Review: ‘Witch Hunt” (2021), starring Gideon Adlon, Elizabeth Mitchell, Abigail Cowen, Echo Campbell and Christian Carmago

March 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

Gideon Adlon and Abigail Cowen in “Witch Hunt” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

“Witch Hunt” (2021) 

Directed by Elle Callahan

Culture Representation: Taking place in the fictional California city of Thirteen Palms, the horror film “Witch Hunt” features a predominantly white cast (with a few Latinos, Asians and African Americans) representing the working-class and middle-class.

Culture Clash: A teenage girl is conflicted over her mother illegally hiding witches in their home to prevent the witches from being arrested, deported or murdered by government officials.

Culture Audience: “Witch Hunt” will appeal primarily to people who are interested in horror movies about witches and with teenage main characters, but the movie isn’t very scary and squanders the story concept with a rushed and disjointed ending.

Christian Carmago and Elizabeth Mitchell in “Witch Hunt” (Photo courtesy of Momentum Pictures)

“Witch Hunt” has a very interesting concept that would have resulted in an outstanding horror film if it had been handled in better ways. The concept is that in the United States, witchcraft is illegal, and a teenage girl has mixed feelings about her mother being part of an underground network that hides witches who are targeted for arrests, deportations or executions. It starts out as an intriguing horror movie with timely allegories about immigrant controversies in the U.S., but then it monotonously slides into a disappointing hodgepodge of ideas ripped off from other movies. “Witch Hunt” had its world premiere at the 2021 South by Southwest (SXSW) Film Festival.

The performances in “Witch Hunt” are far better than the movie’s plot, which tries to be edgy with social commentary and feminist sensibilities. But “Witch Hunt” ultimately becomes a watered-down “cat and mouse” game with baffling inconsistencies, weak horror tropes and characters making nonsensical decisions. And a character in “Witch Hunt” obnoxiously reveals (without spoiler alerts) the ending of the Oscar-winning 1991 classic thriller “Thelma & Louise,” which has a surprise ending that shouldn’t be revealed to viewers who don’t know how “Thelma & Louise” ends and who haven’t asked for this spoiler information.

Written and directed by Elle Callahan, “Witch Hunt” opens with a red-haired woman in a hangman’s noose who’s being burned at the stake in front of a courthouse somewhere on the East Coast in the United States. A small crowd has gathered to watch this horrific spectacle. A man dressed in a government uniform lights the fire.

In the crowd, the woman’s daughter (who’s about 12 or 13 years old and also a redhead) cries out, “Mom!” Meanwhile, before the woman perishes in the fire, she calls out several times, “Christ!” The visual effects in this scene are somewhat cheesy, but it could be more easily forgiven if too many other scenes weren’t such a letdown.

It’s later revealed in the story that the woman who was burned at the stake was convicted of practicing witchcraft, which is a crime punishable by death in the United States. The Bureau of Witchcraft Investigations (BWI) is in charge of finding and arresting witches. Only women and girls in this story are targeted for being witches. And almost all the witches happen to have red hair. It’s a pretty big plot hole, because if most of the witches in this story have red hair, then that would make it easier for the authorities to find them.

After this scene of a witch burning at the stake, the movie then cuts to three months later in the fictional Southern California city of Thirteen Palms. (“Witch Hunt” was actually filmed in Los Angeles.) Some mean girls are harassing a student in a high-school classroom during a U.S. history class. Two of the girls throw a wadded-up note at a redhead girl named Abby (played by Sydney Wilder). When she opens the note, she sees the words “Witch Bitch” surrounded in flames. Why the animosity toward Abby?

The “mean girls” clique consists of group leader Jen (played by Lulu Antariksa), who is stuck-up and vindictive; Kelly (played by Bella Shepard), who is spoiled and conceited; and Sofie (played by Anna Grace Barlow), who is shallow and somewhat empty-headed. It turns out that Abby has caught the eye of Jen’s ex-boyfriend Paul, who broke up with Jen three months earlier. When Jen sees Paul and Abby flirting in the school hallway, Jen tells cattily tells the other mean girls that Abby is a “slut” and practically snarls, “What does he see in her?”

