Writer/director Elle Callahan’s film “Witch Hunt” is one that I’ve been eager to see since last year. Originally, it was supposed to premiere at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival. Then, unfortunately, the pandemic hit, and every event under the sun was canceled. Since then, society has found ways to adapt to this “new normal.” When it comes to new releases, in particular, several studios took the premium VOD route, while others just delayed their upcoming slate altogether. However, with film festivals, many have gone in a virtual direction. SXSW is one such festival, and I was thrilled to see “Witch Hunt” back in the lineup. Unfortunately, Callahan’s film didn’t hit the chilling bar that I hoped it would. “Witch Hunt” has an intriguing premise and a couple of solid performances, but its story doesn’t feel like it fully lives up to its potential.
Callahan’s film takes place in a version of modern-day America where witches are considered the greatest danger to society and witchcraft is illegal. There’s even an 11th Amendment that’s set to solidify the country’s staunch position on the latter. It’s an aspect of life that looms over everyone daily, especially with law enforcement officers known as the BWI, or federal Bureau of Witchcraft Investigation, doing everything in their power to track them down at all times.
For Claire (Gideon Adlon), this fear is even greater, as her mom Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell) is providing asylum for witches in their own home. For now, she has the routine down to an art, and so far has led the whole operation fairly smoothly. That is, until one of her helpers is caught by a ruthless BWI officer named Hawthorne (Christian Camargo).
At the same time that this is happening, new witches are introduced into the family home, Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and her younger sister Shae (Echo Campbell). The former is around the same age as Claire, which helps form a bond between the two. However, Claire still keeps her distance, as she remains hesitant about witches in general and struggles with her own prejudices. Over time, though, the two begin to connect, and that connection becomes crucial as Hawthorne’s presence starts to loom a little larger over their family’s home.
What stands out the most in this film is its sharp political and social commentary. Sometimes, that commentary feels a little too on-the-nose but is well done nonetheless. Callahan does a great job creating an atmosphere that’s eerie and intriguing from the onset as well. This is also aided by the cinematography from Nico Aguilar and Tommy Oceanak. But these moments of intrigue become few and far between as the story goes on. And unfortunately, in the end, a rushed third act makes for a clumsy conclusion.
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, but unfortunately, there are rarely any moments that give us a deeper insight into these individuals. This is a problem that plagues many of the characters in the film, but especially Camargo, whose villainous character never really goes beyond simply being the Bad Guy.
“Witch Hunt” has so much promise from the get-go that it’s unfortunate to see it dwindle into more formulaic territory. That being said, there are plenty of moments throughout it that are worth praising, especially its commentary and some of the performances. It’s clear Callahan had a really interesting and exciting idea here, but in the end, it just left a little more to be desired.