Plot: Elaine is not your ordinary witch. She's something else...
The Love Witch isn’t just another indie film. It isn’t just another nostalgia piece either. No, it's something else. It is an affectionate love letter to the fashion, music, and cinematic conventions of the gaudy and exuberant 70s. The Love Witch is a stylistic reverie so lovingly crafted, so wonderfully executed that it feels as a conduit back into that era. Sumptuously designed, beautifully photographed, and perfectly cast The Love Witch is a treasure trove for anybody familiar with late sixties/early seventies exploitation cinema. In that respect it’s almost an arthouse production. Before anything else, The Love Witch is a two-hour throwback to the glamour and glory of 1960s Technicolor and classic Hollywood films, but with far more boiling below the surface. It’s a philosophically provocative musing on gender obstacles and a feminist manifesto wrapped in some of the most enchantingly beautiful production design this side of early Tsui Hark.
It’s framed like a Hitchcock film and unfolds like an early Tim Burton fairytale as Beetlejuice (1988) or Edward Scissorhands (1990), themselves heavily romanticized versions of 1960s romantic dramas. To its everlasting strength The Love Witch is a phantasmagoria of different moods and dabbles in a multitude of subgenres. It has the hyperstylized lighting and high-fashion of a 1970s Italian giallo from Mario Bava, Luciano Ercoli, or Dario Argento; the deep oneiric atmosphere of a French fantastique in tradition of Girl Slaves Of Morgana Le Fay (1971), the erotic quality and soft focus of a mid-70s Renato Polselli or Luigi Batzella gothic horror with Rita Calderoni, all while having the subtextual richness of Jaromil Jires’ Valerie and Her Week Of Wonders (1970) and a pronounced feminist undercurrent not unlike Deadlier Than the Male (1967) and The Million Eyes of Sumuru (1967). It’s probably what something as Pervirella (1997) or Superstarlet A.D. (2000) could have looked like had it been made by a genuinely talented filmmaker on a modest to decent budget.
Newly widowed Elaine Parks (Samantha Robinson) moves from San Francisco to Arcata, California to start a new life after the death of her husband Jerry (Stephen Wozniak). She takes up residence in an opulent Victorian mansion and befriends her home decorator neighbor Trish Manning (Laura Waddell). At the local teahouse Elaine meets Trish’s husband Richard (Robert Seeley). There’s an obvious attraction between the two, but Elaine ignores it. At wit’s end Elaine seeks an audience with her mentor Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum) and the head of her coven Gahan (Jared Sanford). Once back home she she brews a potion, and soon finds a lover in university literature professor Wayne Peters (Jeffrey Vincent Parise). The two have a steamy night at his cabin, and Wayne starts to obsess over her. Elaine doesn’t like that, and when she comes to wake him later, she finds him dead. She buries his remains, and sets her sights on Richard, figuring he won’t be able to obsess over her since he’s married to her friend Trish. Elaine once again does her dance of seduction and brews a him potion.
Trish suspects that Richard is having an affair since he drank himself in a stupor and is otherwise ignoring her. The sudden vanishing of Wayne attracts the attention of police investigator Griff Meadows (Gian Keys) and Elaine becomes a prime suspect. Griff, as all men are wont to do in presence of one so elegant, falls madly in love with her. At the Renaissance Faire the coven performs a mock wedding ritual for Elaine and Griff. Meanwhile Richard has killed himself obsessing over Elaine, much to the dismay of Trish. Elaine has the coven perform a love ritual for her and Griff. Meanwhile Trish has figured out that Elaine was the woman Richard was having an affair with, and goes as far to find Elaine’s altar. Intrigued she starts dressing and acting just like Elaine. When word gets out that Elaine is a witch the employees of the burlesque theater call for her to be burned. In the confusion Griff helps her escape and the two take up residence in her apartment, there Elaine concocts him a potion. Upon realizing that Griff was correct that no man can ever love her enough, Elaine stabs Griff to death. In her deepest delirium Elaine imagines that Griff proposed to her and that they are wedded.
