Striking a middle ground between teen fantasy “The Craft” and deadly serious political allegory “The Handmaid’s Tale” is “Witch Hunt,” writer-director Elle Callahan’s second feature. Her first, the 2019 “Head Count,” was a strikingly assured supernatural mind-bender, albeit one a little too understated for some genre fans. By contrast, this sophomore effort is comparatively conventional and straightforward in depicting paranormal themes, even given the added fillip of overt current-events commentary. It’s a more uneven work nonetheless, with some odd storytelling missteps and signs of budgetary constriction. Still, the fanciful tale of minority persecution in a U.S. not so different from our offscreen reality should easily attract acquisition interest around its SXSW premiere.
A grim prologue shows a manacled woman burned at a present-day New England stake in front of her two redheaded daughters. We then jump ahead three months to meet SoCal high schooler Claire (Gideon Adlon), whose classmates including mean-girl friend Jen (Lulu Antariksa) variously tease, bully and avoid any peers suspected of having “magic in the blood.” They also get homework assignments like writing papers on the 11th Amendment — a recent Bill of Rights addition that serves to deny those same folk the rights normal citizens enjoy. Being a witch isn’t strictly illegal … yet. But things are heading in that direction, with rising levels of prejudicial public hysteria, and federal Bureau of Witchcraft Investigation agents like Hawthorne (Christian Camargo) acting like bloodthirsty Grand Inquisitors.
All of which is rather awkward for Claire, who lives in a rambling remote farmhouse with widowed mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell) and twin younger siblings (Cameron and Nicolas Crovetti). She can’t invite friends over, or happily join in witch-bashing banter, because mom uses their home (which conveniently has hidden passageways between walls) as a safe house on a sort of underground railroad smuggling witches to Mexico, which is still granting them asylum.
The family has already received incoming refugees Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell) — the two sisters who saw their mother’s gruesome demise back east — when their last “guest” gets caught en route to the border by Hawthorne and fellow BWI personnel. She too meets a fiery end, while a net tightens to ensnare any fleeing-witch enablers in the area.
A classic sullen teen, Claire is further disgruntled by the new arrivals. But she can’t help growing intrigued by friendly, seemingly serene, slightly-older Fiona, or feeling sorry for poor Shae, whom her own same-aged brothers refuse to play with. Meanwhile, Claire worries she might have some forbidden “powers” herself (despite lacking the telltale red hair). When she recklessly takes Fiona to a local bar, they inadvertently create a telekinetic ruckus that is sure to blow the family’s already-imperiled cover.
That Claire would endanger them all thus strains credulity. There are other misjudged elements, like an early encounter with a demon or some such that seems meant as a major plot element, yet never gets explained or utilized again. “Head Count” rested on unsettling ambiguity and tension, two things lacking here. It had little use for action, which Callahan doesn’t show much flair for in “Witch Hunt,” where it’s more important. Beyond a couple decent jump scares, the fantastical elements are handled in pedestrian fashion. Even a principal villain’s fate staged so it offers scant satisfaction, or even clarity. Some subpar effects work adds to a sense that Callahan may have had to cut corners in executing her full original conception.
What does get articulated fully here is the sociopolitical dimension, in which fantasy ideas invariably amplify punitive recent real-world trends regarding the rights of women, minorities and immigrants, complete with a heavily patrolled border “wall.” There’s also room to address xenophobia, prejudice and misogyny cloaked in patriotism, plus the popular pull worldwide toward fascistic leaders and police-state policies.
Some of this is pretty on-the-nose, if not excessively so for something partly aimed at a YA-type audience. Still, witchery works well as a metaphor, here being another thing blamed as a “choice” when in fact its practitioners were “born that way.” The script makes casual, interesting use of traditional superstitions, as well as the Salem trials’ reverberations. (Just what witches can or can’t do is left rather murky, though.) More a supernatural drama than horror, or even a thriller, “Witch Hunt” is in the end primarily an effective cautionary fable about intolerance, sweetened with genre elements.
In a competent cast, Cowen and Mitchell fare best. Production values are OK but sometimes feel a little sparse, with design contributions professional but uninspired. The modest “Head Count” also had a firmer grip on making the most of compositions and pacing.