Dystopia and the supernatural collide in “Witch Hunt,” written and directed by Elle Callahan (“Head Count”), which presents a world where witches are real, and the use of magic is punishable by death under the United States’ fictional 11th Amendment.
Claire (Gideon Adlon, “The Craft: Legacy”) is a high school student whose mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell, “What We Found”) is part of a network that helps witches cross the southern border into Mexico, where they can be granted asylum. Claire, who sometimes demonstrates magical tendencies herself, is frustrated with her mother’s insistence on helping witches until she befriends a young witch named Fiona (Abigail Cowen, “I Still Believe”) and her younger sister (Echo Campbell, “Another Period”), who stay with the family temporarily before they attempt to cross the border.
Part of the appeal of the dystopian genre is its potential for unique worldbuilding and ability to comment on modern politics, which franchises like “Divergent” and “The Hunger Games” have been able to use to massive box office success. With its combined element of the supernatural, “Witch Hunt” has perhaps even more potential, as magic could allow the film’s world to stretch even further beyond the confines of reality.
However, the film fails to capitalize on this potential and instead lazily borrows instances of historical oppression to establish its structure. The system that Martha uses to help witches cross the border into Mexico is a thinly veiled, if not direct, reference to the Underground Railroad. The witches that Claire’s family harbor are made to hide within the walls of the house and cannot come out when the curtains are not drawn, referencing the way Jews hid in Nazi Germany. It’s no surprise when a bus conspicuously marked “Border Control” rolls through town as the witches inside wave their arms frantically and cry for help, referencing Immigration and Customs Enforcement and its treatment of undocumented immigrants in the United States.
The references don’t end there; rather, they constitute every aspect of the imagined oppression of witches in this world, from the Gestapo-esque Bureau of Witchcraft Investigation to the way that neighbors monitor each other closely for signs of wrongdoing. There’s also a literal border wall separating the United States from Mexico.
The film takes the trauma of marginalized ethnic groups and applies all of it to a population made up of pale, white women whose only real distinguishing quality is their red hair. It’s difficult to tell what the goal of this is.
Is it a kind of plea to white, gentile Americans to recognize the struggles of other people by letting them walk a mile in those people’s shoes? Is it trying to say that white women are also a persecuted group, on par with Black, brown and non-Christian Americans? Is it trying to make a general statement about how persecution based on inherent and unchangeable characteristics is mindless and bad? No matter the angle, this appropriation of historical oppression is, at best, carelessly played out. At worst, it’s downright offensive.
“Witch Hunt” is also branded as a horror movie — it depends heavily on minor jump scares, decrepit hands reaching in at the edge of the frame and briefly spooky drops in the score to inspire fear. They might frighten for a moment but are forgettable in the long run. Horror, like dystopia and the supernatural, has great potential for social commentary and character development if handled correctly — just look to Jordan Peele’s “Get Out,” or Ari Aster’s “Hereditary.” In “Witch Hunt,” these elements of horror feel like an afterthought and are altogether unnecessary to the narrative.
The film is shot with skill, and the performances from Adlon, Mitchell and Cowen are strong, but the unsavory politics the film creates and plays off of are just impossible to look past. “Witch Hunt” lacks nuance and fails to take advantage of the great potential of the many genres it encompasses, resulting in an empty, tedious take on society’s ills.
Daily Arts Writer Katrina Stebbins can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.