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: ‘Brothers by Blood,’ starring Matthias Schoenaerts, Joel Kinnaman, Maika Monroe, Paul Schneider and Ryan Phillippe

January 31, 2021

by Carla Hay

Matthias Schoenaerts and Joel Kinnaman in “Brothers by Blood” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Brothers by Blood”

Directed by Jérémie Guez

Culture Representation: Taking place in Philadelphia, the crime drama “Brothers by Blood” features an almost all-white cast (with a few Latinos) representing the working-class, the middle-class and the criminal underground.

Culture Clash: Two cousins who work for the Irish mobsters in Philadelphia have their loyalties tested due to family secrets and involvement with Italian mobsters.

Culture Audience: “Brothers by Blood” will appeal primarily to people who don’t mind watching generic and tedious movies about “thug life.”

Ryan Phillippe and Felix Scott in “Brothers by Blood” (Photo courtesy of Vertical Entertainment)

“Brothers by Blood” makes a half-hearted attempt to be a compelling crime drama, but the movie still ends up being formulaic and forgettable. It’s one of those mobster movies where two family members have an up-and-down relationship that propels much of what happens in the story. The problem is that all of the characters in the movie are derivative of other characters in much-better mafia films. “Brothers by Blood” is essentially a cheap wannabe Martin Scorsese gangster film.

Written and directed by Jérémie Guez, “Brothers in Blood” is based on Peter Dexter’s novel “Brotherly Love.” The original title of the movie was “The Sound of Philadelphia” (the city where the movie is based), and it’s easy to see why the title was changed, because “The Sound of Philadelphia” could mislead people into thinking it’s a music-oriented movie. Philadelphia is nicknamed the City of Brotherly Love, but the only love in this movie is tainted by brutal crimes and paranoia about betrayal.

The two main characters in “Brothers in Blood” are cousins Peter (played by Matthias Schoenaerts) and Michael (played by Joel Kinnaman), who own a small construction business that’s really a money-laundering front for the illegal work that the cousins do for the Irish mafia in Philadelphia. Peter is the introverted, level-headed cousin, while Michael is the extroverted, hot-headed cousin. Crime dramas often have a cliché of opposite personalities who have to work together and often clash with each other. “Blood Brothers” leans into this cliché hard enough to the point of over-reliance and stifling any depth for other parts of the story.

It’s very easy to see where this movie is going to go, once it’s established that Michael has a tendency to make impulsive and dumb decisions. About 70% of “Brothers by Blood” is a monotonous plot repetition of Michael doing idiotic things, while Peter tries to smooth things over and clean up Michael’s mess. Most of the movie takes place in 2016, but there are several flashbacks to Peter’s and Michael’s childhood, shown from Peter’s perspective.

Michael is impulsive and erratic, but Peter isn’t exactly mentally stable either. The opening scene shows that Peter has suicidal tendencies. In this nighttime scene, Michael and Peter are on the rooftop of one of their construction sites and listening to a friend drone on about a proctology exam that he recently had. (Yes, it’s that kind of movie.)

Peter steps onto the edge of the roof and suddenly jumps. Michael and the friend race to the street and see that Peter has landed in a very large pile of garbage and hasn’t been physically hurt. While their buddy is freaking out, Peter offers no explanation for why he jumped, while Michael says nonchalantly about Peter’s disturbing jump: “He does that all the time.”

It’s shown early in the movie that Michael and Peter have shady dealings with a local councilman named Taylor (played by Tim Ahern), who tells the cousins that he’s under ethical scrutiny for hiring six of his relatives, so he had to cut these family members loose from his employment. Taylor asks Michael and Peter to find jobs for these relatives at Michael and Peter’s construction company, even if these relatives aren’t qualified. During this office meeting with Taylor, a Republican presidential debate is shown on TV, and Michael predicts that Donald Trump is going to win the election.

One night, Peter and Michael end up drinking at a restaurant/bar owned by their friend Jimmy (played by Paul Schneider), who confides in Peter that he borrowed a lot of money from Michael to keep Jimmy’s business afloat. Peter tells Jimmy it’s a mistake to be in debt to Michael, but Jimmy is too drunk at the moment to heed any warnings. It’s later revealed that Michael has his own money problems that will get the cousins into trouble.

