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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.

Plot: South American armsdealer sets up base of operations in Hawaii.

With the matter-of-factly titled Guns Hawaiian action director Andy Sidaris entered the nineties, a decade notoriously unkind to many a genre. The fourth LETHAL Ladies episode introduces a new partner for The Agency operative Donna Hamilton as they continue to battle drug runners and arms dealers. Guns is, as the title would have it, about big guns, both literal and figurative, and the first LETHAL Ladies without Hope Marie Carlton. It fares as well as one would expect. Sidaris returns to all the familiar locations, with many familiar faces, and all the familar gadgets. Bronzed blonde babes in skimpy candy-colored bikinis engage vicious narcotic distribution rings, enemy agents and crimelords in combat by dropping their tops, or forgoing clothes altogether. Everything is bigger in Guns: the guns, the explosions, and the breasts – all except the plot, which remains as paper-thin and flimsy as ever. Not that anybody’s complaining…

Having ridded Moloka’i from drug runners and a giant python, safeguarding a reputeable artpiece while liberating the island of a vicious narcotics distributing ring, and taking down a paramilitary unit on a remote island, Donna Hamilton (Dona Speir) and Nicole Justin (Roberta Vasquez), a never-before-mentioned third partner of Molokai Cargo, become targets in an ambitious plan from armsdealer Juan Degas (Erik Estrada), who has something of a history with both LETHAL Ladies. When an assassination attempt claims the life of Rocky (Lisa London) in collateral damage and Dona’s hardnosed DA mother Kathryn Hamilton (Phyllis Davis) is kidnapped by Degas’ goons, things get personal. With help from CIA field agent Bruce Christian (Bruce Penhall), The Agency man Abe (Chuck McCann), and series mainstay Shane Abilene (Michael J. Shane, as Michael Shane) the LETHAL Ladies break out the heavy artillery to put Jack Of Diamonds, his assassins, and goons where they belong: behind bars.

Helping Degas carry out his elaborate plan of dominating the armsdealing profession is Cash, played by Playboy Playmate Devin DeVasquez (June 1985), and Tong (Danny Trejo) and his girlfriend (Kelly Menighan). DeVasquez had appeared in House II: the Second Story (1987) and Society (1989), while Trejo’s first role of note was in Death Wish 4: The Crackdown (1987) and the Steven Seagal actioner Marked For Death (1990). It wouldn’t be until the second half of the nineties that Trejo established himself with Desperado (1995) and From Dusk till Dawn (1996). Despite fulfilling every requirement Guns is Devin DeVasquez' sole appearance in the Andy-verse. In 2009 DeVasquez married Ron Moss, or Rowdy Abilene from Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987).

Guns is the only Sidaris production to have both CHIPs (1977) heartthrobs Erik Estrada and Bruce Penhall present at the same time. Penhall had a history with Sidaris making his first appearance as a different character in Picasso Trigger (1988) before returning four more times as Bruce Christian and staying with the series until its original end. In the interim Penhall played Chris Cannon in the two Drew Christian Sidaris entries Enemy Gold (1993) and The Dallas Connection (1994). Penhall, along with Speir and Vasquez, did not return for Day Of the Warrior (1996) and Return to Savage Beach (1996), at which point Penthouse Pets Julie Strain, Julie K. Smith and Shae Marks took over The Agency mantle. Guns signaled the exit of London and Lindeland from the series, and introduced Nicole Justin as a substitute for Taryn. Phyllis Davis and James Lew later turned up in Under Siege 2: Dark Territory (1995) as a hostage and goon, respectively.

With Hope Marie Carlton, arguably one of the better actresses of the cast, choosing not to return for Guns, Sidaris brought back Roberta Vasquez as a replacement. Vasquez’ Nicole Justin - who acts, dresses, and talks just like Taryn – is an interesting choice. Nicole Justin, a brunette of South American descent, is, for all intents and purposes, Taryn. It would be the first (and only) instance of Andy Sidaris putting a minority character in the lead. Sidaris spents a good 20 minutes setting up Justin’s character, but there’s nothing that drastically changes the familiar Donna Hamilton-Taryn dynamic. Neither will it ever be brought up in the series again. Like Taryn in her final appearance Nicole Justin dates Bruce Christian, and she has all of Taryn’s post-Hard Ticket to Hawaii (1987) habits. The Justin part was one you’d halfway expect Liv Lindeland or Kym Malin to usurp given their Nordic looks and bulging chests, or Cynthia Brimhall for her sheer longevity with the series. It does help that Roberta Vasquez at least can halfway act and handle a gun. She also happens to look good in and out of a skimpy bikini. What does remain a constant is that most of the bit players still are awful at line reading, and that it usually doesn’t take long before they lose their tops. Carlton went on to star in Bloodmatch (1991) from Albert Pyun a year later.