Another teenager who hangs out with this snooty clique but who doesn’t bully other people is Claire Goode (played by Gideon Adlon), who is a free thinker and isn’t afraid to question out loud some of the government’s policies for witches. One of the policies that’s on an upcoming voter ballot is Proposition 6. A “yes” vote for Proposition 6 is in favor of allowing the California government to deport the children of convicted witches to Mexico, where witches are legal and are given asylum. The proposition came about because many people believe that being a witch is a biologically inherited trait, not just practicing a set of beliefs.

In the United States in this movie, there’s literally a witch hunt going on and deep-seated hatred against witches. During a school break, Claire, Jen, Kelly and Sofie watch a viral news video of a witch being caught by a mob at the U.S./Mexico border. “Witch Hunt” doesn’t get too graphic with its violence (this movie is clearly aiming for an audience that includes a lot of underage teenagers), but based on what’s shown, it’s implied that the witch was probably tortured and possibly killed by the mob.

Claire seems to be conflicted about how witches are being treated in this society. On the one hand, Claire believes that witches are criminals. On the other hand, she doesn’t believe that they should be tortured and killed just because they’re witches. Based on what Claire tells her friends and her mother, she thinks that witches should be locked up or deported.

There’s a reason why Claire has mixed feelings about witches. Her widowed mother Martha (played by Elizabeth Mitchell) has been hiding witches in a secret section of their home. The witches are smuggled in large wooden crate boxes by people in an underground network that are pretending to deliver office-sized bottled water dispensers in the boxes. Claire tells her mother to stop helping witches because it’s illegal and dangerous, but Martha ignores this request.

Martha handles the intake of the smuggled witches, but Claire knows everything that’s going on and is worried that they will get caught. Martha’s ally in the underground network is a man named Jacob Gordon (played by Treva Etienne), who transports the crate boxes to and from the Goode family home. He also takes empty water dispensers from the home, to make it look like he’s collecting bottles for recycling.

Claire has identical twin brothers named Corey (played by Cameron Crovetti) and George (played by Nicholas Crovetti), who are about 8 or 9 years old. They are examples of the many underdeveloped and ultimately useless characters in the movie. The twins add almost nothing to the plot. And the “mean girls” clique also ends up not being a very important plot device for the movie.

During the course of the movie, three witches are shown as those who’ve been smuggled into the Goode family home. The first witch is Gina (played by Ashley Bell), who appears to be in her 30s. Gina speaks in a strange language and has a palm-sized blue butterfly as some kind of magical creature. It’s implied throughout the story that Claire is irritated that these smuggled witches are taking up space in the home, as well as taking up her mother’s time and energy. Gina is eventually smuggled out of the home, and her fate is shown in the movie.

After Gina leaves, two other witches are smuggled into the home: Fiona (played by Abigail Cowen) is about 17 or 18 years old and her sister Shae (played by Echo Campbell), who’s about 12 or 13 years old. Fiona and Shae are hiding because they are orphans whose mother was executed for being a witch. It should come as no surprise to viewers (and it’s not spoiler information) that Fiona and Shae’s mother was the same woman who was shown burned at the stake at the beginning of the movie.

Fiona and Shae would be directly affected by Proposition 6, which looks like it’s going to get voted into law, since the majority of the population hates witches. Claire ends up becoming friendly with Fiona, but Claire is a little creeped out by Shae. One night, Claire wakes up in the middle of the night and is startled to find Shae staring at her, as if Shae is in a trance. Fiona makes an apology on behalf of Shae and explains that Shae is a sleepwalker.

Claire’s quick friendship with Fiona isn’t adequately explained, since the movie makes a big deal of showing how Claire is prejudiced against witches, and it’s the main reason why there’s friction between Claire and her mother Martha. One minute, Claire is calling witches “criminals.” The next minute, Claire is hanging out with Fiona as if they’ve been best friends forever. It’s quite an abrupt about-face that doesn’t ring true.

