After the death of her husband, the beautiful Elaine (Samantha Robinson) begins life anew as a witch in order to find the perfect man to love her. However; her potions and spells work too well, leaving a string of victims her—and she’s driven to the brink of insanity (and murder) when she eventually meets the man of her dreams.
Falsely labelled as an emulation of ’60s sexploitation horror films, The Love Witch (dir. Anna Biller) is a stunning tribute to the technicolour thrillers of the era with a delightfully feminist twist. It’s a richly authentic homage that manages to perfectly reflect the aesthetics of the period whilst using aspects of nudity, sex, and the Male Gaze, to explore the notion of female fantasy; which results in a sumptuous highlighting of everything that was great (stylistically) and an underlining of everything wrong with the sexploitation genre.
Directed, written, edited, decorated, designed, and even containing original music compositions by Biller; The Love Witch is a labour of love so immaculately preened and positioned within the scope of 60/70s aesthetics that it becomes almost impossible to consider that it could’ve emerged from any other time period. This is hardly surprising, given Biller’s tendency towards a ‘Do-It-Yourself’ form of film-making that allows her richly imagined universes to take on a distinct aura of ‘reality’ from the sheer intricacy of their construction. The Love Witch is no exception; with everything from how Elaine’s outfits incorporate/compliment the multitude of colours in every scene to the seemingly endless amounts of trinkets littering the mis-en-scene creating a sense that everything within the film’s design is fleshed out to its fullest potential.
As a result, the notably female-centric locales featured within The Love Witch—a women’s only tea-room, a burlesque club, and Elaine’s apartment—are so well crafted within their respective styles that when Elaine’s friend Trish (Laura Waddel) is revealed to possess a mobile phone, it’s almost shocking. However, rather than completely dismantling Biller’s carefully constructed visual aesthetic, this isolated incident serves to widen the film’s range of criticism. In doing so, The Love Witch becomes much more than a simple re-vamping of sexploitation as a genre, but one which is able to examine its core genres and apply its critique to contemporary society.
The critiques Biller offers are pushed even further in her treatment of traditional horror flick values; where the atypical power dynamics of the genre rely on a rigid gendering of predators as men/victims as women, The Love Witch reverses them to place Elaine in the position of a woman driven to the brink of insanity by her desires, and men becoming the casualties in her wake. What elevates this gender-swap is the consequent reversal of the predatory character’s motivation—rather than having Elaine kill men from deep-seeded feelings of misandry that would mirror the misogynistic undercurrents present in traditional horrors, Biller’s decides to characterise Elaine’s murders as accidental consequences of ‘too much love’ instead of hatred. In doing so, Biller allows her protagonist to inhabit a space between the traditional portrayals of women as highly emotional (particularly in regards to love) and predators as emotionless; a paradox that allows the creation of a refreshingly three-dimensional female character that has hitherto been largely neglected within the genre.
It’s precisely this style of characterisation that makes The Love Witch so successful in its premise. Every female character exists as an individual entity within the film, each with their own personality, opinions, and even their own ideas of womanhood—in direct contrast to the commonly homogeneous treatment of women within both sexploitation and horror cinema. In doing so, the film allows itself to contain multiple strands of feminism within its narrative: from Trish’s staunch beliefs that women shouldn’t pander to patriarchal notions of the male gaze, to Elaine’s fellow witch Barbara’s (Jennifer Ingrum) assertions that a woman’s greatest power is the use of her sexuality, the narrative almost becomes a microcosm for feminism in all of its variations.
This incorporation of a multi-dimensional feminism is not surprising, given the meticulous detail poured into every other aspect of its creation. The Love Witch is, quite literally, a labour of love; with Biller’s complete devotion to her craft oozes from every frame. And, between her ability to channel pastiche alongside her own artistic visions and her exceptional choices in casting (both Samantha Robinson and Laura Waddel in particular), it’s fair to say that she could well have made one of the best films of 2016.