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I dig horror movies. I dig political movies. I dig it when horror movies have a political bent to them. (Nia DaCosta’s recent “Candyman” was largely successful in this pursuit IMHO.) Writer/director Elle Callahan’s “Witch Hunt” (available in select theaters and on VOD beginning Friday, Oct. 1) touches on a bunch of issues pertinent to our times – most notably immigration (queer identity, police brutality and a woman’s right to choose get nods too) – but does so in such a way that it collapses under its own weight.
We’re in modern day Southern California. Witches are real, but practicing witchcraft is illegal. Claire (Gideon Adlon) is a high schooler whose mother Martha (Elizabeth Mitchell, “Lost”) houses refugee witches in an arrangement that calls to mind the Underground Railroad and Anne Frank.
Martha works alongside Jacob (Treva Etienne) to transport these folks across the United States-Mexico border where they’re granted asylum. Claire and Martha’s most recent houseguests are Fiona (Abigail Cowen) and Shae (Echo Campbell) whose mother Esther (Sadie Stratton) was burnt on the cross back in Massachusetts.
Claire must contend with her prejudiced trio of “Mean Girl” friends Jen (Lulu Antariksa), Megan (Natahsa Tina Liu) and Sofie (Anna Grace Barlow). An even greater threat comes in the form of a federal witch hunter (Christian Camargo, whom I best remember from “Dexter” and “The Hurt Locker”), who correctly suspects that Martha’s housing witches.
I admire Callahan’s intentions and likely agree with her politics, but the resulting product is lacking. “Witch Hunt” is clumsily obvious in its commentary. For a horror movie it’s also surprisingly bloodless – the primary jolt is a recurring image of Esther being immolated. To Callahan’s credit there is an impactful sequence wherein high school girls are tied to chairs with respirators in their mouths and are pushed backwards into a swimming pool – if they float to the surface they’re deemed witches.
A lot of the logic of “Witch Hunt” is faulty. In this small Southern California town a box office clerk asks a teenage girl whom he knows for identification in order to buy a ticket to a retrospective screening of “Thelma & Louise” (a movie to which this is misguidedly trying to draw parallels). What teenage girl in 2021 wants to see “Thelma & Louise” (Granted, a lot of ‘em would benefit from seeing it.) Also, what small town holds retrospective screenings of “Thelma & Louise” let alone any other title? In this same small Southern California town Claire and Fiona are granted admittance to a bar and served alcohol without anyone batting an eye until they stupidly begin practicing witchcraft.
Seasoned adult performers such as Mitchell and Camargo acquit themselves better than their more youthful co-stars. Camargo sorta comes across like a lamer version of Christoph Waltz’s Hans Landa from “Inglourious Basterds.” Adlon is an actress I like a lot (I especially dug her in “Blockers”), but the way Claire’s written does her few favors. If you wanna watch Adlon play a “Witchy Woman” you’re better off checking out last year’s “The Craft: Legacy” as opposed to “Witch Hunt.”