I collected more reviews in this post. 🙂
Witch Hunt’s ensemble cast is excellent across-the-board. Mitchell is a real ray of sunshine in such a solemn story.
Adlon’s performance would not be as effective if Elizabeth Mitchell’s performance as her mother wasn’t so evocative. MItchell is never overbearing and her politics speak clearer by her actions than any long monologue providing exposition. When she has to make a dfficult choice at the end of the film we believe her. Every journey comes to an end. Every parent/child relationship shifts at some point. It’s at these pivot points that Witch Hunt really shines.
It is never less than solidly watchable thanks largely to the switched-on performances of the cast.
Elizabeth Mitchell is typically strong as Martha.
When it comes to performances, a few stand out that add a little more life and character to this story. Mitchell, in particular, has a warmth and comfort to her that makes her family’s home feel safe.
This is a very amazing review:
Witch Hunt: Fantasy Thriller Tackles Today’s Troubles (SXSW Review)
Witch Hunt skillfully balances sharp social commentary with sincerely shocking scares, making this a must-see for genre fans.
4 stars / 5
As stated at the start of Witch Hunt, this term has taken on two meanings throughout the course of history thus far – both of which prove to be essential to understanding the true message of writer-director Elle Callahan’s (Head Count) movie. At face value, a witch hunt can most simply be described as “a search for, and subsequent persecution of, persons accused of witchcraft,” which of course calls to mind the chaos of the infamous Salem Witch Trials. However, in recent decades, a less literal definition has emerged – “a campaign directed against a person, or group, holding unorthodox or unpopular views, usually based on slight, doubtful, or irrelevant evidence.” Hunts such as these come from both sides of the political aisle and originate in a number of subcultures in society, but one thing has become quite clear amidst all of this conflict – misinformation is more prevalent and more popular than ever, and lies about minority or disenfranchised groups have been legitimatized to a deadly degree.
With Witch Hunt, Callahan merges these two meanings to form the terrifying thematic throughline of her fantasy thriller, a film that takes place in a modern America, much like today, only with one distinct difference – witches are real, and witchcraft is illegal. We further become familiar with the specifics of this setting through the perspective of Claire (Gideon Adlon, of Blockers and The Craft: Legacy), a sheltered teen who holds her prejudices against practicing witches, even though these convictions run contrary to those of her mother Martha (Elizabeth Michell, of The Purge: Election Year and The Santa Clause 2), who regulates an “Underground Railroad”-esque operation for witches evading law enforcement and seeking to cross the southern border to reach asylum in Mexico. And yet, when two witch sisters named Fiona (Abigail Cowen, of Netflix’s Fate: The Winx Saga and I Still Believe) and Shae (newcomer Echo Campbell) arrive to temporarily stay with the family, Claire’s burgeoning friendship with Fiona causes her to question her beliefs – as do her own potential proclivities towards witchcraft that start to surface.
Right off the bat, it’s apparent that Witch Hunt has plentiful parallels to hot-button topics in 21st Century politics – persecution and demonization of “the other,” crossing over to another country to find freedom, etc. – and instead of merely making these connections and moving on, Callahan efficiently engages with the similarities between her story and this real-world strife in her script, integrating these two realities in a way that brilliantly blends fact and fiction. In doing so, Callahan calls on audiences to interrogate their own ingrained biases, just as Claire has to when first meeting Fiona and Shae – for those who incessantly moan over the millions of “illegal immigrants” entering the United States each and every day, how would they feel if the individuals experiencing this enmity were two red-headed white girls instead?
Because Fiona and Shae are being sought out solely due to their “witchy” genealogy – a characteristic of their identity that is out of their control – obvious comparisons arise between their struggles and the suffering endured by individuals of diverse races and ethnicities for similarly irreversible aspects of their selfhood. However, an additional allegory seems to arise from Claire’s conundrum in particular. For so long, Claire has viewed witches with vitriol, but after meeting these two sisters and subsequently discovering “darker” parts of her own personality, Witch Hunt also suggests a synonymity between witchhood and queerness – and this symbolism is further studied as Claire and Fiona develop a deep bond (which includes intense discussions on the famously queer-coded Thelma & Louise) and Claire embraces those pieces of her psyche that formerly horrified her. Though never made explicit, this stirring subtext adds rich resonance to Witch Hunt as a whole.
