Director: Anna Biller
Cast: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddell, Jared Sanford
Running time: 120 minutes
Visually terrific – much like the film’s protagonist – the lavishly bright cosmetics of The Love Witch gloss over a much darker and meaningful gender examination in Anna Biller’s stylish, funny, and thoroughly enjoyable horror-com.
After moving from San Francisco to a small Northern California town, Elaine (Robinson), a practicing witch, uses potions and rituals in her search for an idealised love, but as the bodies pile up, her attention turns to chiselled cop Griff (Keys), who is investigating the deaths.
Do you ever sit there watching a modern horror flick and think: ‘God, they don’t make ‘em like they used to!’
Well, fear not trusted horror aficionados, because with The Love Witch, Biller – doing everything but star (direction, screenplay, music, set, costume design, you name it) – brings the camp, sexy horror of old to a contemporary setting (although it’s often easy to forget). This time, however, under the guise of homage, Biller treats us to a neat feminist turning of the traditional black and white gender tables in this glorious extravaganza of technicolour.
From the opening frames of a young, glamourous woman at the wheel of a car – roof down, spouting interior monologue about the simplicity of men’s needs, rear projected background a la Hitchcock’s The Birds – we know this is a film where woman is firmly in the driving seat. There is only one ‘bird’ to fear here, and that’s Robinson’s titular character, Elaine. But there is as much to admire about Biller’s protagonist as there is to be apprehensive of. As the ultimate femme fatale, Elaine combines independence and an unfaltering honesty and drive to get exactly what she wants with a no qualms approach to devoting her life to men, yet whose power of overwhelming sexuality gives her an increasing upper-hand over her numerous male acquaintances. Crucially then, it quickly becomes apparent that the men in the film are the ones trapped, be it emotionally, psychologically and even physically – often locked within the confinements of camera framing: in a bed, bathtub, picture frame or mirror. They become clingy, obsessed and static, while Elaine dances freely between spaces, places and people.
Such character behaviours exhibited in the aftermath of a sexual encounter often mean that the film runs the risk of conforming to, and accepting, the very things The Love Witch looks to challenge; but Biller does a masterful job of not allowing her film to get tied down too heavily in the politics of it all, instead focussing attentions on giving her work a real visual richness and personality.
Speckled across The Love Witch’s vast technicolour canvas are also moments of total deadpan humour and drily comedic ridiculousness. The latter perhaps never more evident than in the numerous ritual scenes and coven gatherings involving Sanford’s slimy beacon of all things occult, Gahan. But while these are made to look purposefully cheap and makeshift, such episodes often feel needlessly drawn out and only add to the film’s languid pace. It’s certainly not a criticism to say that The Love Witch won’t be for everyone; fans of something with a bit more bite might struggle to get on board, yet it’s the film’s very particular identity that truly separates it from anything we’ve seen in a long time.
The Love Witch’s broad strokes of colour are those also of genius. Often peachy, but never preachy, Biller’s film is a dazzlingly enjoyable cacophony of colour, camp and cult classic. It was pure coincidence that this reviewer saw The Love Witch on a Thursday, but given the elaborate retro-fitted aesthetic, tongue-in-cheek cheesy dialogue and deliberately presentational acting style, the film is perhaps the perfect TBT to the sultry Hammer horrors of the 60’s – timehopping at its finest, certainly.