Of course, a movie like this has a chief villain who is fanatical in his intent to hunt down witches. His name is Detective Hawthorne (played by Christian Carmago), who’s from the BWI. He doesn’t hesitate to commit police brutality to get what he wants.

Detective Hawthorne uses some kind of magical thermal pocketwatch to detect a witch’s presence. If the watch detects low air pressure, then that means a witch was recently there or recently did witchcraft there. It’s not a very clever detective tool for this story, because witches could be smart enough to cover their tracks by manipulating the air pressure.

Unfortunately, Detective Hawthorne is written as a very one-dimensional, predictable character. There’s no suspense or backstory for him. And so, viewers just get Detective Hawthorne being a very hollow antagonist right through the inevitable showdown toward the end of the film.

“Witch Hunt” attempts to draw parallels between bigotry toward witches and real-life bigotry toward undocumented immigrants who pass through the U.S./Mexico border. The hatred of witches is shown in ways that are overtly violent. For example, Claire and other students are out in the schoolyard when they witness a witch getting shot for trying to escape from a Border Patrol detention bus that was passing by the school.

The witch hatred is so out-of-control, attempted murder is allowed to test if people are witches. There’s a scene where BWI officials are at Claire’s high school to try to kill female students who are suspected witches. They strap the girls to wheelchairs, throw them in the school swimming pool, and see if any of them can escape from the wheelchairs during a certain period of time. If any of them can escape, that’s “proof” she’s a witch.

If any of them can’t escape and might die by drowning before the wheelchairs are pulled out of the water, the attitude is, “Oh well, too bad if someone dies.” It’s another terrible plot hole, because it doesn’t take into account that parents of innocent children would be outraged by this type of violence inflicted on their children at school. And not to mention that a school would be sued for these barbaric tactics.

The bigotry against witches and suspected witches also comes out in hate-filled conversations from seemingly “pleasant” neighbors. A nosy neighbor named Cynthia (played by Deborah May) comes over to the Goode home and tells Martha that she heard that someone in their neighborhood was caught smuggling witches over the border. Martha pretends to agree with the bigotry of Cynthia, who says about the witches: “I don’t understand why the Mexicans are giving them asylum. They’re not refugees! They’re criminals!”

But for every scene that adds a touch of realism, there are two or three scenes that are dull or illogical. For example, in one scene, Kelly from the “mean girls” clique is shown trying to buy a ticket at a movie theater, but she’s barred from entry because the employee at the box office tells Kelly that her name is on a list of suspected witches. Claire sits on a bench nearby and watches as Kelly angrily denies that she’s a witch.

First of all, considering all the murderous violence against witches in this witch hunt, it’s kind of bizarre that there’s an entire scene showing that this society punishes suspected witches by not letting them go to the movies. If you think about it, witches who are persecuted in life-or-death situations are supposed to have bigger problems than not being able to go see a movie. And it doesn’t make sense that the government would go to all that trouble to ban witches from movie theaters, when there are other types of banishment that are much worse that could’ve been shown in this movie.

The scene is also illogical because even if movie theaters had a list of names of suspected witches, it doesn’t explain how people could get around that blacklist by paying cash or by using someone else’s bank card to buy tickets. Does that mean that people in this society have to show a photo ID every time they go to the movies and there’s a master list of blacklisted people that all movie theaters have? It’s never fully explained and it’s just a poorly conceived scene overall.

And in another illogical scene, Claire and Fiona sneak out and go to a bar that serves alcohol, even though there’s no explanation in the movie for why these obviously underage girls were allowed in the bar. And why would Fiona agree to this if she’s supposed to be in hiding? In this bar scene, Claire is surprised to discover that Fiona has never seen the movie “Thelma & Louise,” starring Geena Davis and Susan Sarandon as two best friends who go on the run from the law after one of them kills a man who attempted to rape the other friend.

This is the scene in “Witch Hunt” where Claire blabs the whole plot of “Thelma & Louise,” including the surprise ending. (Viewers of “Witch Hunt” will find out later why Claire gave away all this spoiler information.) But what’s really ridiculous about this scene is that Fiona decides to do some attention-grabbing magic tricks in the bar, such as levitating liquid in a glass. Why go to a bar to do these tricks when they could’ve done all of that in a private location?