Throughout the film, Callahan also capably demonstrates that her direction is just as distinguished and dynamic as this thoroughly textured storytelling, ingeniously incorporating harrowing horror imagery into scenes of both authentic and imaginary peril. Claire’s numerous nightmares about occult apparitions are sufficiently spine-chilling – showcasing the startling stories she’s heard about witches her entire life and accentuating the anxiety she feels at possibly having these powers herself – and cinematographers Nico Aguilar (Countdown, The Glorias) and Tommy Oceanak (MotorTrend’s Engine Masters) assist Callahan by engulfing us in this eerie environment, while Canadian composers Blitz//Berlin (The Void, Psycho Goreman) provide a petrifying score that further heightens our fears.
The worldly woes that Callahan catches on camera typically come from the hawkish Detective Hawthorne (Christian Camargo, of The Hurt Locker and The Twilight Saga: Breaking Dawn – Part 2), an aggressive government agent who sets his sights on Martha and her “suspicious operation,” and Callahan infuses each and every one of his scenes with a striking intensity that causes you to catch your breath, even when you least expect it (which is also a testament to Camargo’s palpably intimidating presence in the role). However, Witch Hunt’s standout sequence has to be its mid-film “sink-or-swim” test. In schools, all girls female students are regularly checked for “witch” characteristics, and for the unfortunate souls that fail, they are then subjected to a procedure in which they are submerged underwater for a prolonged period of time so government officials can see if any witches rise to the surface. As Claire watches four of her classmates go through this torture, Callahan’s command over the cruelty of this “inspection” is immensely impactful.
Witch Hunt’s ensemble cast is excellent across-the-board, with Adlon anchoring the entire affair with her honest humanity and a resounding relatability. Her evolution as a character as she abandons her animosity towards witches is compelling and credible the whole way through, and that’s entirely due to the believability Adlon brings to the part. Mitchell is a real ray of sunshine in such a solemn story, and she too truly sells Martha’s commitment to this cause (especially when her true intentions are explored in the film’s finale). Finally, Cowen’s Fiona is a formidable foil for Adlon’s Claire, and she carries herself with a combination of concern and courage at all times, never shying away from Fiona’s fear about being caught but also effortlessly emphasizing her endearing will to survive.
This review is very very positive!
SXSW 2021 Movie Review: Witch Hunt
In the movie Thelma and Louise, Louise quipped “In the future, when a woman’s crying like that, she isn’t having any fun”. Witch Hunt the newest film by Elle Callahan uses the feminist anthems of Thelma and Louise as the centering force of her film which seeks to breath new life and magic into the Witch Hunt parable.
In a slightly alternate history where hating witches was adopted as the national pastime rather than an occasional happenstance Claire and her mother help young witches escape the United States to the north. Claire is not nearly as into the underground broomstick business as her mother and quickly comes to resent their two newest wards. Witches in this timeline all have red hair and America seems to be slipping into genocide in slow motion as new draconian laws prevent gingers from living any semblance of a normal life. As Claire’s world gets more complicated she has to define what liberation means for her.
Witch Hunt is a film about female empowerment. In fact all of the main characters are women and the film is not interested in elevating any of the bit male roles to something larger. The film is about women in this new America that feels eerily similar to our own.
While the movie makes reference to Thelma and Louise a couple hundred times it doesn’t have the same edge that the source material has and as a result it can sometimes feel like a softer movie. That being said the witch burning scenes used in the beginning and throughout the film as scene transitions are gnarly as hell. This softness can sometimes give a made for television patina to the film that seemed to remove a bit of its urgency. Minus the witch burning scenes this movie would feel very comfortable showing up for Halloween season on Freeform. That in no way is a knock on the film. It is gateway horror at its finest and absolute best. Its subversive in that it feels perfectly at home on ABC but its themes are revolutionary.
Those themes only come to life because of the spectacular performances by a cast who is intent on making the film special. Brooding Clair is captured remarkably by Gideon Adlon who seems to be channeling the perfect mix of adolescence and maturity. She doesn’t know what she wants but she is pretty certain it is not this. It is only through the relationships with the newest runaway witches that she grows into the strong woman her mother wants her to be. Again the magic of the film is that each character is only defined by their relationships with other women. Never by a man. The eldest of the witches hiding in Clair’s house is Fiona (Abigail Cowen) who is roughly a year or two older than Clair but provides her guidance and friendship two things that seem to be missing from her life.
Adlon’s performance would not be as effective if Elizabeth Mitchell’s performance as her mother wasn’t so evocative. Mitchell is never overbearing and her politics speak clearer by her actions than any long monologue providing exposition. When she has to make a dfficult choice at the end of the film we believe her. Every journey comes to an end. Every parent/child relationship shifts at some point. It’s at these pivot points that Witch Hunt really shines.
