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

March 23, 2021

by Carla Hay

A scene from “Witch Hunt” (Photo courtesy of Global Screen/Fearious)

“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.

Gideon Adlon and Abigail Cowen in “Witch Hunt” (Photo courtesy of Global Screen/Fearious)

“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 forgiven a lot easier 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, 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, she’s 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 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.

Review: ‘What We Found,’ starring Jordan Hall, Oona Laurence, James Ransone, Brandon Larracuente, Julian Shatkin, Giorgia Whigham and Elizabeth Mitchell

August 5, 2020

by Carla Hay

Julian Shatkin, Jordan Hall and Oona Laurence in “What We Found” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

“What We Found” 

Directed by Ben Hickernell

Culture Representation: Taking place in Baltimore, the crime drama “What We Found” features a racially diverse cast (white and African American with a few Latinos and Asians) representing the upper-class, middle-class and criminal underground.

Culture Clash:  After being harassed by a school bully, a nerdy teen enlists his two best friends to investigate the disappearance of one his female schoolmates who was romantically involved with the bully.

Culture Audience: “What We Found” will appeal primarily to people who like teen-oriented dramas that have formulaic tendencies.

Elizabeth Mitchell and James Ransone in “What We Found” (Photo courtesy of Freestyle Digital Media)

You know those young-adult mystery novels that have teenage sleuths who are better at solving crimes than the local police? The type of books that try to be classics like “Nancy Drew” and “The Hardy Boys” series, but end up being very forgettable? “What We Found” is the movie equivalent of those substandard novels. It’s a solidly acted drama, but the action-filled showdown at the end of the film stretches so much credibility that it ends up turning the film into a predictable and unimaginative dud.

Written and directed by Ben Hickernell, “What We Found” (which takes place in Baltimore) tells the tale of two worlds that collide: The relatively safe world of a middle-class public high school and the dangerous world of drug dealing. The story’s main protagonist is a smart science-and-tech whiz named Marcus Jackson (played by Jordan Hall), who has just started his freshman year at Goldspring High School.

Marcus has led somewhat of a sheltered existence with his widowed mother Alex Jackson (played by Yetide Badaki), who is very protective of her only child. Marcus’ two best friends are feisty Holly (played by Oona Laurence) and privileged Grant (played by Julian Shatkin). Holly and Marcus are in the same freshman class at Goldspring High School, which has a reputation for having tougher students than Keatonsville Middle School, where Marcus and Holly previously attended. Grant, who’s about two years older than Marcus and Holly, goes to a private school and drives a Porsche, but he doesn’t let his wealth and older age get in the way of their friendship.

Holly has a very unhappy life at home, because her parents Art (played by Shannon Brown) and Bridget (played Sunny Edelman) are constantly arguing, and Art physically abuses Bridget. Grant’s parents seem to have a happy marriage, and they indulge in some vices. Grant tells Holly and Marcus that his parents have “date nights” where they like to get stoned. On one of those nights, Grant has taken some of his parents’ marijuana for the three friends to sneak off somewhere and smoke.

While the three pals sit around and smoke outside in a deserted hangout area, they look at the stars and Marcus shows some of his fascination with outer space by reeling off some of his trivia about planets. Grant knows that Marcus can be perceived as a scrawny nerd and will be a target for bullies, so Grant asks Marcus if he’s ready to go to Goldspring High School. Marcus says that he can handle the tough crowds at the school.

On Marcus’ first day of school at Goldspring, one of the first people he sees is his former babysitter: an energetic teenager named Cassie (played by Georgia Whigham), who introduces Marcus to her boyfriend Brian Santini (played by Donald Dash), a popular athlete at the school. During a lunch break outside in a school dining area, Marcus and Holly meet two friendly seniors: Karl (played by Paul Castro Jr.) and Ned (played by Anubhav Jain), who tell Marcus and Holly about Hell House, an abandoned dwelling in the woods where some of the local teenagers like to party.