A character-driven piece like this irrevocably stands or falls by grace of its lead. As such Samantha Robinson was perfectly cast. She has the wide-eyed features of Barbara Steele, the regal demeanour of Edwige Fenech, Femi Benussi, and Rosalba Neri, and oozes sensuality much in the same way as Soledad Miranda, Nieves Navarro, and Barbara Bouchet – all while retaining an American pin-up quality like Celeste Yarnall or Mary-Louise Parker. It also doesn’t hurt that Robinson sort of looks like a young Mary-Louise Parker. Whether she’s sporting elegant evening dresses, gazing dreamily into the frame, or seductively cavorting around in lingerie in her Victorian abode, The Love Witch made a star out of miss Robinson. Her performance was bound to attract attention, and that it did. Recently Hollywood took notice of Robinson when Quentin Tarantino cast her in his award-winning 1970s epic Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood (2019). Impressive when you think Robinson’s only remembered prior work was the indie thriller Misogynist (2013), and the functionally bland Lifetime television movie Sugar Daddies (2014). “I’m the Love Witch,” Robinson chirps in an early scene, “I’m your ultimate fantasy!” Truer words have seldom been spoken. Hedonism is, can, and should be, a virtue.
The real beauty of The Love Witch is how multi-faceted and multi-layered it is. It’s a cinematic Rorschach test of sorts. You take from it what you want, and you see in it what your tastes steer you towards. Coming to it from the angle that we do (from a cult, obscure, and weird cinema perspective) it’s a celebration of fringe cinema, and of dead genres. It’s as American as they come yet there’s something really French and Spanish about it. The setting is American, but the pastel and pink-white color palette is informed by Italian genre cinema. The Love Witch has a coven, a riff on Satanic panic, the devil cult, and the Inquisition movies of the seventies; the romantic montages play out like those of a commedia sexy all’Italiana (without the overt sexism and machismo), and the entire thing has the feel of a French drama with Muriel Catalá or Isabelle Adjani. It’s Faustine and the Beautiful Summer (1972) with a glorious helping of psychotronics and psychedelia straight out of All the Colors of the Dark (1972), Vampyros Lesbos (1971), or any of the LSD counterculture movies following Easy Rider (1969). It’s equal amounts Girl Slaves Of Morgana Le Fay (1971) as it is Suspiria (1977). Disconnected from the influences that you project onto it, The Love Witch is just very, very good.
That The Love Witch is the work of just one woman makes it all the more impressive, especially with this being an indie. The creative force behind The Love Witch is Anna Biller. Not only did Biller write, produce, and direct this two-hour feature; she also served as art director, production – and costume designer, action choreographer, props master, and composer. If that weren’t impressive enough in and of itself, The Love Witch was only her second directorial feature coming after the retro sex comedy Viva (2007) and a handful of shorts (in 2001, 1998, and 1994). She had to fight tooth and nail to realize her vision and lensed it with a hostile, mutinous crew (that saw a host of their number either leaving or actively sabotaging the production). That Biller has but two credits to her name is testament to how fully realized, lovingly crafted, and richly detailed her features are.
In her score she borrows a few stings from the Ennio Morricone soundtracks to A Lizard In A Woman’s Skin (1971) and All the Colors of the Dark (1972). A good choice, definitely. Truth be told, The Love Witch is the sort of production where you’d expect a few winks and nods towards Bruno Nicolai’s work for Jess Franco, especially something dreamy as A Virgin Among the Living Dead (1973) or Nightmares Come At Night (1972). In the sixties Samantha Robinson would have been a Bond girl, and a decade removed from that she would have been serious competition for Eurobabes as Soledad Miranda, Edwige Fenech, Rosalba Neri, Barbara Bouchet, Luciana Paluzzi, Yutte Stensgaard, Valerie Leon, Betsabé Ruiz, and Silvia Tortosa. Any which way you slice it, The Love Witch is an exceptional piece of independent filmmaking. To say that we’re excited for whatever Anna Biller does next would be an understatement.