Saturday 1 April 2023

Shudder Saturday: Witch Hunt (2021)

The second feature from writer-director Elle Callahan, after the very enjoyable Head Count from 2018, Witch Hunt is pretty much exactly what you might expect it to be from the title. It's a film set in a modern version of the USA where witches are very real, but their existence is not tolerated. Anyone found to be a witch is dealt with by a special law enforcement agency, and causing trouble can lead to an immediate death penalty.

Gideon Adlon plays Claire, a teenage girl going through normal teenage girl times, but with the added stress of living in a household where witches are being sheltered and helped in their attempts to get themselves smuggled over the border to Mexico. Claire's mother, Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell), knows the danger she is putting her family in, Claire also has two younger siblings, but she very much believes in doing the right thing. Besides, they're very careful. Young Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell) are the latest witches to be sheltered by the family, and a determined witch-hunter/agent (Christian Camargo) may end up causing them a lot of problems.

Many people didn't like Witch Hunt, certainly not as much as I did, and a very quick search online turned up a couple of reviews that were practically vitriolic in their criticism of it. Some thought it was clumsy and annoyingly simplistic, an obvious metaphor not handled anywhere near as well as they wanted it to be, while others seemed to be annoyed by a script that they viewed as illogical and full of major mis-steps. I am sure some were also annoyed by the fact that, despite the title and one or two impressive scenes showing updated versions of old tricks for dealing with alleged witchery, Witch Hunt isn't really a horror movie. It's a drama, a very pointed and relevant one, that happens to be wrapped in, well, a spooky cape and pointy hat.

Adlon, Cowen, and Campbell are all very good in their roles, often feeling more like one close family unit once they start to bond with one another. Mitchell is an excellent matriarch, offering support and optimism for those who end up in her care. She risks so much for strangers because she knows what the situation means for everyone, especially other women who may one day find themselves inadvertently on the wrong side of these new laws. Camargo may not have a massive amount of screentime, but his every moment is loaded with tension and menace. He's an excellent addition, and his character essentially gives a face to the inhumanity and coldness of the legislation. 

I liked almost every part of this, and I think Callahan knows exactly what she was doing. Some moments play out like Mean Girls, other moments are riffing on Thelma & Louise (namechecked in a conversation between two main characters at one point), but the main point, more than the comparison to the struggle of illegal immigrants, is something that Callahan pins down for almost every minute of the runtime. Coincidentally or not, considering the political horror of the last year or so, the film has now become even more inspiring. It's about men fearing women, and about how women can, and should, support one another in fighting back against that, as opposed to being turned on one another. Maybe I am reading too much into it, because the social pushback recently has seen women becoming more oppressed and shouted down in a way that has forced them to create a network of information and support not entirely unlike the underground resistance shown in scenarios like this, but it's there nevertheless. And there has always been a different reason for the witch hunts over the years, all of them allowing nasty cowards to mistreat and get rid of women they view as threatening to them.

Does every scene make sense? No, but I don't think they have to. While witches are onscreen, we can assume that not everyone seeing events unfold is necessarily seeing the same thing. There are also moments that just show teenagers behaving like teenagers, and when have they always thought everything through fully and adhered to arbitrary rules given to them? I know I certainly didn't at that age. And if I had some awesome witch powers . . . yeah, forget it, I'd be sitting on a ducking stool within a week (note - the "ducking stool" scene in this is absolutely fantastic).

While far from perfect, this is a step up from Head Count. And I liked Head Count. I hope others check out both of Callahan's features, and I hope some end up agreeing with me on how good they are.


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