Since beginning my work here at the Hassle, I have gotten into the habit of keeping a running tally of new releases I see over the course of the year; in addition to indulging my anal tendencies (something of a prerequisite for film criticism), this serves as a cheat sheet when the time comes to agonize over my year-end Top Ten list. It also has the benefit of allowing me to spot patterns that I may have otherwise overlooked. This year, I have seen two popcorn-ready blockbusters – Doctor Strange and Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children – dealing with underground societies of oddball magicians (while I haven’t seen it, the Potterverse spinoff Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them falls squarely into this category as well). On the festival circuit, I caught Sympathy for the Devil, a documentary about the quasi-Satanic Process Church of the ‘60s and ‘70s, and Belladonna of Sadness, a recently exhumed anime oddity about a psychedelic enchantress. And I’ve seen three movies with the word “Witch” in the title itself: Robert Eggers’ The Witch (justly praised as an instant classic), Adam Wingard’s Blair Witch (flawed, but underrated), and Anna Biller’s The Love Witch, which opened this past weekend at the Kendall Square Cinema.
The Love Witch tells the story of Elaine (Samantha Robinson), a beautiful young woman with a talent for love and sex magick (with a K, obviously). Elaine moves from San Francisco to a small coastal town following the loss of her ex-husband Jerry (Jerry “left” her, Elaine repeatedly narrates over shots of his violent death). From her colorful, Tarot-themed apartment, Elaine concocts potions to capture the hearts of the local square-jawed-male population. The trouble is, Elaine doesn’t know her potions’ own strength, and the men have a nasty tendency to drop dead in the morning. Elaine takes this in stride, blithely burying the men with ceremonial “witch bottles” (filled with her own urine and tampons, among other tinctures) and moving onto her next subject. Soon, however, her hobby catches up with her, and the town’s uneasy truce with its witch population (which, it should be noted, is not negligible) begins to wear thin.
If every film has its time and place, then The Love Witch has found its with pinpoint accuracy. At a time when The Craft is enjoying a wave of nostalgia and critical reappraisal, and when America has been reminded, in the bluntest possible terms, that the most qualified woman still has less of a chance than the least qualified man, the moment could scarcely be more primed for a feminist-minded, occult-obsessed sexploitation throwback helmed by a female writer-director-producer-editor-costumer-set designer-songwriter.
This is not to say that The Love Witch is a cheap cash-in on a contemporary fad. The film is clearly fiercely personal and strikingly original, and Biller is every bit as dedicated to her passions and aesthetic as a Wes Anderson. But where Anderson’s heart lies with the mannered comedies of Hal Ashby and Mike Nichols, Biller finds inspiration in more lurid places: the trashy Eurosleaze of Jess Franco, the gothic Technicolor of Hammer Films (particularly their adaptations of Dennis Wheatley), and the postmodern camp of John Waters, Russ Meyer, and Kenneth Anger. While the film is not a period piece (and the performances occasionally feel distractingly contemporary), The Love Witch could easily pass for something out of the Something Weird Video catalog, at least at a glance.
But while it’s probably safe to say that Biller is a fan of Doris Wishman, she is a far more assured and (intentionally) interesting filmmaker. Every single aspect of The Love Witch is clearly deliberate, and has been constructed to painstakingly match the vision in her head: Biller hand-sewed many of Elaine’s dazzling costumes herself, and the credits are filled with hyper-specific artisans (this may be the first film to devote an entire credit line to “Pentagram Plates.” At one point, one of Elaine’s non-witch friends casually invites her to lunch “The Victorian Tea Room,” an all-pink, women’s-only cake salon presided over by a harpist in a flowing robe, just one of many touches too inscrutable to be spontaneous. Perhaps the film’s greatest strength is its eye-popping color palette, which, in combination with cinematographer M. David Mullen’s 35mm photography, makes this one of the best-looking films I’ve seen in years, and one which demands to be seen on the big screen.
All this being said, The Love Witch is very much a film made for the enjoyment of the sort of people who enjoy that sort of thing. Those not on its deeply peculiar wavelength may walk away baffled; its plot is airy to the point of being incidental, and those not reeled in by its opening moments may well find its two-hour runtime an endurance test. Like Ti West’s House of the Devil and this summer’s Netflix smash Stranger Things, this film provides a handy litmus test in its opening credits: if its stylish, period appropriate font puts a big, goofy grin on your face, you’re good. If not, you may be in for a bumpy road.
Personally, however, I couldn’t get enough of it. The Love Witch is akin to what Quentin Tarantino famously dubbed “The Hangout Film,” but rather than spending time with the characters (though Robinson is a smirking, vampy hoot), one watches to be immersed in Biller’s spooky, sexy, colorful world. Think of it as the cinematic equivalent of the back shelves in a Salem witch shop – the ones filled with gaudy, dusty hexploitation materials from decades past. The Love Witch may exist in a genre of one, but it’s that genre’s undisputed classic – and at this particular cultural moment, that’s a pretty good place for it to be.
The Love Witch
dir. Anna Biller
Now playing at Kendall Square Cinema