And then, the witchcraft is taken up several notches. Fiona suspends time and gets several bar stools to levitate up to the ceiling. Fiona then allows the bar stools to suddenly drop, just as she lets time to start again, while the bar patrons react in shock as they see the chairs fall from the ceiling to the ground. (These tricks are shown in the “Witch Hunt” trailer.) Claire and Fiona quickly run out of the bar, as if they just played a prank.

Of course, as gimmicky as these witch tricks are in the movie, it actually makes no sense for a witch who’s supposed to be in hiding to pull these kinds of stunts in front of people in a public place. Fiona might be a stranger to people in the bar, but Claire is more recognizable in the community. It doesn’t take long for word to spread that Claire is hanging out with a witch. And you know what that means when Detective Hawthorne finds out.

“Witch Hunt” has some scenes that are supposed to be spooky but just come across as a little bit amateurish, considering all the high-quality scares that are in plenty of other horror movies. Coincidence or not, Adlon was also in 2020’s “The Craft: Legacy,” another not-very-scary witch movie that had problems with its screenplay and direction. As the main character in “Witch Hunt,” Adlon’s acting is perfectly adequate, but Claire’s personality isn’t very memorable.

There are long stretches of “Witch Hunt” that are boring, while the last 15 minutes are rushed to cram in the climactic showdown and a last-minute explanation for something that was obvious throughout the film. And one of the worst things about “Witch Hunt” is when Martha makes a decision toward the end that’s completely contradictory to her purpose in the movie. Children might enjoy this movie more than adults who want a compelling and believable story. Ultimately, “Witch Hunt” panders to people who don’t have enough life experience to notice the big plot holes in the film.

UPDATE: Momentum Pictures will release “Witch Hunt” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on October 1, 2021.

Review: ‘The Swerve,’ starring Azure Skye

September 25, 2020

by Carla Hay

Azure Skye in “The Swerve” (Photo courtesy of Epic Pictures)

“The Swerve”

Directed by Dean Kapsalis

Culture Representation: Taking place in an unnamed Virginia city, the dramatic film “The Swerve” has a nearly all-white cast (with a few African Americans) representing the middle-class.

Culture Clash: A woman with mental-health issues begins having problems at home, which affect other aspects of her life.

Culture Audience: “The Swerve” will appeal to people who don’t mind seeing dark depictions of someone having a mental breakdown.

Bryce Pinkham and Azure Skye in “The Swerve” (Photo courtesy of Epic Pictures)

The dark psychological portrait “The Swerve” is one in a long list of movies about mentally ill women who are a danger to themselves and to other people. However, the harrowing performance of lead actress Azure Skye, as well as the haunting musical score by Mark Korven, make this movie a cut above most of these types of trauma films. Viewers should be warned that “The Swerve” is unrelentingly depressing, so anyone in the mood to see a movie with an upbeat tone or some sense of humor should avoid “The Swerve” altogether.

“The Swerve” (the feature-film debut of writer/director Dean Kapsalis) isn’t particularly well-written, so it won’t be considered a classic film. Skye’s memorable portrayal of a desperately unhappy wife and mother is what holds this film together, because the movie’s pace tends to drag for too long, and the story leaves many questions unanswered. If people want to go down the messy rabbit hole of the mind of someone having a nervous breakdown, then “The Swerve” immerses people in that experience.

In the beginning of the movie, which takes place in an unnamed Virginia city (“The Swerve” was actually filmed in Roanoke), Skye’s character Holly appears to be a typical middle-class wife and mother. She’s an English literature teacher at a local high school. Her husband Rob (played by Bryce Pinkham), who is a manager at a local supermarket, appears to be a loving and devoted spouse. Holly and Rob have two sons: athletic Ben (played by Taen Phillips), who’s about 16 years old, and chubby Lee (played by Liam Seib), who’s about 13 years old.

