REVIEW: “WITCH HUNT” (2021) SXSW Film Festival

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There isn’t anything better than a good modern day witch story — the kind where you contemplate not only how you would react if they do exist, but if they just randomly turned up in society. Questions would arise to be sure. How would we treat them? How would we make or shift laws for example, to accommodate these ‘magic beings’ and their powers. Luckily we have “WITCH HUNT” from director Elle Callahan to guide us through what those challenges entail.

The film centers on Claire (Gideon Adlon), a young woman whose mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell), offers a way station of sorts in Southern California for fugitive witches on the run. It’s essentially a safe haven for witches as they wait to be smuggled out of the country by an Underground Railroad network of sympathizers lead by Jacob (Treva Etienne). With an opening scene of men with rifles presiding over a pale, young red-haired woman being burned at the stake that continually flashes throughout the film as it’s part of the nightmares Claire deals with nightly. We quickly learn from this that witchcraft has been outlawed in the US and a ‘Bureau of Witchcraft Investigations’ not only exists, but it’s agents are officially charged with rounding up offenders and shipping them off to detainment camps. And one such agent of this bureau is Hawthorne (Christian Camargo), and he has no qualms about handling things in the old Salem way. Having witches constantly in and out of her home bends Claire the wrong way and she starts to despise the process. It’s not until Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and her younger sister Shae (Echo Campbell) arrive, Claire reconsiders her prejudice of ideas, and discovers a big secret about herself in the process.

While at times a bit clunky, Callahan still manages to not only give us a good story, good acting, she also incorporates many well-known superstitions about witchcraft. The most pertinent includes the “sink test,” where a woman suspected of practicing witchcraft is bound to a chair, thrown into a body of water and if she surfaces rather than sinking, well then she’s definitely a witch. That Witch Hunt shows this ‘test’ being given by government agents to a group of teenage girls feels especially disturbing. It’s effectively comparing the singling out of one group of people, in this case, white, red-haired woman, in a sneaky and very effective way of noting modern day immigration realities that many are experiencing at this moment — being shown through one of the best modes of political storytelling – the horror movie.

Grade: B-

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Review screening : Courtesy of Falco Ink. PR and SXSW Film Festival