Witch Hunt is the latest film to be written and directed by Elle Callahan, and depicts a world where not only are magic and witchcraft real, but the witch hunts never ended. Set in the modern day, it imagines a world where the government polices witches, where the Bureau of Witch Investigation (the BWI) rounds up witches into camps, where young women are tested by doctors for signs of magic, and where the government is preparing to pass new legislation to restrict people with magical heritage.
Fortunately, there are some people in this world who understand that people with magic are still human beings, and that having these abilities doesn’t make you a criminal. One of these people is Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell), who is part of an underground railroad that helps witches escape across the border into Mexico. Despite having opened her home to these people at great risk to herself, her daughter Claire (Gideon Adlon) is unsure if she approves, thanks in large part to anti-witch rhetoric at school and from her friends.
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When the family takes in teenage witch Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and her younger sister, things begin to change, as thanks to the BWI closing in the girls are unable to make their next step on their journey to freedom. With the two young witches in her home, Claire begins to learn more about them, starts to see witches as persecuted women, and even begins to suspect that there might be a strange presence haunting the home.
After watching through Witch Hunt I had to go online to check if this was an adaptation of a book, because this felt a lot like a YA novel. Much like the YA genre, the story focuses on a teenage heroine, one who lives in a world similar to our own but where history has diverged in some way to create an oppressive, dystopian place to live. Our teenage heroine not only learns that the system she’s in is wrong, but she decides to try to do something about it, bringing herself into conflict with the forces who are trying to maintain the status quo. It ticked all the boxes, apart from perhaps not having a love triangle, and it felt like the kind of story that you could spend a number of books exploring the characters and world.
But it isn’t an adaptation. Instead writer director Elle Callahan created something new, something that felt familiar in a comfortable way, but still did some interesting things. I’m sure there will be some people who rolled their eyes as soon as I said it feels like a YA book, or thought that it might be a criticism, but I meant it as a compliment. Callahan has taken the things I love about that genre of fiction and transported it onto the screen to create a really engaging and interesting movie.
I enjoyed the characters, and Abigail Cowen and Gideon Adlon were both superbly well cast; the scenes where the two of them simply talked together were some of my favourites. I loved watching the two of them getting to know each other, discovering what life is like for the other, and ultimately becoming friends. Elizabeth Mitchell was also great in the film, and the moments where she had to go from mother to a woman lying and scheming against corrupt officials and prejudiced neighbours were some of her best moments.
The most interesting part of the film, though, is the world that Callahan creates. Other than the existence of witches it’s pretty much our world. But that slight change, the addition of magic in even the tiniest way makes it incredibly interesting. The film opens with men in government jackets pointing shotguns at a woman tied to a stake in front of a government building, as a suited man brings a flaming torch into frame to burn her. It’s this mashing of imagery that’s hundreds of years old with the modern day that’s the most striking.
I wanted to know how this world worked. I wanted to see what it was like with witches being this hated and oppressed class of people. Sometimes the exploration of this is hauntingly realistic, where you see border patrol throwing suspected witches onto busses to be taken to detention centres, or people making speeches about why this minority is dangerous and doesn’t deserve rights: things that we can see happening today to real people. Other times it’s an odd mix of classic witch hunting themes mixed in with the modern era, like doctors examining young women for witch marks, or sink tests being held in the school pool. Whatever insight we get just wasn’t enough for me though, and I’d have loved to have gone into it in even more detail over a longer run time.
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I really enjoyed Witch Hunt, it took these engaging characters and interesting concepts and created a film that felt too short because of how much I enjoyed it. The movie flew by, and come the end I was sad that it wasn’t longer, and found myself hoping for a sequel, a television series, or even books set in this world – anything that would have given me more. It might not be for everyone, but if you love YA fiction then this is the kind of film where you’re going to feel very much at home.
Witch Hunt is out on DVD and Digital Platforms on 5th July from Signature Entertainment.