To the outside world, the family doesn’t seem to have any major problems. Ben and Lee have typical sibling squabbles. Holly and Rob are having financial issues, but nothing that would leave them broke and homeless. Their financial situation is mentioned during a morning when everyone is getting ready to go to work or school, and Holly sees a small mouse in the kitchen. The mouse freaks her out to the point where she tells Rob that she’s going to call an exterminator.

Rob questions Holly for making that decision to pay for an exterminator, because he says that she doesn’t have much cash left and “we’re barely holding things together.” Holly and Rob are hopeful that he will get a job promotion, but until that happens, they’re struggling financially. Holly ends up getting a mouse trap to deal with the mouse problem. And when the mouse trap doesn’t work, she leaves out food that’s been laced with rodent poison.

Shortly after laying out the mousetrap in the kitchen, Holly is in her bedroom, reaching for a shoe underneath her bed, when she seems to get bitten by an unknown creature, which Holly is convinced is the mouse. Holly’s finger is bleeding, so she goes to a hospital to get medical treatment, which ends up being just a small bandage. Holly has told the medical professionals who are treating her wound that she’s been bitten by a mouse, but when she asks if she should get a rabies shot, she’s told it won’t be necessary. It’s the first of many signs that Holly’s perspective is “unreliable.”

Seeing the mouse seems to have triggered something in Holly, because she starts having nightmares about the mouse. She wakes up to find the mouse in her bedroom at various times. And she has other nightmares about a hit-and-run incident that might or might not have happened, which is the reason why this movie is called “The Swerve.”

In what appears to be flashback memories, Holly is seen driving alone at night on a deserted road where there’s only one lane going in each direction. A car behind her appears to be tailgating her. Holly becomes increasingly frustrated and starts saying aloud that the driver of the other car needs to go around her.

The car ends up passing her, and when it does, she sees a guy in his late teens or early 20s leaning out of the front passenger window, and he calls her a derogatory, sexist name. The next thing you know, an enraged Holly swerves into the other car. What happens after that is not shown on screen.

Later, Holly is shown going back to the scene where this apparent road rage incident happened. There are memorial flowers at the side of the road, as if someone had died there. And there’s a noticeable skid mark that leads to this makeshift memorial. When she sees the memorial, she goes back to her car and vomits. (There are other vomiting scenes in the movie which are much more nauseating.)

Did Holly commit a hit-and-run crime? And if she did, was it for the reason that’s shown in her flashback memory? Those questions might be answered in the movie, but there are many troubling signs that Holly, who’s on various medications for depression, isn’t just depressed. She has hallucinations and blackouts too.

Her husband Rob tells her one day that on a previous night, she had come home after being missing for some hours. He found her asleep on the couch with an apparent fever. And when he woke her up, she scratched him so deeply that the bloody scratch marks are still visible on his neck. When he shows her the scratch marks, Holly says she doesn’t remember any of that happening.

There are also two subplots that get weaved into Holly’s tangled web of mental illness. First, Holly has a troubled relationship with her 37-year-old younger sister named Claudia (played by Ashley Bell), who has recently moved back to the area. Claudia is the “black sheep” of the family because she’s a frequently unemployed recovering alcoholic/addict. Claudia is currently living with her and Holly’s mother Beth (played by Deborah Hedwall), who tends to coddle and enable Claudia.

Claudia has a lot of self-loathing because she hasn’t really gotten her life together, but she also has a certain amount of pride that prevents her from accepting other people’s help. During a family dinner at Beth’s house (with Holly, Rob, Beth and Claudia in attendance), Rob tells Claudia that he can help get her a job at the supermarket where he works. Claudia immediately dismisses the idea and says it would be pathetic for her to be bagging groceries at this stage in her life.

At first, the family reunion dinner seems to start out smoothly. Holly has brought an apple pie to the dinner (a recurring plot device in the movie is Holly making apple pie), and when Holly and Claudia see each other, they greet each other warmly and say how much they missed each other. It isn’t said outright, but it’s implied that Holly and Claudia haven’t seen each other in years.

