2016 is the year of the witch. Sure, the history books will likely characterize 2016 as a real king bummer of a year, a year seasoned with celebrity deaths, police shootings, global human rights crises, a declining franchise movie culture, and our stupid presidential election cycle, but it’s also a year where genre cinema peered intently into a cauldron of mystical feminine power. It began in February with Robert Eggers’ The Witch, continued with the May premiere of Eiichi Yamamoto’s Belladonna of Sadness, went on into September with Blair Witch, and has now reached its conclusion with Anna Biller’s The Love Witch, a cult movie to be that’s best described as a timely throwback.
If you watch The Love Witch with no knowledge of its production or point of origin, you might assume it’s a lost gem of 1960s or 1970s filmmaking that’s only recently been recovered, restored and released to the public for niche consumption. This isn’t the case, of course, but nobody would fault your logic. Biller’s style is set in the bygone days of B-movie camp, though unlike similar faux-retro productions, á la 2012’s disingenuously nostalgic The Ghastly Love of Johnny X, there’s unabashed joy to her mimicry that reminds us how much fun the flicks The Love Witch emulates can be in spite of, or maybe because of, their badness. The film’s cheese factor is its single most obvious element next to Biller’s enthusiasm for kitsch and her emphasis on superb production design.
She doesn’t sucker us with the tropes and clichés of trashy genre movies so much as she seduces us with them: Anachronisms so blatant they can only be intentional, hammy dialogue married to hammier acting, magnificently liberal nudity, rear projection, hard lighting. There’s romantic, incongruous glamor to these details that we can’t help falling in love with, which is appropriate for the film’s subject matter. The Love Witch is about, well, a love witch named Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful young woman on a mission to find a man who’s man enough to love her. She doesn’t rely on her looks or charms alone, though she certainly could. Instead, she cooks up potions and slings spells, leaning on witchcraft to make guys go ga-ga for her.
Elaine succeeds, but she succeeds too well, turning her would-be lovers into blubbering children who can’t live without her. (In her own words: “What a pussy.”) They also tend to end up dead. Eventually, Elaine’s wanton witching catches up with her, but at just shy of two hours long and in no hurry to get anywhere, the viewer has a while to wait before anything of consequence happens. In fairness the film is a smooth ride: Biller does damn near everything but shoot the movie herself, leaving that task to cinematographer David Mullen, and she fills each gorgeously composed frame with loads of eye candy, (and not just the fleshy kind). The Love Witch is a tactile movie. You feel like you can reach into an image, any image, and interact with the props and parts that make up the whole.
Don’t touch Elaine, though. She’ll mess you up and leave you ill with want. It isn’t that she’s a monster or a man-eater, per se, but she’s reckless in her pursuit of love, tempting men into her arms and ultimately to their doom. (The poor saps don’t die by her hand, but they die nonetheless.) Weirdly, Elaine’s fatal attractions give a surface validation to antiquated fears of female sexuality, and what does it say about Elaine that she unwittingly feeds those fears by leaving a trail of love-ravaged corpses in her wake? Are her temptations feminist in nature, or willful rejections of feminist theory?
Biller answers these questions carefully as The Love Witch strolls along, but it comes as no surprise that Elaine embodies feminine ideals sourced from men: She’s a living fantasy and a fantasy enabler, but it’s the fantasy of her guru, Gahan (Jared Sanford), and her ex-husband, Jerry (Stephen Wozniak). When Elaine makes her grand declaration of her womanhood and her purpose to Griff (Gian Keys), the hard-jawed detective who finds himself smitten by her after he begins investigating her, ten minutes before the movie ends, The Love Witch suddenly becomes a soft revenge movie, a movie about a woman scorned who finds agency through the very fantasies she’s been programmed to facilitate. It’s enough to make you wish that declaration had come a hundred minutes sooner in a movie that’s thirty minutes shorter, but if The Love Witch overstays its welcome, it at least has the courtesy to be ravishing to behold.
Director: Anna Biller
Writer: Anna Biller
Starring: Samantha Robinson, Laura Waddell, Gian Keys, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Jared Sanford, Robert Seeley, Jennifer Ingrum
Release Date: November 11, 2016
Boston-based critic Andy Crump has been writing about film online since 2009, and has been contributing to Paste Magazine since 2013. He writes additional words for Movie Mezzanine, The Playlist, and Birth. Movies. Death., and is a member of the Online Film Critics Society and the Boston Online Film Critics Association. You can follow him on Twitter and find his collected writing at his personal blog. He is composed of roughly 65% craft beer.