While they’re at the bar, Jimmy introduces his younger sister Grace (played by Maika Monroe) to Peter and Michael. She’s recently arrived from out of town, and Jimmy has given her a job as a bartender. Michael immediately flirts with Grace. However, Peter and Grace eye each other in a way that it’s obvious that these two will end up together in some way later in the movie.

“Brothers by Blood” also has poorly written subplots about Peter’s and Michael’s business interests aside from their construction company and thugging around with mobsters. Peter wants to possibly invest in boxing. He goes to a local boxing gym, where his acquaintance Carlos (played by Carlos Schram) is training a promising young boxer named Ryan (played by Tarek Hamite), who is living with Carlos because Ryan’s father is a “crackhead,” according to Carlos.

Michael is more interested in investing in horse racing. He’s bought a horse for $80,000, with the hope that the horse can be trained into becoming a champion. But something happens with Michael’s horse-racing investment, and how he handles it shows how much he’s an out-of-control loose cannon. In another scene in the movie, Michael can’t stand the thought of Peter being successful at anything without him, so Michael makes their hanger-on friend Leonard, nicknamed Lenny (played by James Nelson-Joyce) box Ryan in the ring. Lenny quickly and soundly gets beaten by Ryan, and that defeat aggravates Michael, who holds grudges.

Because of some debts and double-crossing, Michael has managed to anger the Italian mafia in Philadelphia. And so, a goon named Bono (played by Antoni Corone) from the Italian mafia has a threatening meeting with Peter and warns him that the Italian mafia will come after the cousins unless Peter kills Michael. Peter tells Bono that he won’t kill Michael. The rest of the story is about how much danger these two cousins get themselves into, as Michael continues with his screw-ups and some people inevitably get hurt or killed.

“Brothers by Blood” has frequent flashbacks to Peter’s childhood. It’s revealed that his seemingly happy life went on a downward spiral when he was 8 years old (Nicholas Crovetti portrays Peter as a boy) and witnessed his younger sister (played by Grace Bilik) accidentally get killed when she ran out into the street and was hit by a car. The car’s driver was a cop named Victor Kopec (played by Michael McFadden), who lives nearby. And Peter’s ill-tempered father Charley (played by Ryan Philippe) vows revenge.

Peter’s life gets even worse when his grieving mother has a nervous breakdown and she’s put in a psychiatric hospital, which is talked about but not shown in the movie. Peter’s father Charley is obsessed with getting revenge on Victor. Michael’s father Phil (played by Felix Scott), who is Charley’s brother, vehemently disagrees with Charley’s plan to murder Victor, because Charley and Phil are already involved with the Irish mafia. If Charley becomes a cop killer, it could cause problems for the brothers, not only with the police but also with the mafia.

Like a lot of derivative mobster flicks, “Brothers by Blood” limits the female characters in very sexist and shallow ways. Grace is the only female character with a significant speaking role in the film, and she’s really just there to be a potential love interest for Peter. Writer/director Guez has such little regard for Peter’s sister (whose death is the catalyst for a lot of the family drama) that he didn’t even give her a name in the story. In the end credits, she’s only labeled “Little Girl.” And Peter’s mother is reduced to being a nameless, background character who’s briefly shown sobbing over the death of her daughter.

Despite solid performances from Schoenaerts and Phillippe, “Brothers by Blood” could be called “Brothers by Boredom,” since this so-called gangster film has a lot of dull talk and not much action. Too much of the movie is about Michael being a swaggering fool and pulling guns on people, while Peter just stands around looking embarrassed and occasionally steps in to stop Michael from making things worse. We get it. These cousins are dysfunctionally co-dependent.

Peter’s childhood flashbacks are more interesting than the storyline with the adult Peter and adult Michael, because the flashbacks give some insight into how and why Michael and Peter ended up being so close. Their family experienced more tragedy besides the death of Peter’s sister. But this backstory isn’t enough to save “Brothers by Blood” from being a hollow and drab movie with a completely predictable ending.

Vertical Entertainment released “Brothers by Blood” in select U.S. cinemas, on digital and VOD on January 22, 2021.