But those family pleasantries eventually fade, as long-simmering resentments start to resurface after that dinner happens. Holly seems to be jealous of the younger, prettier and more outgoing Claudia, who appears to be their mother’s favorite child. Claudia starts drinking and hanging out with Rob, who one night comes home drunk with Claudia.

Holly suspects that Claudia and Rob are getting a little too flirtatious with each other. Holly has the same suspicions about Rob and some of his female co-workers. There’s a scene where Holly sees Rob and a female co-worker kissing romantically in a back room of the supermarket, but they don’t see her. Did this really happen or is it something that Holly hallucinated?

There’s also a hint that the tension-filled family dynamics between Holly and Claudia involves a past tragedy that isn’t fully revealed in the movie. During an argument between Holly and Claudia, Holly mentions something that happened with their grandmother when the sisters were teenagers. It’s something that was apparently so traumatic that the family doesn’t like to talk about it.

However, Holly gives some clues about what could have happened when she shouts at Claudia during the argument: “The night that Nana made that pie, you weren’t even there! You’re the one that didn’t! I didn’t try to humiliate you!”

It’s something that’s thrown in the story to show that there are some dark family secrets, but it’s an example of how the movie brings some things up and then leaves them hanging without further explanation. Perhaps these loose threads to the story are to convey the disjointed way that an increasingly unhinged Holly thinks, but this type of vagueness just muddles the story’s plot and is likely to confuse many viewers.

The second subplot in Holly’s nervous breakdown has to do with an introverted, artistic teenager named Paul (played by Zach Rand), who is a student in Holly’s class and who is also a cashier at the supermarket where Rob works. Paul is 16 or 17 years old. One day, Paul and another student have a scuffle in her classroom because the other student has taken Paul’s sketchbook. Holly breaks up the fight and confiscates the sketchbook.

When Holly goes home to look at Paul’s sketches, she sees that there are some illustrations of naked people engaged in sex acts and a cheerleader attacked by a dragon. There’s also a drawing of man drinking alcohol in a chair, with the sketch titled “Dear Old Dad.” (It’s an obvious sign that Paul’s father is probably an alcoholic.)

And there’s another illustration that catches Holly’s eye: a drawing of her in the classroom. The way that it’s drawn clearly shows that Paul has had a secret crush on her. It’s very easy to see where this is probably going to go, considering that Holly is deeply unhappy in her marriage and she isn’t talking to Rob about any inner turmoil that she’s having.

Throughout “The Swerve,” the cello-heavy music of Korven is an ominous foreshadowing that things aren’t going to go well for many people in this story. The music is a coincidentally a little reminiscent of Hildur Guðnadottir’s Oscar-winning musical score for the 2019 film “Joker,” but the score is laid on much thicker in “The Swerve”—almost to the point where some people might consider the music too distracting. There’s no denying that the music is chilling and goes a long way in conveying all the misery that’s in this movie.

In fact, there’s no one in this movie who can be considered a happy person—not even Holly and Rob’s two young sons, who are constantly fighting with each other. Anyone who sees “The Swerve” should be prepared to see a lot of scenes of Holly moping around in various states of dishevelment. Unfortunately, these scenes tend to be repetitive and don’t do much to give further insight into her personality or answer many questions that the film ends up leaving unanswered.

For example, it’s never really made clear how long Holly has been suffering from this mental illness and if it’s something that Rob knew about before he married her. Holly and Rob’s marriage is used as a plot device for the most disturbing things that happen in the movie, so a little more context about their marriage would help. The only thing that’s clear is that Holly has had “episodes” related to her mental illness before, and Rob has been extraordinarily patient with her.

As for that hit-and-run crime that Holly is keeping a secret, the movie shows whether or not she confesses to the crime and if she gets punished for it. “The Swerve” isn’t really a crime thriller as much as it is a gloomy psychological drama that shows the horrors of mental illness. The real swerve in this movie is the main character’s swerve into insanity that results in a different type of wreckage.

Epic Pictures released “The Swerve” on digital and VOD on September 22, 2020.

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