For a genre so stuffed with entries and constant remakes, it’s really shocking that nobody has ever attempted a bona fide modern-day witch story. Sure, we’ve got something like The Witches, but that aside, nothing has tried to update the old folk tales for a contemporary time setting. That’s where Witch Hunt steps in.
Set in the modern day, in a small town on the Mexican-American border, Witch Hunt presents a world where supernatural powers exist and are oddly nonchalant – but those who harness them are folk devils. Director Elle Callahan very cleverly sets the film up as a clear comment on xenophobia in America, and how immigrant communities are treated. From whispers between neighbours about the status of their townspeople, to brutal ‘tests’ involving drownings and injections, this is more the Blue Scare than the Red Scare.
As a metaphor, it’s very eloquently handled – and it’s surprisingly untouched ground to cover – but sadly, Witch Hunt has little else going for it other than this. The film follows Claire (Gideon Adlon), a high-school student stuck between her witch-resenting peers, and her sympathetic mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell), who harbours witch refugees in their home. At first sceptical of her new housemates, Witch Hunt shows her progression towards acceptance, understanding and sympathy. Of course, some of the expected tropes are here – particularly some schlocky high-school melodrama that never manages to convince – but the concept itself is a unique one.
The problem with Witch Hunt is its inability to take this concept down any fruitful route. It can never decide whether it wants to be a horror, with plenty of decent jump-scares, or a Twilight-inflected teen drama, and it makes the film weaker as result. The best performance here is an animated and slimy Christian Carmago as Detective Hawthorne, the town’s resident witch hunter whose thirst for undocumented witches bears a striking resemblance to the predatory nature of ICE during the Trump administration. Aside from that, though, performances are flat – and for a film that needs you to care about its marginalised fantasy demographic, the emotional attachment simply isn’t there.
For every moment that Witch Hunt introduces some nuance into the witch sub-genre, it’s counter-balanced by drab dialogue, icky CGI, and characters that’ll never keep you hooked. Writer-director Callahan has played a blinder in carving her own lane in horror – but the strength of the concept alone isn’t enough to carry the film. It works best as an immigration allegory, exploring the human(ish) side of persecution and segregation, and making a potent political comment in the meantime.
It’s the basics that it can’t manage to pull off – and if you can’t get your audience invested in the story, the film will never end up reaching its potential. A sequel is certainly teased at the end of Witch Hunt, and it’d be a film worth making, purely down to the strength of its themes, and the potential for further nuance within the genre. It’s just a shame that you’ll leave the film thinking only of the message, rather than everything else it could’ve been.
Witch Hunt releases on digital platforms on July 5th.