Marcus is eager to impress these upperclassmen, so he shows them a trick where he can hack into nearby phones and install and activate various sound-effects apps without the phone user’s permission. As a prank, Marcus does the trick on a few of the phones of the students nearby. The prank gets some intended laughs, as the phone users show surprise when the apps are loudly activated. One of the apps has the sound effects of a woman having an orgasm, and Marcus randomly activates it on the phone of Clay Howard (played by Brandon Larracuente), who also happens to be the biggest bully in the school.

Clay is angry that someone hacked into his phone. And when he notices that Marcus and his group are laughing a little too hard, Clay immediately goes to their table, singles out Marcus (who has his phone out), and accuses Marcus of hacking his phone. Clay looks like he’s about to start a fight with Marcus until a teacher steps in and diffuses the situation. Marcus is too scared to admit that he did the hacking, but he now knows that he’s made a potential enemy in Clay.

And sure enough, when Marcus and Holly are hanging out later at Hell House with some of the local teen stoners, Clay shows up and intimidates Marcus, until Marcus admits that he hacked into Clay’s phone. This admission enrages Clay, who roughs him up and taunts Marcus with degrading insults, while one of Clay’s cronies video records it all on his phone. And of course, the video is posted on social media, which adds to Marcus’ humiliation.

After this bullying incident, Cassie tells Clay to stop harassing Marcus. Clay abruptly stops trying to pick a fight with Marcus. It’s the first indication that something is going on between Clay and Cassie, whose body language when they’re together suggest that they might be having a secret relationship, even though Cassie is dating Brian.

Later, Cassie warns Marcus when they’re alone together that Clay is a big problem: “Be careful with him,” Cassie tells Marcus. “I found things he was hiding from me. Watch your back.”

It isn’t long before the truth comes out: Cassie has been cheating on Brian with Clay. It leads to Clay and Brian getting into a huge physical fight outside the high school, with several students watching this brawl. Some school officials break up the fight. Clay and Brian then get suspended.

But then something strange happens: Cassie disappears. Her disappearance causes more unease in the area, which has been plagued by a string of recent murders, which the media and the local police suspect are related to the drug-dealing gangs in the area. Two of the cops involved in the missing-persons investigation are Captain Katherine Hilman (played by Elizabeth Mitchell) and Sergeant Steven Mohler (played by James Ransone), who has some resentment toward Captain Hilman because she declined to give him a promotion.

Brian and Clay are both seen as “persons of interest” in Cassie’s disappearance because of the love triangle between the three of them. Marcus takes Cassie’s disappearance personally, and he suspects that Clay is involved in some way. And so, Marcus, Holly and Grant start being teen detectives to find out what happened to Cassie.

“What We Found” has some typical scenes of the teens (especially Marcus) doing some spying as part of their detective work. Marcus also uses his computer skills to help them in their quest. The cast members’ acting is good overall, with Laurence as a standout for her portrayal of Holly’s complicated emotions over her dysfunctional family. On the other hand, Larracuente (as Clay the bully) could use some more acting lessons, since he over-acts in some of the scenes while his scene partners are being more realistic.

Ultimately, “What We Found” suffers from a screenplay that often gets too clunky. The friendship between Marcus, Holly and Grant is one of the best things about the story. Their dialogue is authentic and the situations that happen between them as high-school students are portrayed realistically.

But the movie falls short in other areas, particularly in how it portrays the local cops and criminals. Baltimore is a big city, but the movie makes the local police force look like it’s in a small town. And there’s a big chase scene toward the end of the film that will have people rolling their eyes at how ludicrous some situations play out. For example, the movie has the dumb cliché of a villain pointing a gun at someone in the middle of a high-octane action scene, and then pausing for a monologue instead of shooting the gun.

Because there are too many formulaic ways that this story is told, “What We Found” gives the impression that it’s a forgettable made-for-TV movie instead of a truly cinematic experience. Writer/director Hickernell tries to aim for some gritty social commentary in the movie about crime and corruption, but in the end, those messages are glossed over in a trite manner that will disappoint people who want something more original.

Freestyle Digital Media released “What We Found” on digital and VOD on August 4, 2020.