THE LOVE WITCH (2016)
Directed by Anna Biller
Review by Nick Cato
One of the most talked-about films on the indie/festival circuit this year, Anna Biller’s THE LOVE WITCH, may look like it takes place in the early 1970s, but be assured, it’s set in 2016. I only know this because I had the privilege of seeing the film during its NYC release, and the director did a Q&A session afterwards in which she affirmed this critic-debated issue. One reviewer was under the impression it was set in modern day, but the cast lived in a retro-looking neighborhood! I guess it’s easy for anyone to believe this film takes place in the 70s due to the fact the characters all look and talk like people from the past, and Biller’s 2007 debut feature VIVA took place in 1972 and had a similar look as THE LOVE WITCH.
The film begins with Elaine (played by the beautiful Samantha Robinson) driving in a red Mustang convertible. We hear a voiceover of her saying she’s heading to start her life anew in the wake of her husband’s death and her recent release from psychiatric care. She leaves San Francisco for a small northern California town, where she rents an apartment that’s pre-decorated, to her liking, with all kinds of witchcraft art and paraphernalia (her landlord also happens to be a Wiccan High Priestess). The town is heavily populated by witches who practice occult orgies and congregate at a burlesque night club. Elaine spends most of her time painting pictures of herself killing men, and making love potions in an attempt to replace the true love she shared with her late husband.
The first man to fall for her (due to the potion) is a college professor. But Elaine’s occult cocktail is a bit too intense and ends up causing him to first lose his mind and ultimately, die. But not before they share a psychedelic love-making session that brings films such as THE TRIP (1967) to mind. And being this is an unrated film, several of the ritual scenes feature full frontal nudity (male and female), further giving this feature the feel of an early 70s film (when things were as care-free as could be).
When the professor’s death is reported, two detectives are on the case, which eventually leads them to Elaine. But, one of the cops (the knight-in-shining-armor looking Griff, played by Gian Keys) quickly falls in love with her. Romance ensues.
Although I went into this expecting a retro-horror film, THE LOVE WITCH turned out to be quite funny. While there are plenty of witchcraft rites and sex scenes that bring the golden age of sexploitation cinema to mind, it’s the dialogue here that won the crowd over, with its hilarious (and at times outrageous) discussions on the sexes. Elaine herself is the personification of feminism, and all men are powerless under her beauty, headstrong attitude, and occult powers.
The film’s amazing look (which was shot in 35mm) relies heavily on its colors, specifically its reds, which were a real treat to behold on the big screen. Cinematographer M. David Mullen, along with director/set designer/art director/costume designer Anna Biller, have created a visual feast on par with some classic films of much bigger budgets. A shot of Elaine burying one of her victims while wearing a shiny black mini-dress looked especially nice. There are also a barrage of close-ups and other seldom-used techniques that give the film and its characters more life and personality than you’d expect from a film of this nature. And as if Biller didn’t wear enough hats on this project, she also created the wonderful soundtrack.
Enough credit cannot be given to star Samantha Robinson who, despite being in a role that could’ve easily been played too campy, manages to keep the audience engaged by taking everything seriously. Her entire demeanor kept me glued to the screen, and a more beautiful actress couldn’t have been chosen for this character. I look at her as the second coming of Edwige Fenech, the gorgeous star of many classic 60s and 70s European noir and giallo films.
Kudos, also, to actor Jared Sanford, who plays coven leader Gahan. Like the rest of the cast here, he has that special look that lets you easily buy his character, and in one night club scene he delivers a couple of choice comments.
While the film does indeed look like a classic Technicolor production, the first time we see inside the burlesque night club, I was reminded of several Herschell Gordon Lewis films, hence adding to the ever present retro-feel. And if the director is reading this, coming from me this is a heavy compliment.
While the two-hour running time is a bit long (I feel a few scenes could’ve been cut down a bit), THE LOVE WITCH is a satisfying horror-comedy, with a lot to say. There are a few scenes I’d love to mention here, but I’d be ruining some genuine fun.
A feast for the eyes, a lot of laughs, and sexier than the classic cult films it pays tribute to, any genre fan will have a blast with this. I’m looking forward to a second viewing and to what Biller has up her sleeve next.
© Copyright 2016 by Nick Cato