In a country where more residents believe in the Devil than Darwin, this not-too-distant version of a modern America where witches are real isn’t too removed from reality. Witchcraft here in this America is an illegal practice, and harbouring a suspected witch is as punishable a crime as being one. To take in young women to save them from the prejudices and hostility leads to a twisted dynamic where these young witches are smuggled across the border into Mexico to escape the U.S. And in one of these safe houses, a sheltered teenager grows in frustration as her life is interrupted by these rotating asylum seekers.
In such desperation to say something profoundly unique and challenge the patriarchal fears of women with power, Witch Hunt misses the marks it so neatly arranges – losing itself amidst the inconsistency of actions and direction. There’s a display of clear political commentary and social paradigms in Elle Callahan’s script, but tonal fluctuations taint the overall product of the film where eyebrows are furrowed rather than leaping in fear. On the subject of fright, Witch Hunt finds itself petering on the edges of a thriller rather than out-and-out horror – yet hasn’t come to this conclusion in direction. The oversaturation of jump scares and attempts at horror tropes overburdens the film with predictability and pointless confusion.
These unnecessary scares drag the film to pandering levels, frustrating as the tense nature of the hunt is more than enough to secure a sense of dread. Instead, the frights found within jump scares do little else than the expectant leap or swearing fit. Capitalising on the supernatural dramatic elements, Callahan’s clever concept alone is incapable of holding the foundations of an entire film. The determination for the first half of the film, the set-up of anxiety, as young witches Sofie and Fiona hide within the walls of Martha’s home, plays a stealth game as they await transport. Initially, the potential outcome is enthralling, but it quickly subsides as the supernatural element moves from the psychological and into uninspiring visual gimmicks and ‘bad’ government agents.
More ghastly than ghoulish, these attempts at visual spookery are a minor let-down, hindered further by the jarring sound design of the film. Bathed in fire and brimstone, Nico Aguilar and Tommy Oceanak capture the Salem trial-by-fire aesthetic throughout multiple shots with copious diversity in colour – contrasted by the more spectral evening shots within the farmhouse.
But gradually, a peculiar reversal comes to fruition. As the metaphorical tying of sexuality, sisterhood and witchcraft stems together, one would suspect the film to become steadily transparent, but quite the reverse occurs. As Fiona and Claire spend more time with one another, the narrative begins to become more manageable and energetic, and with a cheeky wink to the sisterhood of Thelma & Louise, Abigail Cowen and Gideon Adlon’s identity and mannerisms play off one another. The timidness of Adlon flowering as the housed aggression she battles within becomes understandable for the audience, though very quickly strays into obvious spoiler territory for the climax. Whilst Cowen’s balance of a frightened child to an awakening and encouraging experience for Claire draws the film to a deeper (if then squandered) level.
Ultimately unsatisfying since nothing wicked this way comes, the result is an enticing concept without much of a film surrounding it. Interest is piqued, but attention wanes by the film’s midpoint as the world of social commentary and metaphorical witchcraft is neither spellbinding nor rage-inducing. With saving graces in choice performances, Witch Hunt won’t struggle to sniff out an audience and cast a spell, but may find a few cursing the waste of an insightful idea.
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