Anna Biller’s “The Love Witch” is a labor of love that utterly captures the plot arc, texture and ambiance of the 1970s’ sexually charged thrillers. This comprehensive work from a total auteur (Biller writes, directs, edits, composes, costume-designs, set-designs and more!) harkens back to flicks of a highly specific B-movie genre that grew out of the success of Polanski’s “Rosemary’s Baby,” identifiable by their saturated Technicolor palette, hammy performances and interest in sexuality and the occult. They are pulpy, sexploitation-type B-movies from a bygone era, but their twisted love of magic, revenge and sex continues to reel in a cult following today.
“Love Witch” opens with the classic, Hitchcockian head-on shot of a glamorously made-up woman driving a convertible, the California coastline winding away behind her. This is our protagonist, Elaine (Samantha Robinson). While she talks about how depressed she’s been since her late husband’s untimely death, we naturally flash back to shots of her poisoning him. Elaine has decided to relocate from San Francisco to a friendlier small town. The coven she was involved has a longstanding presence in this community, even if they are barely tolerated by the suspicious locals. Upon arriving, Elaine is greeted by her new landlady Trish (Laura Waddel), a modern woman with a career who is flummoxed by Elaine’s insistence that a woman should do nothing but love and take care of a man. As they sit in a gauzy, Victorian-style tea room, Trish exclaims: “It sounds like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy!”
Since her husband’s mysterious death, Elaine has been perfecting her “love magic” and readily administers her potions to her potential mates. Her other rituals include praying while surrounded by red candles and lying spread-eagle on top of a pentagram painted on her laboratory floor. She is bound and determined to find the man of her dreams. But her love potions do more than just make the drinker fall madly in love with her — they force her lovers to truly experience their emotions. These men, the film spells out, simply can’t handle feelings of this magnitude. And ultimately, they die of heart attacks or are driven to suicide by their intense emotions. In a stroke of fascinating commentary, Elaine is repulsed by the “feminine” outbursts of these men. And as the bodies pile up in her wake, Elaine continues to seek sexual liberation while still bound by the fantasy of a fairytale prince.
The costumes, props and sets were spun with frankly astounding attention to detail by the director/writer/set designer/costumer. The film’s color palette and camera work gives it amazing consistency in mood and atmosphere. The acting often lies firmly in the realm of camp, but anything else wouldn’t satisfy Biller’s auteurist, B-movie vision. The ending may fall a bit flat, and its meandering runtime could have been tightened up, but ultimately “The Love Witch” remains a real achievement, capturing the essence of a lurid, pulpy, obscure genre. It is bound to go down as a wonderfully watchable (oc)cult film.
“The Love Witch” will soon be playing in an exclusive Bay Area engagement, opening Friday, November 11, at Landmark’s Opera Plaza Cinema in San Francisco and at Landmark’s Shattuck Cinemas in Berkeley.
Contact Hannah Frakes at hfrakes ‘at’ stanford.edu.