In fact for the first time Andy Sidaris seems genuinely concerned with plotting and character development. In the interim Edy Stark (Cynthia Brimhall) has become a lounge/nightclub singer at the Rio All-Suite Hotel & Casino in Las Vegas, which is just an excuse to have her prance around in tiny glittery bikinis and sing, among others, the theme song. In all honesty, Brimhall isn’t too shabby a singer. Edy has left her restaurant Edy’s to redhead Rocky who turned it into Rocky’s. Kym (Kym Malin), last seen as in Picasso Trigger (1988) as part of the multi-talented linedancing duo Kym & Patticakes, has picked up oilwrestling and is seen hitting the canvas with Hugs Huggins (Donna Spangler), a 90s callback to Malibu Express (1982) peroxide blonde June Khnockers (Lynda Wiesmeier). It’s only at a record 27 minutes in that Sidaris flashes the first pair of breasts, but he compensates by showing three consecutive topless scenes from as many actresses in close succession. Substituting for the Professor (Patrick LaPore), who made his final appearance in Picasso Trigger (1988), is red bikini-clad stunner Ace (Liv Lindeland), more or less the same character as Picasso Trigger’s resident computer wiz Inga. Perhaps Sidaris genuinely didn't remember that Lindeland's character was named Inga originally?

Sidaris’ humour remains as unsophisticated and lowbrow as ever and plot-convenient excuses to get the girls naked are filmsy as always. When Degas explains to a hired duo of cross-dressing assassins that his target requires a “cerebral approach” he gets nothing but blank stares. Instructing them to “shoot her in the head” on the other hand is explanatory enough. During the final shootout Nicole Justin engages in an exchange of gunfire with Degas’ goon until Bruce Christian, brandishing an oversized gun, barges in saying “so this is what goes on in the ladies room!” In Sidaris tradition both Rocky and Cash die by gunshots between the breasts, and only Ace (the Inga substitute) is cowardly shot in the back. Cash fails to shoot Edy even though she’s mere meters away, apparently distracted by mirrors. Shane, being an Abilene, can’t shoot straight no matter what he does. Abe, a stand-in for The Professor, is killed while fishing by a remote controlled model boat and Juan Degas, the Jack Of Diamonds, is quite literally blown up at close range by Donna with a rocket launcher. For the first time in quite a while Edy Stark is given a more action-heavy part, which doesn’t mean that Sidaris doesn’t relish in her voluptuousness. Kym Malin’s Kym still only exists to raise the skin factor. Malin’s oil wrestling gig mostly serves a pretext to show a naked Donna Spangler, the Beverly Hills Barbie, who appeared in Playboy in December 1989, as the alliterative named Hugs Huggins.

As a disciple of the Russ Meyer school of filmmaking the material’s light tone and 80s fashion sense remain its strong points, even though the formula is starting to wear thin. Guns, if anything, is superior to Savage Beach (1989) in every way and as the first episode of the 90s it could’ve fared far worse. As enjoyable as Sidaris’ shtick tends to be in Guns things start to feel rusty and tiresome. The following year’s Do Or Die (1991) would adopt an overall darker and more cynical tone before returning to the series’ signature lighthearted tone with 1993’s Hard Hunted and Fit to Kill. At the halfway point of the LETHAL Ladies franchise the Sidaris formula starts to show its limitations, but that doesn’t change that they are almost universally fun. Guns has no shortage of big guns, both literal and figurative, and with a cast comprised almost exclusively of Playboy Playmates and Penthouse Pets was there really any reason to bother with trivialities such as plot? Andy Sidaris was hardly an auteur, but that never stopped his Bullets, Babes and Bombs or Girls, Guns and G-Strings series from being entertaining romps. Things could be worse…