If I had any criticism it would be that the movie isn’t really scary. We get some great tension as the witches peril grows but that tension never feels terrifying. It makes the whole film feel a bit like a political thriller. I am interested in that subgenre for sure but anyone else looking for a more traditional horror movie may not. In a world where witches are real we get very little magic. The limited special effects guarantee we spend time with the characters, examining their motivations and desires. It creates an added level of intimacy that made the film even easier to watch.
The film also seems to exist in this parallel universe where Thelma and Louis is a movie that was created but in a culture where it is okay to burn people at the stake. The inability to get a feel for what time period we are in is a bit disorienting. They all drive cars from the nineties but there aren’t cell phones. They reference a movie from 90’s but the characters all act like it’s a classic. The ambiguity of the time period reminds me a bit of It Follows and its time out of space quality that only makes the film weirder. These blurry edges make Witch Hunt important and a great watch.
This is a positive review, some criticisms because of the visual effects, and they liked the first more then the second part (funny that I read the opposite opinion in another review).
2021 SXSW Film Festival Review – Witch Hunt
Though the last decade-plus has seen vampire and zombie movies enjoy potent revisionist movements, witches are sadly still waiting for their own cinematic rejuvenation. Last year Robert Zemeckis’ The Witches came and went without a peep, and the sequel-reboot project The Craft: Legacy landed with a dull thud, yet writer-director Elle Callahan’s (Head Count) new film Witch Hunt offers up a compellingly provocative spin on moldy, well-trod genre tropes.
Callahan’s film takes place in a dystopian alternate America where witches are real and legislation has made witchcraft illegal. Teenager Claire (Gideon Adlon) lives with her mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell) in California, where they help smuggle witches across the Mexican border. Their newest intakes are a pair of young girls, Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell), whose mother was burned at the stake years prior, and who invite the advances of law enforcement.
Right from the jump, there’s an appealing groundedness to this witchy romp, which feels rooted in our own distinct reality while also touting its own clearly defined mythology. The America here is recognisable but heightened; dashcam footage shows cops shooting witches with salt rather than Black people with lead, politicians are trying to pass legislation to lock up the children of witches, and propaganda tells the masses they’re nothing but criminals. Mexico grants witches asylum, causing the U.S. to line the border wall with what witches hate most – salt.
Witch Hunt shrewdly if unsubtly invokes a ton of imagery both current and historical intended to draw emotional responses from viewers; the paranoia felt by the witches is obviously analogous to that felt by illegal immigrants, non-white people, and women in everyday life.
When a Black man helps smuggle a witch to Mexico, it conjures thoughts of the underground railroad, and when young women are subjected to extensive physical examinations by the state and witches have to be hidden within the walls of Claire’s home, it suggests the Holocaust.
More pointedly to historical witch hunts, women are also invited to submit to a “sink test,” where they’re dunked in a swimming pool to test their ability to float to the surface, as unsurprisingly has disastrous results. But Callahan doesn’t rely solely on past touchstones, delivering a wealth of well-thought-out lore all her own; suited-up government agents pursue witches doggedly with special compasses which detect changes in atmospheric pressure.
The feminist tradition of witch cinema remains alive, then; pleasant men are in desperately short supply throughout Witch Hunt, a product of a society that tells boys – including Claire’s own younger twin brothers (Nicholas and Cameron Crovetti) – to fear and hate women, while encouraging women themselves to sneer at their own gender with distrust.
This all amounts to a killer setup with enormous potential, though it does have to be said that by the end of act one things settle into a more conventional mode. Stock genre elements abound in droves; goofy nightmare sequences rife with on-the-nose symbolism, supernatural boogeyfolk, a few search engine montages too many, and a multitude of irritating jump-scares.
By the time Claire herself is receiving ghostly messages, it’s clear something is being telegraphed; one can scarcely call the outcome a reveal, though, when it’s foreshadowed with the delicacy of a brick to the face. That the shoe only truly drops in the final scenes of the film, forcing characters to race through emotional scenes ahead of an abrupt ending, may leave some feeling unsatisfied.
And while Witch Hunt is never as good as its outstanding first reel, it is never less than solidly watchable thanks largely to the switched-on performances of the cast. Adlon, who ironically also appeared in The Craft: Legacy, brings frazzled nuance to Claire, both as a young woman still figuring out her sense of self and someone sifting through the prejudices instilled in her by society.
