The Love Witch

US (2016) Dir. Anna Biller

Those fingers in my hair

That sly come-hither stare

That strips my conscience bare

It’s witchcraft

Sorry, folks, love doesn’t exist, it is the dark arts that has us falling into the clutches of the women in our lives (or whichever way you swing). Anna Biller uses this deliciously whimsical premise to explore the sexual politics of winning someone’s heart in this aesthetically meticulous homage to 60’s and 70’s Sexploitation horror films.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a beautiful widow recently arrived in California to make a new start after the death of her husband. Confiding in interior decorator Trish (Laura Waddell) a mutual friend of the house owner, Elaine reveals that she is actually a recently converted witch desperate to find true love. After becoming jealous of Trish’s happy marriage to Richard (Robert Seeley), Elaine concocts a love potion that she hopes will make any man fall for her.

Her first conquest is Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a lecturer who falls for her instantly, but her potions begin to have an adverse effect on Wayne and he dies. Believing Wayne to be a typical male unable to control his emotions, Elaine buries the body then returns home. Shortly after the police find Wayne’s body and hunky detective Griff Edwards (Gian Keys) sets his sights on Elaine.

The hardest part about discussing The Love Witch is trying not to spend the whole review gushing over the stunning presentation in which Biller and cameraman M David Mullen have done a stunning job of accurately recreating the visual style of the 70’s. This isn’t limited to the credit graphics, costumes and sets (all Biller’s work) or even the luscious colour palette, they’ve faithfully replicated the subtle touches of the lighting and exposure of the period too.

Amazingly this was all achieved without any digital interference whatsoever – a lengthy task no doubt but one that pays dividends – whilst it was shot on 35mm film to complete the authenticity of the experience. In keeping with the ethos of the devil being in the detail, Biller’s script even observes the 70’s habit of character names being repeated unnecessarily and the hammy acting style, again all faithfully reflected here.

Perhaps most interesting though is the ambiguity of the period setting. Everyone wears 70’s clothing, sports hairstyles from the era, modern technology is mostly absent, and the decor is equally retro as are the vehicles and buildings. Yet Trish drives a modern car and late in the film, takes out a mobile phone!   

In case the message hasn’t been made clear this is a comedy, but the humour isn’t so much found in jokes, rather in the deferential nods to the film genre Biller is paying homage. The iffy acting and occasionally cheesy dialogue is totally deliberate but won’t mean anything unless you understand the reference points Biller is working from. Similar to the giallo tribute Amer, it helps to be in on the joke already.

But The Love Witch can still be enjoyed at face value provided you can appreciate the intentional campiness of it. The aforementioned visuals draw you in almost immediately, not in the least due to the immensely photogenic Elaine with her gaudy yet alluring make-up embarking on her Hitchcock-esque rear screen projection car journey. Elaine doesn’t reveal her occult side immediately but already we are suspicious about her husband’s sudden death.

Alongside her erotic art which seem to predict her romantic future, Elaine’s love potions and spells in her homemade laboratory use all sorts of unpleasant ingredients. After Wayne dies from becoming overwhelmed by his need for Elaine, which she finds a turn off, she buries him alongside a concoction of a used tampon pickled in her own urine!    

Luckily her next victim, Richard, is lured into Elaine’s boudoir with less offensive alchemy but the ending is just as tragic, more so for Trish when her marriage becomes loveless after Elaine proves too much woman for Richard. That just leaves Griff who might just be the one but as Elaine discovers, fate is not fussy in who it chooses to blight.

Biller’s story couldn’t be more straightforward but it is the subtext that is confusing. As a feminist writer, she seems to be playing into the hands of those who enjoy the titillation of a sexual upfront woman being exploited and there is plenty of that, both in Elaine’s seduction techniques and in the louche Hammer Horror inspired occult scenes at the witches’ coven meetings.

For all of Elaine’s talk of letting men have their fantasies and women being duty bound to fulfil them, Elaine is in fact a strong feminist character who really doesn’t need a man, just sex, with her ideals of love being confused through her insatiable narcissism. It’s not about the men at all, it’s about her and the hypocrisy of her being upfront about her sexuality and desires. That’s my take anyway, feel free to disagree.

Usually when a film has a female every man is supposed to find irresistible the casting has someone who is undesirable to yours truly; in this case Biller got it absolutely right. Samantha Robinson is the most ravishing being I have set eyes in a long while and even if it is the make-up, lighting or the wigs, she is utterly bewitching (pardon the pun).

Her sparkling eyes, gorgeous smile and inner confidence makes Elaine an unforgettable character and Robinson is pitch perfect in capturing the nuances of the 70’s horror acting, staying on the right side of hammy but knowing when to let loose with the pastiche. Credit also to English actress Laura Waddell as mousy Trish, and Gian Keys whose detective Griff could easily have been lifted straight from a 60’s police drama.

The only thing against The Love Witch is the two-hour run time, incurring a palpable drag in the third act, and the flat ending, otherwise this captivating, affectionate cinematic reverence is an artistic delight.

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