Typically, trying to emulate the look and feel of classic exploitation films is a fool’s errand. It’s almost impossible to achieve the stylistic splendor of a low budget piece of schlock, and often trying to replicate the sensationalized storylines of these films leads into problematic territory as what’s deemed outrageous and shocking doesn’t always translate decades later as social norms shift. Those aren’t problems present in writer-director Anna Biller’s The Love Witch, which is an amazing visual delight that captures the essence of those long lost pieces of schlock that make up the catalogue of Something Weird Video. More than just being a triumph of production design, The Love Witch is also an extremely sexy piece of cinema that casts its enchanting spell with ample humor and a strong undercurrent of feminist themes.
Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a witch in search of love. Her last lover left her and she spends her days wondering when she’ll feel the kind of love that she longs for again. She’s left behind her old life and settled into a new quaint town, living in an apartment within a vast Victorian home alongside Trish (Laura Waddell) and her husband Richard (Robert Seeley). Amongst occult paintings and a vast pentagram on her vibrantly colored carpeting, Elaine recites spells in the hopes that a man will come her way. Eventually one does come under spell when she meets Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a professor at the local university. They retreat to his cabin outside the city where Elaine gives him a hallucinogenic potion and the two make love. In the time following, Wayne becomes lovesick, moaning and groaning for his new love to the point where his lovesickness kills him. His body is buried with care, Elaine tenderly submitting his remains to the earth. But when Wayne’s disappearance becomes a topic of discussion in this sleepy little burg, Detective Griff (Gian Keys) starts seeking answers that may lead him to the shocking discovery of witches in his quiet little community, witches with a thirst for love that can be deadly.
It can’t be overstated just how much style The Love Witch has in every facet of its presentation. The hair and makeup of the leading women in the film seems like it culled straight out of some piece of ‘60s sexploitation. It’s like an unholy mash up of a Harry Novak production with the same sexuality oozing through every frame but with dialogue that works like the wittiest feminist critique on the genre ever created. The colors of the costumes and settings jump off the screen like Anna Biller herself is a witch capable of summoning the classic Technicolor aesthetic with modern equipment. As someone who has watched their fair share of exploitation schlock, I’m astounded with just how accurately the look of The Love Witch recreates the genre it pays homage to.
The cinematography by M. David Mullen adds another layer of homage to the exploitation genre. Not only does the film capture the bright colors of the costumes and set design, but it also gets that same level of soft focus that you might find in a Doris Wishman film. There’s a dreamlike haze to the imagery which only amplifies the film’s authenticity, and Biller and Mullen collaborate to escalate this aesthetic in flashback scenes and one astoundingly amusing sex scene where the colors cascade across the screen like a kaleidoscope of colors as Elaine makes love to her drugged companion.
In updating the sexploitation genre with its feminist aspects, The Love Witch remains resoundingly sex positive. This movie is sexy and it’s hard to take your eyes off of the alluring Samantha Robinson. Biller uses the character of Elaine as a cautionary tale. Elaine views love and sex as solely defined by her pleasing a man. That’s her lone source of sexual pleasure, and the film rebukes this antiquated notion without ever coming across as prudish. Anna Biller strikes a deft balance in keeping the film endlessly sexy and retaining its progressive attitudes, a sharp homage to the moralistic aspects of many sexploitation films without the regressive sex shaming that was usually at the heart of those films.
The enchanting spell of The Love Witch definitely worked on me. This is a movie that works in homage yet has its own distinct personality. Anna Biller is able to revive a long dormant, overlooked genre and revitalizes it while injecting her own distinct personality into the bewitching fray. Everything about The Love Witch is intoxicating – the look, the sexuality, and the straight-faced delivery that underscores the hilarious confluence of text and subtext in the witty screenplay. Even as a fan of the genre, the fact is that most exploitation movies fail to live up to the insane promise of their trailers. The Love Witch isn’t that kind of movie; the trailer is just a taste of all that the film conjures up.
The Love Witch opens November 11th in select theaters. In Los Angeles at the Nuart Theater, director Anna Biller and star Samantha Robinson will be doing Q&As. More information here.
The Love Witch
A wonderful homage to the sexploitation films of yesteryear, The Love Witch emulates the visual style of its genre while telling a tale that is deft in its humor and feminist critique.