‘The Love Witch’ Review: Thoughtful Retro Sleaze

'The Love Witch'

Movie Rating:

4

‘The Love Witch’ is a peculiar (and rather wonderful) mixture of cheeky homage and a genuine artistic statement. Its maker, Anna Biller, has been down this road before with the gloriously goofy sexploitation parody ‘Viva’. That was ten years ago and the reason for the delay between projects wasn’t just because it’s tricky for Biller to find funding for her poetically psychedelic fantasies. She also she designs all the costumes and sets herself in addition to doubling down on writing/directing duties.

Biller is an homage artist, so infatuated with the specific charms of B-movies past that she recreates their techniques with such remarkable detail that any isolated sequence could easily pass for a forgotten gem recently found in a storage locker. However, she’s not merely enamored with the form, but also the content of old drive-in pictures. These titillating genre provocations could also quietly explore contemporary themes right alongside more serious films. They just did it through more lurid and kitschy means, and ‘The Love Witch’ certainly matches the content of these odd cult gems as much as the form.

Samantha Robinson stars as the Love Witch of the title, Elaine. After being spurned by an ex-lover, she hits the road to hide out in a new town and continue her twisted games. She sets up shop in a Victorian house, makes friends with a few locals, and starts seducing men. She finds men remarkably easy to manipulate, knowing how easy it is to play into their silly little fantasies and fulfill their obvious desires. Unfortunately, the gents rarely live up to her ideals, so she kills them. What else could she do? Between rounds of increasingly hysterical and satirical murders-by-seduction, she also spends time in a local coven, and shares her thoughts with the audience via voiceover. It becomes increasingly clear that this witch’s narcissism is dangerous to the point of insanity and the overt feminist politics that she preaches may well have been psychotically twisted out of control.

The tone of ‘The Love Witch’ is difficult to explain. The movie has elements of campy homage to drive-in trash. The designs and photography are nailed with an almost eerie sense of authenticity. Everything is beautifully dated. The dialogue is deliberately stilted. The actors’ oddly pretty faces look like they belong in old catalogues and Disney movies, and the violence is almost always exaggerated for comedic effect. It’s hilariously campy, but also sincere. Biller isn’t mocking these movies from some snide sense of superiority. She genuinely loves their unique tones and aesthetics, and her recreation is intoxicating. It’s easy to get lost in the sumptuous colors that glow off her 35mm frames and giggle away at all the deliberate mistakes and ludicrousness.

Biller’s brand of 1970s-exploitation-as-feminist-statement isn’t something she merely concocted to react against an old lurid form. Filmmakers like Russ Meyer (‘Faster Pussycat, Kill Kill’), Jack Hill (‘The Big Doll House’, ‘Coffy’), George Romero (‘Season of the Witch’) and even Jonathan Demme (‘Caged Heat’) often used their flesh-shilling exploitation movies as means of exploring female empowerment. Granted, those movies weren’t exactly subtle in their approach, but they were at least trying to send a message to the horny drive-in teens and raincoat-clad 42nd Street attendees.

‘The Love Witch’ very much starts in that place, with Biller’s protagonist making overtly feminist proclamations and also silly jokes (like having the murderous witch leave a bloody tampon in a bottle of urine with a corpse knowing that the male cops likely won’t even know what a tampon is when they find it). However, the witch is no hero. As much as she exploits men’s sexist blinders, she also exploits them as humans. Determined to find love yet unwilling to consider any man worthy of her impossible ideals, the character is rooted in uncomfortably familiar hypocrisy and Biller has enough shade to cover both genders during her camp horror assault on sexual politics.

‘The Love Witch’ is not merely an act of ’70sploitation homage and parody, but actually quite a nuanced exploration of feminism and the gender warfare battleground of finding love. The movie will seduce any film lover with sheer glorious style and then sneak up on them with the surprisingly thoughtful satire laying underneath.

The film may be for a very specific audience and is as indulgent as it sounds. (At two hours, ‘The Love Witch’ might be normal film length, but given the flicks Biller is playing off normally clocked in at a trim 80 minutes, that feels long.) However, anyone who has a favorite women-in-cages Corman picture or Russ Meyer odyssey will be impressed by Anna Biller’s ambition and floored by her execution. She’s a genuine film artist with an unmistakable voice. Hopefully, the film’s broad critical success will raise her profile enough that getting the next project made won’t take a decade. She’s only getting stronger and more distinctive with each outing. It’ll be fascinating to see what she comes up with next.

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