Elizabeth Mitchell is typically strong as Martha, while Cowen and Campbell are perfect as the sibling witch duo, Cowen in particular shouldering much of the film’s emotional burden as the tortured older sister. Christian Camargo brings suitable menace to primary witch-hunter antagonist Hawthorne even if as written he’s not much of a character – perhaps an intentional flourish, mind – and scream queen Ashley Bell pops up for an entertaining cameo as another witch who is briefly hidden by Martha and Claire.
Though there’s clearly not a huge budget to go around here – especially where visual effects are concerned – Callahan makes the most of the resources available, exploiting the Southern California setting for every picturesque shot, Nico Aguilar and Tommy Oceanak’s dusky cinematography lending a fair western vibe. A sinister folksy score from Canadian trio Blitz//Berlin also bolsters the tone nicely.
If it had the follow-through from its early brilliance, this could’ve been a radical entry into the subgenre, and while ultimately falling a little short, it’s still one of the most memorable and creative entries into witching cinema in quite some time. Witch Hunt slips into a more formulaic rhythm after a barnstorming setup, but tackles unsubtle social ills with appropriate sledgehammer force.
This is a pretty good review, they don’t mention Liz, but they praise the entire movie.
Witch Hunt is Radical Horror [SXSW 2021 Review]
Witch Hunt, the sophomore feature from writer-director Elle Callahan (Head Count), opens with two definitions of its title. The first is the traditional one, while the second considers how the term has mutated for modern usage. Here, though, the witch hunts are literal. There are witches living among us and they are either being forced to exist in secret, without the luxury of fair and equal treatment, or being quite literally burned at the stake as the opening sequence demonstrates – a title card notes “present day” in a dark, sharp stab at humor.
Witchcraft is extremely popular right now, so the timing is perfect for this style of super feminist take on the culture. Neil Marshall’s The Reckoning, which was released a couple months ago, deals with many of the same themes and indeed flirts with similar imagery, but its olden times setting robbed the film of the potential to make a statement about the real-world connotations of treating people as though they are less than. It’s no surprise, then, that Callahan has plenty to say about ICE, via the witch-hunting team BWI, women’s rights and other human rights crises.
Our heroine is Claire (Blockers star Gideon Adlon), a shy teenager who’s just moved to a new town and is trying to fit in with the cool girls at school. Unfortunately, she can’t invite anybody over to her place to hang out since Mom (Lost’s Elizabeth Mitchell) is harboring a witch who’s looking to flee across the border. Claire is blatantly unhappy about having this freak in their home, even when the woman tries to make friends by showing her some cool magic with a ceramic butterfly. “They’re criminals,” Claire argues, to which her mother responds that no, they were simply born this way.
Everything changes when a couple of orphaned sisters, one Claire’s age and the other closer to her twin brothers, are forced to take refuge in the family home. Suddenly, Claire is torn between finding common ground with someone she gradually realizes is just like her, despite their vastly different upbringings, and joining her bitchy friends in continuing to treat witches as second-class citizens. Witch Hunt presents a heightened metaphor for how we become radicalized as teenagers, once the world opens and we realize there are people out there suffering simply because the world isn’t fair.
Callahan’s movie is shot like a noir, the rich cinematography by Nico Aguilar and Tommy Oceanak infused with deep, dark colors characterized by evocative blue and green hues. The central family lives right by the wall, which exists in this universe but could still stand to be higher as far as anti-witch campaigners are concerned, hence how they can assist witches fleeing to Mexico (rather than the other way around). Witches are, evidently, treated like immigrants and POC, so it’s unsurprising when Black characters show up to help them in their plight, in a knowing nod to how they’ve historically been treated in America.
Gingers are considered more likely to be witches, which leads to freckle measuring tests that recall the so-called “Jew tests” that were prevalent in Nazi Germany. Likewise, the two girls taken in by Claire’s mother hide in a closet, again recalling the plight of Jews during WWII. Witch Hunt’s most stomach-churning moment, which is understandably also the basis of its marketing campaign, involves the actual floating test that was used back in the day to prove whether women were witches or not.
The image of teenage girls sitting at the bottom of the school swimming pool while burly men time them is a shocking, impactful one. Indeed, it’s considerably stronger than the sequence featuring the woman being burned at the stake, which is easily the weakest image in the movie and yet is also the one Callahan consistently goes back to. There’s so much fascinating detail knitted into the narrative that such a blatant, cliché image isn’t necessary to get her point across. Witch Hunt features a children’s book called We’re Going on a Witch Hunt, so stake-burning seems lame in comparison.
