Timeliness is one of the great current curses of small-budget genre filmmaking. The impulse to tie a film’s premise to current events or ideology certainly isn’t a new trend, and, of course, there’s a rich tradition of horror or sci-fi films tackling issues like racism, anti-communism, religious persecution, what have you. But semi-recently, it seems that what ought to be subtext is now the only text, without a sturdy narrative to hang it on, no substance around whatever metaphor or analogy a film might be pushing. Which brings us to the latest victim, Elle Callahan’s Witch Hunt, the perfect example of an idea with no actual movie behind it. Taking place in an alternate present in which witchcraft (practiced, at least as far as this film depicts, solely by women) is a real and tangible thing that has been outlawed by the federal government via Constitutional amendment. Somewhere in the rural American southwest, Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell) carries on a sort of Underground Railroad for witches, sheltering them in the crawl spaces of her large house until some sympathetic compatriots can come and smuggle them across the border to Mexico. The latest two travelers, Fiona (Abigail Cowan) and Shae (Echo Campbell), are red-headed sisters still reeling from their mother’s recent public execution by stake-burning. Making matters more difficult, Martha’s daughter Claire (Gideon Adlon, recently seen in the equally blunt and useless witch sequel The Craft: Legacy) seems to be coming into powers of her own.
This alternate present isn’t even slightly fleshed-out; certainly we’re all used to dystopian analogies like The Handmaid’s Tale, but it might be necessary to wonder how an entire nation accepts public drowning of teenage girls and burning women at the stake in parking lots as a necessary part of daily routine. Without any sort of deeper understanding of this world, it’s just misery porn. Meanwhile, Witch Hunt is formally indistinct from most modern horror, with placid, symmetrical compositions, and lots of master and two shots. And none of the performances add much nuance to the already blunt proceedings — these “characters” are nothing more than narrative and allegorical pawns. A supporting appearance by Christian Camargo as a federal witch hunter is particularly embarrassing in its attempt to resemble the opening chapter of Inglourious Basterds and the introduction of Hans Landa, insult to injury lurking in the third act of this trifle. Entirely rote, Witch Hunt proceeds exactly as you’d expect with its heavy-handed likening of witch persecution to our IRL systemic, patriarchal oppression of women everywhere, but it offers nothing in the way of actual ideas or even complexity. Subtlety in genre work is frequently an over-valued millstone, but with nothing but overt scaffolding here, there is nowhere for the film itself to actually go.
Published as part of SXSW Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 4.