Director Elle Callahan’s second feature is WITCH HUNT. It stars Gideon Adlon (Claire), Abigail Cowen (Fiona), Elizabeth Mitchell (Martha), Echo Campbell (Shae), Treva Etienne (Jacob), and Christian Camargo (Hawthorne). Witches are real and the US Government has outlawed witchcraft and witches themselves, despite the fact that none of them asked for their powers. There is a Bureau of Witch Investigations or BWI and the resemblance to the US Customs and Border Protection Agency cannot be a coincidence.
Claire, a high school student who is friends with a group of too cool for school girls, starts noticing the oppression of witches all around her. She has been resentful of her mother’s actions to aid witches but begins to see how wrong things really are. She meets Fiona and Shae, sisters who lost their mother and are fleeing agents of the BWI, and begins to have more sympathy for this marginalized group. The arrival of Hawthorne, a witch hunter, signals that the problem is much more serious than any of them thought.
Elle Callahan has taken a strong step with the next film in her career. She is using the horror genre and the legend of witches and witch-hunting to express a very important problem within our society: othering and penalizing people because of who they are and for things that they cannot control. Of course, WITCH HUNT is a strong metaphor for xenophobia in the United States. It isn’t a coincidence either that there is a wall and the Mexican border is the escape route for the underground conveyance of witches. The audience can see itself in the characters who are being oppressed and discriminated against in the most heinous of ways.
Gideon Adlon as Claire is very good. She’s a girl uncomfortable in her skin and with her identity trying to fit in with people that she doesn’t really like. Abigail Cowen has done a great job of being the opposite of Gideon, comfortable with who she is and filled with pride in who she is. She’s much more secure as a person who nascent witch powers. Echo Campbell is fantastic as the silent and emotionally traumatized Shae. Her face is written with the hurt and loss that she has suffered and Campbell effortlessly shows this without a word. Elizabeth Marshall as Martha is a warm and wise presence as Claire’s mother. She is kind but is not a pushover. Her strength and sense of purpose show her beautiful spirit. Treva Etienne is one of the few men in the cast and the most sympathetic. He is like Martha and doing the best that he can to save as many as he can.
Christian Camargo is quixotic as Hawthorne. A man who believes wholeheartedly that he is doing the right thing when he really isn’t. He is proud of his witch-hunting ancestors where his writer ancestor, Nathaniel Hawthorne, was not. He is the villain of the piece, along with the mostly faceless and nameless aggressors of the BWI, but he is the crux of the male ego on display in a surprisingly not overtly macho form which is a very nice touch. I have to give credit to the casting director, Lindsey Weissmueller, here because this is another feature that is very well cast. Casting is a crucial part of filmmaking and the decisions are made by the director, but someone has to give the people in charge the right choices to start with. The music by Blitz//Berlin is understated yet strange and menacing at the same time.
The imagery of the film, blue roses, and crosses, and the postcards from Cuidad Azul are just right. The blue symbolic value is multifaceted. The blue of the sky and the ocean is calming but what force on Earth is stronger than the ocean or the winds? Blue is protection and strength. The roses growing from the bare Earth in the strangest places. It is most appropriate.
In addition to the metaphor of the othering of migrants, this is also a parable about women and their power. It occurred to me after watching WITCH HUNT, that what Henry Rollins said so many years ago was true. “Ladies, they are scared shitless.” The othering and blaming of women is the patriarchy’s way of keeping women subservient to their power. They fear a loss of control vis-à-vis the magic and mystery of women. That female power is only somewhat acceptable in women as mothers, but that acceptance is usually conditional on the marital structure. Men, insecure men, are very frightened of women and their power. In this film, the monitoring and testing of girls start when they hit puberty. That’s when girls become dangerous in the view of this version of the US government. As with Raw by Julia Durcournau, it is the process of girls coming of age sexually that terrifies the men of the BWI and this world’s government. It’s the way that they blame girls and women for their own failings and insecurities. They really aren’t afraid of witchcraft deep down, they are afraid of losing control of girls and women.
WITCH HUNT is a parable of the crimes of the patriarchy in our society. It is about the injustice of xenophobia and misanthropy built into that structure. If you outlaw one group, it’s a given that you will use the same tactics towards any group that displeases you when it is convenient. This is a superb and focused second feature from Elle Callahan, filled with the magic and strength of women and girls.
WITCH HUNT’s blue roses grow despite all attempts to crush their beauty and their power. To learn more about the film, check out our interview with the director and cast of the film here.
WITCH HUNT had its World Premiere at the 2021 SXSW Film Festival.