunt] plays a bit like an after-school special to the seasoned horror fan.”
And again, perhaps a problem because I’ve aged out of the witchy-fantasy demographic I so once cherished, Witch Hunt also fails to stay steps ahead of its audience. Elements that are teased upfront playout as if there’s a mystery to uncover at the end, and unfortunately, horror audiences will already be way ahead by the time the film arrives at its reveals.
And not to be an old curmudgeon, which the farther I get through this review I am seemingly becoming, but the very witchy lore and rule system Witch Hunt presents is either unclear or inconsistent. For instance, Red hair seems to be a recurring trait among witches. Every character in the film with red hair is presented as a witch. Witches.. and by process of deduction- Redheads, must hide in the shadows for fear of being outed as a practicer of witchcraft – something one would assume people could do on sight alone, because the witches hide from sight at all times. Except for one strange outing, while Claire takes one of her mom’s Witchy housemates out to a bar for a super casual, regular drink. An outing where they not only practice magic right there at the dang table, but our witchy friend lets her red hair out for all to see.
And yes, teenagers will be teenagers and do risky things for the sake of it – but why are these witches even in hiding if they are able to order a pint undetected? I’m in my thirties and I still get ID’d at the bar because of my social anxiety. Now imagine what it’d look like if an underage, redheaded witch ordered one in a world that wants to burn her alive.
“..Witch Hunt is a spooky fantasy that teens and tweens cutting their teeth on horror are really going to enjoy”
Overall, Witch Hunt is a spooky fantasy that teens and tweens cutting their teeth on horror are really going to enjoy. But this spell just won’t do for those who’ve already been Seasoned of the Witch. (I’m not apologizing for that pun, so don’t you dare try to make me on Twitter).
Witch Hunt had its world premiere at SXSW 2021. Click HERE to follow our full coverage of the festival. Let us know if you’re excited to check out this witch flick over on Twitter, Reddit, Facebook, and in the official Nightmare on Film Street Discord. Not a social media fan? Get more horror delivered straight to your inbox by joining the Neighbourhood Watch Newsletter.