The Movie Waffler SXSW 2021 Review - WITCH HUNT | The Movie Waffler

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SXSW 2021 Review - WITCH HUNT

witch hunt review
When their mother is burned at the stake, two young witches attempt to flee America.

Review by Musanna Ahmed

Directed by: Elle Callahan

Starring: Abigail Cowen, Gideon Adlon, Elizabeth Mitchell, Christian Camargo, Echo Campbell

witch hunt poster

Witch Hunt begins in New England with a witch being burned at the stake. Except this isn’t Salem 1692 – it’s today. Witches exist and witchcraft is illegal, and an evidently well-equipped police force is carrying out these executions on the regular. Before the flames consume her entire body, the pale, red-haired sorceress pleads for two pale, red-haired young girls watching from afar to flee as fast as they can. It feels like an extension of the rapper M.I.A’s hard-hitting video for her song 'Born Free', in which the Sri Lankan artist made a point about the extrajudicial killing of Tamil men by depicting a group of red-headed white men being violently persecuted for the way they look.

witch hunt review

It was a broad metaphor for racism and this supernatural thriller pretty much has the same intentions. Those two girls who saw their mother put to death are called Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell), and they find themselves in Southern California a few months later, still on the run, avoiding law enforcement and pursuing asylum across the border, seeking to escape racist America. They get a helping hand from a kind-hearted woman named Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell, who you may know better as Juliet from Lost) with a big house in rural Cali who subliminally offers help with a sign above her mailbox. Other sympathetic locals know the sign means her home is available as shelter for witches before they proceed with the perilous journey to Mexico.


But the film’s perspective is primarily from Martha’s high schooler daughter Claire (Gideon Adlon from Blockers and The Mustang, quickly carving out an eclectic filmography). Claire’s empathy is questionable at first, as she argues with her mother if it is necessary to play with the risks of allowing witches in their home. But this is a story with many strands, including the budding friendship between the similar-aged Claire and Fiona, bonding over personal secrets and Thelma & Louise. Meanwhile, the ruthless Detective Hawthorne (Christian Camargo) uses a pressure tracking device to figure out which places are likely housing witches.

witch hunt review

As Claire experiences severe internal conflicts with her initial reticence towards witches and her school friends’ apathy around police brutality, in addition to her increased anxiety and asthma attacks, writer-director Elle Callahan captures the heroine’s difficult journey through traditional horror tropes, utilising nightmares, jump scares and supernatural occurrences within the home. The chills are effective, and the thrills are plentiful, as the suspense begins right off the bat with the aforementioned purge, an image that recurs throughout the briskly paced 96 minutes for the fateful implications it will have on the principal characters.

witch hunt review

Callahan is an extremely economical filmmaker who easily manages multiple subplots and writes effective dialogue, consistently serving us with context and information, ensuring everything ties up together. Consequently, Witch Hunt fares well on a re-watch as the viewer knows the outcome but can pay closer attention to the connective tissue. It is hard to poke holes in such a tightly packed narrative, however I will confess that it is a fairly predictable storyline, with viewers very likely to telegraph the inevitable finale before it occurs. Even though M.I.A may have got there a long time ago, Witch Hunt also offers an effective metaphor of racism, this time through one of the best modes of political storytelling – the horror movie.

Witch Hunt plays online at the SXSW Film festival from March 17th to 21st.



2021 movie reviews