The film hinges on Claire’s moral quandary – does she have some hidden connection to witches herself, or does she simply feel different to her peers and feel empathy towards them as a result? – and Adlon plays it beautifully. The young actress made her mark as a queer fantasy nerd in Blockers and there’s a hint of burgeoning sexual experimentation here too, between Claire and Abigail Cowen’s Fiona, but it’s left tantalizingly vague. More importantly, the young women find common ground through the bonds of female friendship.
Claire utilizes Thelma & Louise to clue Abigail into the workings of the modern world, and there’s a cool callback to the classic film in Witch Hunt’s final moments, while the witches’ powers, in general, are very delicate and feminine. The rampant, unchecked misogyny on display throughout is teeth-grindingly infuriating, particularly with everything going on in the world right now, but Callahan doesn’t make her male characters mustache-twirling villains – just as in real life, they’re quietly confident, powerful types utterly convinced of their own righteousness.
As a horror movie, Witch Hunt contains some spooky moments and decent jumps. It’s more successful than Head Count, which flailed once the central mystery was revealed and suffered as a result of its own aspirations to being an important indie movie above all else, which read as pretentious and misjudged. Callahan’s follow-up is wildly more accomplished and shows an impressive amount of growth. Her premise is strong and well-considered, the world she draws is uncomfortably similar to our own, and she coaxes convincing performances out of her young cast.
Movies like Witch Hunt are difficult to recommend because plenty of viewers remain reluctant to learn a lesson from their genre fare. But, just like Claire herself, if you open your mind up, you’ll find there’s plenty to enjoy about being radicalized. Otherwise, this is an entertaining, involving horror movie regardless.
This is another good review, they also say that the cast is good.
SXSW Review: ‘Witch Hunt’
A Welcome, Modern-Day Reimagining Of The Salem Witch Trials
3 star of 5
Imagine the Salem Witch Trials on a national scale and you’ve got the basic idea behind the SXSW Midnight entry, Witch Hunt. Writer/director Elle Callahan’s followup to Head Count blends the high school fantasy of The Craft (clearly some influence) with serious-minded topical discussion on race, hatred towards women, and xenophobia. It’s an uneven balance, but an exceptional premise that reflects on America’s history of mistreatment of minority classes, along with nods to the heightened climate of today, makes this a witch’s brew worth bottling up and saving.
After a prologue finds a New England witch burned at the stage while her two young daughters watch helplessly, Witch Hunt moves the action to SoCal where high schooler Claire (Blockers star Gideon Adlon) just wants to fit in with the popular girls who are prejudiced to those red-haired witches (they all seem to have red hair) who have “magic in the blood”. This is made difficult by Claire’s home life, where her mother (Lost alum Elizabeth Mitchell, a personal favorite) helps shepherd wayward witches to safety in Mexico via an underground network. Her mother’s actions have drawn the attention of the BWI, a group of government-sanctioned hunters who combine classic and modern anti-witch tactics, but she still decides to take in two more refugees, Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell), the two girls who watched their mother burned. Despite all of her prejudices, Claire takes a liking to them, and sets out to help get them to safety. All of this against the backdrop of Claire writing a school paper on Amendment XI, which makes witchcraft illegal. So you know she’ll have some lessons learned just in time to question the Constitutionality of such a thing in her evening’s homework.
Callahan doesn’t attempt to be subtle, perhaps because the film is aimed at the teen demographic. The metaphors to today are clear, not just to racism but to the dangers of xenophobic leaders passing legislation to attack their enemies, something we saw first-hand in the previous Presidential administration. Also the fear and degradation of women, as the witches are dehumanized as making a “choice” to be evil when that’s not at all the case. Those expecting the chills of a Midnight selection will instead find pointed political commentary, putting it the same orbit of The Purge movies. While production values are clearly constrained, Callahan makes the most with what she has by leaning on the rural landscape and the performances of her cast. Adlon, who has already dabbled in witchcraft as part of The Craft: Legacy, handles like a seasoned vet Claire’s struggle to find herself in a world of many biases. While Witch Hunt is more traditional than its initial premise would suggest, it’s a welcome reimagining of witches and the kind of world-building that has you hoping Callahan can conjure up another with greater resources at her disposal.
This is not a positive review, but they loved Liz so this is the part about her:
“Witch Hunt” has an intriguing premise and a couple of solid performances.
When it comes to performances, a few stand out that add a little more life and character to this story. Mitchell, in particular, has a warmth and comfort to her that makes her family’s home feel safe. Cowen’s Fiona also stands out. She does an excellent job walking this emotional tightrope that makes her character really interesting. I would have loved to have spent more time with these characters.
There are plenty of moments throughout it that are worth praising, especially its commentary and some of the performances.