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“THE LOVE WITCH” (Film Review)

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Horror homages are nothing new in 2016. So many of the greatest genre offerings in the past few years have been throwbacks to past decades, usually the ’70s or the ’80s. It’s an interesting reaction to the “horror is dead” statement that keeps trying to validate itself – filmmakers are returning to their roots, the eras during which so many horror icons were produced. Few of these films go beyond homage, though, to comment on the eras that they are meant to inhabit. THE LOVE WITCH is one such film.

Anna Biller’s sophomore feature, like her debut VIVA, reflects the style of ’60s and ’70s cinema – in this case, mainly Hammer-style melodramas and later Hitchcock films. She achieves this homage with an incredible attention to detail – everything from the film grain and the harsh lighting to the vivid production design and celestial soundtrack fits the era impossibly well. Had I been told I was watching a relic from the ’60s, I wouldn’t have questioned it. (Aside from a few important moments that I can’t reveal here).

This world exists around the titular witch, Elaine, who joins a Wiccan cult and uses her practices for one thing: seducing men. Hence, her name. But Elaine runs into some trouble when her love spells backfire. Soon, the locals become wary and a handsome police officer begins following her trail. Will Elaine finally find love, or will she fall victim to her own desires?

The plot, like the film’s aesthetic and atmosphere, could easy have come across as simple exploitation. Its occult elements and sexually frank characters provide plenty of excuses for trippy visuals and sensual encounters. Elaine speaks at times like a dating how-to guide. But Biller has made it clear that her film is not an exercise in camp, much less a parody of it. Modern filmgoers aren’t accustomed to this theatrical style of acting, or the intensity of the visuals – movies are supposed to be more ‘natural’ now. As the plot and themes develop, the performances deepen and the characters grow into something far more complex than could ever be found in exploitation cinema. Biller has used elements of the genre to create a deconstruction of the male gaze, and the deep damage it causes.

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Had this film been directed by a man, I doubt these questions would have been asked. That is why Biller’s scrutinizing voice is essential to the film’s success. Early on, as Elaine explains what men want in a woman (a maternal figure who satisfies sexually, more or less), her friend shuts her down – how can she say such demeaning things? Of course, at first, Elaine seems an expert in seduction. Until people start ending up dead.

Marketing and reviews made the film sound like a campy comedy about a seductive witch; while there are certainly comedic moments, and lots of seduction, the ultimate emotion is not one of hilarity or sexiness. This is one of the year’s darker films, even more so for its bright colors. The ending left me feeling shocked and amazed at the turn of events.

This is where Biller’s genius shows through. She refuses to perpetuate the sexualization of her predecessors – she creates a film that is deeply sensual and attractive, but also makes us ponder our interest in the content. Elaine’s story is about far more than sex. Biller brings her film into the horror genre due to the results of her sexploitation dissection. Biller shows that the male gaze creates a monstrous double standard, and from that monster comes tragedy.

Apart from being an exquisite exercise in visual cinema, Anna Biller’s THE LOVE WITCH is a rich and upsetting commentary. It exists in two eras, eventually bringing them together until the lines blur – have things really changed? For cinephiles and social psychologists alike, this is a hefty, essential film. It will take you under its spell, and won’t let you leave without a little bloodletting.

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About the author
Ben Larned
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