In our era of constant reboots and reimaginings, it’s not uncommon to find genre films that are homages to certain eras and styles. However, it’s rare that a film is an homage to such a specific era and such a specific style in the way that The Love Witch is. In fact, it feels a little weird talking about the film in regards to 2010s horror, considering it feels like such a product of the late ’60s/early ’70s. Yet, it has enough modern themes thrown in to make it a distinct product of 2016 while indulging the sultry, kitschy images of the past.
The Love Witch begins with a woman in a car, driving toward a small Northern California town to escape the horrors of her past in San Francisco. The woman is Elaine (played by Samantha Robinson), and it’s implied through unsubtle flashbacks that she may have killed her husband. It also becomes clear (through voiceover) that Elaine may be involved in witchcraft, while also having an insatiable desire to use her witchcraft to make men fall in love with her.
Before casting any of her spells, she meets an interior decorator named Trish (Laura Waddell) who shows Elaine her new apartment and soon befriends her. Elaine soon performs a ritual to rope in a man she hopes will meet her demands, which comes in the form of a college professor. After a night of wild sex, the professor becomes clingy and emotional before dying from an unknown cause, but which most likely has to do with witchcraft. Feeling unsatisfied with him, Elaine peforms another ritual and moves on to Trish’s husband, before finally settling on Griff, a detective who is investigating the death of the college professor, but who also can’t help but come under Elaine’s spell.
The style of this movie (which I alluded to) is a bit hard for me to pin down. It’s a little bit Hitchcock, a little bit Russ Meyer, with a heavy heaping of ’60s and ’70s horror/exploitation, and with a dash of Sirkian melodrama thrown in. Whatever the case is, it’s very striking to look at, with its use of hard lighting shot on 35mm and pastel colors that evoke an era entirely removed from our own. However, it seems to be set in present day (all the cars featured in it are modern) possibly as a result of its smaller budget. Nonetheless, cinematographer M. David Mullen makes the film look so singular that you almost forget that it was shot under the constraints of modern indie filmmaking.
Writer/director Anna Biller also deserves credit for imbuing this inherently trashy subject matter with modern themes on feminism. Elaine is a kind of typical exploitation movie sex kitten, and yet there’s this push and pull between her desire to please men as well as control them. Also, having her play a witch is a smart metaphor for the way men can see women – as these manipulative, mysterious creatures – when really they’re just frustrated that they can’t bang them. So this makes it all the more satisfying seeing Elaine have her way with the opposite sex.
It also all works so well because of the breakout performance by Samantha Robinson. She has all the sex appeal to make the film’s seduction scenes pop, but also can clearly play a strongwilled woman seeped in irony without ever winking at the audience too much. Also the New York-born, London-raised actress has the perfect mid-Atlantic diction and stagey delivery of a movie star from Hollywood’s golden age. Similarly, the rest of the cast is in tune with this outdated style of acting, which just adds to the film’s impeccably choreographed sense of artifice. Really, my only complaint is that The Love Witch feels a little long at 2 hours, though it’s debatable if its occasionally slow pace is another homage to its bygone influences.
While watching The Love Witch, it was a little hard not to think of Quentin Tarantino, considering he’s not only a master of ultraspecific homage, but also tends to pull from this same era in terms of influences. So it was nice to realize that Samantha Robinson appeared in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood this year as doomed heiress Abigail Folger. I can only assume it’ll lead to bigger parts in mainstream movies, since The Love Witch is one hell of a calling card. Let’s just hope director Anna Biller has a similar fate ahead of her, since here she’s certainly shown a more than unique eye for the macabre.