Review: THE LOVE WITCH

(This is one film to watch post-election, because of its empowerment, brilliance and social intelligence.)

Stylistic homage in horror is 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 throwing itself around – filmmakers respond to this by returning to their roots, the eras during which so many horror classics 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.

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Anna Biller’s sophomore feature is, like her debut VIVA, created in the style of 60s and 70s sexploitation cinema.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 60s film, 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?

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The plot, like the film’s aesthetic and atmosphere, is pure exploitation. Its occult elements and sexually ‘liberated’ characters provide plenty of excuses for trippy visuals and copious sex scenes. Biller’s script is full of cheesy one-liners and flirtations straight out of a dating how-to; but it’s aware of itself enough that the audience can laugh without mocking the film. These moments constructed to be funny, but they aren’t farcical – Biller takes her world seriously, too. That’s where the brilliance comes in.

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What begins as an exercise in homage evolves into a political exploration of themes found throughout 60s and 70s cinema – where does sex-positivity end and delusion begin? Had this film been directed by a man, perhaps these questions would not be 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.

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This is where Biller’s genius shows through. She isn’t content to perpetuate the sexualization of her predecessors – she displays that, while these films are attractive, they also contain some demoralizing ideas. Without giving too much away, I’ll say that Elaine’s story is not all bright colors and sex scenes. THE LOVE WITCH earns its place in the horror genre through its dissection, and destruction, of the demeaning elements.

Apart from being a lush and charming homage, Anna Biller’s THE LOVE WITCH manages to be a rich 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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