From descriptions alone, SXSW horror film Witch Hunt sounded like it would be one of the strongest selections. The concept is timely, and provides metaphors for deportation and discrimination. Witch Hunt doesn’t do anything new with either of these concepts, instead letting them take a backseat in favor of obvious character drama and eerie visuals. The turns it takes in the story are always predictable, and rarely veer off course for the unexpected. Director Elle Callhan’s previous film, Head Count, did a better job with subverting tropes, building to an explosive ending. Witch Hunt is filled to the brim with promise, and its just a few steps away from embracing the concept in meaningful, interesting ways.
The film sets the scene in modern day New England. The 11th amendment restricts the rights of witches in America, and performing any act of witchcraft is enough for an execution. Needles and attempted drowning are just two of the ways they test for the gene, after which they brand you, and you’re cut off from the rest of society. Claire (Gideon Adlon) has a view on witches that is slightly different from most; her mother (Elizabeth Mitchell) runs a secret system wherein she helps witches cross the southern border into Mexico. When they take in two young witches, the system goes awry, and they must figure out how to get these witches across the border, sans outside assistance.
The visuals here are frequently impressive. Something as haunting as a border wall with a long line of salt is striking, even in its lack of ambiguity and simplicity. The brief interludes, where we see potentials tested for the witch gene, hold a power lacking in the scenes set in Claire’s home. This isn’t to say these scenes are boring; rather, the specifics of this jarring alternate-reality version of New England is far more fascinating. Obvious parallels about real-life deportation are on-the-nose and have no sense of subtlety. Claire interacting with the two new witches in her home is compelling and exciting, but I wish this aspect was sped up significantly. Witches lacking experience in utilizing their own powers for fear of deportation is frustrating. It seems like a lost opportunity to not take advantage of magic to solve their problems. The film takes an obvious turn in the latter half with Claire, which you can spot coming from a mile away. A movie that took place half in America, half in Mexico, could’ve called for a much deeper examination of the living conditions in both places.
Witch Hunt isn’t the best movie at the SXSW Film Festival, nor is it the worst. There are glimmers of greatness here that kept me engaged, even when the story grinds to a halt. Visuals and creepy moments needed to be pumped up to really drive it all home. In a way, this feels like a TV pilot for a promising new show about an alternate-reality of modern witchcraft. Maybe, somewhere down the line, a director who connects more to this material will take the concept and run with it. Even through the blatant nature of the plot and some tonal inconsistencies, Witch Hunt is a decent horror film that explores witchcraft in a way we haven’t seen before.