Wednesday 7 July 2021

Witch Hunt (USA 2021: Dir Elle Callahan)

It’s no coincidence that the words ‘witch hunt’ have been most recently used ad nauseam by a certain previous POTUS, as there’s something of the repressive politics of the Tr*mp administration in the setup of Elle Callahan’s second feature. Set in an (alternative) present day US, the Constitution has been amended to include the words “no person may practice witchcraft in the United States of America”, and a further amendment to the Bill of Rights looks set to limit the freedoms of any relatives of witches who have powers of their own.

But unlike the witch trials of the 17th century, the persecuted women in Witch Hunt really are witches, with strong powers to boot, passed on to them at birth. Most of the rest of the country looks on in disdain, supporting the authorities in the rounding up, segregating and occasional killing of the guilty parties.

But there are some sympathisers; Martha Goode (Elizabeth Mitchell) is a widow who harbours witches looking to escape, giving them safe passage out of town, hidden in a similarly tolerant tradesman’s van, much to the consternation of her disapproving daughter Claire (Gideon Adlon) whose school friends eagerly bully the witches in their school. 

But when the driver is rumbled by men in black from the BWI (the Bureau of Witchcraft Investigation), Martha’s latest intake – two sisters, Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell) – are forced to hole up in the house. A growing friendship between the older sister Fiona and Claire thaws the latter’s contempt of witches, but also awakens in her the sense that, like the house's witchy refugees, she too might have powers of which she was unaware.

While Witch Hunt may come over as a kind of YA version of  The Handmaid’s Tale (with its largely female cast and totalitarian regime) it’s a solidly told plea for tolerance with some impressive central performances. The metaphors may at times be laid on a little thickly – BWI indeed – and there’s a few loose ends which suggest some pruning for film length, but overall the film sustains a quiet power, and the nods to ancient practices of witch finding – pricking the skin for marks and ducking –have rather eerily been updated to form part of the school rituals. And references to Thelma & Louise throughout the movie, a liberating signifier if ever there was one, point to a hopeful denouement. 

Signature Entertainment presents Witch Hunt on DVD and Digital Platforms from 5th July.

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