Stars: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddell, Jared Sanford | Written and Directed by Anna Biller
If Viva was Anna Biller’s ode to 1970s sexploitation films, The Love Witch is the auteur’s loving – and really quite lovely – homage to the 1960s horror heyday of Hammer Films and Roger Corman. Funny, seductive, and in the end oddly moving, it may be the best indie horror movie since… well, since another indie horror movie with the words “The” and “Witch” in the title. And it couldn’t be more different.
Samantha Robinson plays Elaine, a recently-widowed witch who moves to California, into a grand old house owned by her fellow mystic, Barbara (Jennifer Ingram). There she meets Trish (Laura Waddell), an interior decorator. The ladies chat about men, and it quickly becomes clear that their views sharply diverge on the role of women, and what the love of a man means. Elaine begins seducing the men of the town. She plies them with a love potion, leaving them to fall into a catastrophic post-coital comedown. The whimpering love they feel is literally killing them. Meanwhile, a handsome police officer named Griff (Gian Keys) is investigating the disappearance of the men. Inevitably, he will come face to face with Elaine. But will he be able to resist her charms? And will he be able to enter the witches’ coven and return alive?
What will strike you first about The Love Witch is the utterly authentic 1960s aesthetic. (Even more impressively, it isn’t even set in the period: watch closely for modern cars and mobile phones.) We find ourselves studying each scene for how they did it and ultimately we conclude that it’s through precision, skill, and attention to detail in all areas. The bold primary colours adorning the costumes and sets; the blinding, multi-source studio lighting; the narrated inner monologues; and the employment of stagey medium shots, with the occasional crash zoom for effect.
What could have been unbearably kitsch somehow isn’t. Just as a film like Space Station ’76 resurrected the look and sound and tone of its inspirations with genuine affection, The Love Witch never mocks its sources. Instead it expertly pastiches a former generation of filmmakers, and throws into the mix themes relevant to modern audiences.
Elaine, embodying some of the nu-feminism of the YouTube makeup tutorial generation, is unashamedly proud of her allure; her sculptured model look. Even Trish, a somewhat dowdy and obedient wife up to that point, is seduced by Elaine’s cosmic, cosmetic narcissism. Questions about the purpose of beauty arise: For whom does Elaine look beautiful? Is it for the men she seduces? Or the women she impresses, whom she plunges into jealousy? If it is for herself, why can’t she stand to be alone?
It is immediately apparent that this is not a simple fable about a lonely woman searching for true love. Elaine relays the story of her ex as if he chose to leave her. But visually we see a different truth: he was poisoned by her love potion. So, straight away Elaine is an unreliable narrator. The deliberate melodrama in the delivery of dialogue throughout adds to the sense of insincerity.
Elaine can be sincere with no one. Her coven demands that female sexuality be made public and free, while Elaine is a woman of private (and costly) passion. She cannot be honest with Trish, whose husband she intends to seduce. Indeed, she cannot be honest with any of her men, because by the time the game of flirtation is over they are dead. This is the tragedy of The Love Witch: Elaine is a proud and assertive woman who cannot be herself with anyone. Even us.
Smartly, Biller does not depict Elaine’s male victims as basic dumb animals, thinking solely with their members. Nor does she depict them as pure victims. Rather, they are the unwitting beneficiaries of a system of patriarchy concealed behind the veil of female empowerment. I have to work for your body, they would say, so therefore I have earned it. Elaine’s impossible conflict is that she believes in giving a man everything he desires, but she is resistant to the idea of being possessed by a man. When Griff calls her “my girl”, she questions by whose authority.
The witches’ leader is a man. Gahan (Jared Sanford) is a twisted would-be feminist who believes in empowering women by encouraging them to embrace (by which he means display) their physical beauty. By arresting the male gaze, he asserts, the scantily clad female is at the peak of her power. Where free love and feminism meet, men corrupt it.
Alongside the technical mastery, casting is key. Robinson achieves a perfect balance between doe-eyed naivety and ferocious, sultry menace. Keys, with his ageless face of a man anywhere between 30 and 50, looks like he’s been transported in from a Hitchcock B-cast or mid-century noir. Likewise Sanford, all camp charisma and unmanageable hair, is from another time. The one weak link in the cast is Waddell, who I feel doesn’t quite nail the arch tone of the rest of the players.
Perhaps two hours is at odds with the precision and tautness of the rest of the production. And one mob justice scene is a little clumsy and on-the-nose. But otherwise The Love Witch takes few stumbling steps, all the way up to an ending which is ambiguous in the very best way, reframing what we’ve seen without cheating us or pulling the rug.
It’s a dazzling production: a simple serial killer story containing fathomless gender studies complexity. This is a must-buy-now for genre fans with a penchant for the gaudiness and psychosexual boldness of movies from the era that inspired it, and a must-watch for anyone who fears that modern horror is too busy exploring new ways to shock than finding new themes to explore.
The Love Witch is out on Blu-ray now – in the US – from Oscilloscope Laboratories. The film is also available on DVD and Blu-ray in the UK from Icon.