Catching Up Part 3! Here is Darrell Buxton’s introduction to the critically acclaimed The Love Witch.
Hello and welcome to QUAD for tonight’s screening of THE LOVE WITCH. My name’s Darrell Buxton, I’m a local freelance critic and lecturer specialising in cult movies, and am here to say a few words to introduce the show.
Although THE LOVE WITCH is brand new to the cinema screen, you’d be forgiven for thinking you might have stumbled into some relic from several decades ago. As with her previous film VIVA! writer and director Anna Biller has done a remarkably authentic job in imitating a particular style and aesthetic from the past, and presenting her story in a way that has rather fallen out of fashion more recently.
For THE LOVE WITCH is a rare 21st century stab at what you might term ‘Californian Gothic’. In the late sixties and early seventies, a whole string of feature films emerged from the fringes of Hollywood, intended for cinema showings but taking their visual template and their dramatic storylines largely from the traditions of the television soap opera. Added to the mix were horror and supernatural themes such as vampires, satanism, ghosts, or even taboo topics such as necrophilia – plus a sprinkling of hippy dippy flower power, as villains and victims alike might be witnessed clad in tie-dye outfits, colourful pantsuits, wide-brimmed headgear, or bandanas. Vampire flicks such as BLACULA, COUNT YORGA VAMPYRE, or THE VELVET VAMPIRE typified this approach, shifting Dracula-like figures and female fangsters out of the gloom and into sunnier West Coast climes; Odd items including that aforementioned necrophilia epic, LOVE ME DEADLY, as well as just-plain-unclassifiable shockers like 1973’s THE BABY or 1974’s MESSIAH OF EVIL extended the trend, while devil worship and witchcraft yarns brought ROSEMARY’S BABY’s modern spin on spells and potions across from New York to the opposite side of the States, in pictures like THE MEPHISTO WALTZ, and SIMON – KING OF THE WITCHES. DAUGHTERS OF SATAN, a 1972 witchcraft shocker made in the Phillippines and featuring Tom Selleck in a very early role, may well be the chief inspiration for THE LOVE WITCH – well worth checking out if you like what you see here tonight.
THE LOVE WITCH offers a striking re-creation of this niche area of filmmaking. It’s partially a loving tribute to these movies, and – although Biller strenuously denies this – partially a parody, although the originals were so rife with lousy acting, instantly-dated costumes, and bizarre hallucinogenic sequences that it’s difficult to tell where the lampooning begins here. When the first five minutes of the movie offer dialogue informing us “your tail-light’s out, miss” or “I’m an interior decorator”, or whenever you spot a done-on-purpose ragged edit or continuity error, you just know that the director has immersed herself in this peculiar area of cinema from four and a half decades ago. Sitting this film alongside contemporary competition, THE LOVE WITCH may seem to come up lacking in the conventional ‘horror’ stakes when compared to the latest CONJURING, SINISTER or INSIDIOUS franchise entry; but then again, the soapy seventies titles I mentioned must have looked and felt pretty weird and very different to the gore-fixated shockers they found themselves nestled against. Its closest rival in the past few years has been Peter Strickland’s THE DUKE OF BURGUNDY, which took the 1970s European excesses of directors like Jess Franco and Jean Rollin, forming a similar collage out of its retro influences to create a hybrid between stylish Continental ‘trash’ and modern arthouse sensibilities.
Where THE LOVE WITCH excels is in its production design. It’s beautifully shot, in a literal rainbow of retina-searing hues and kaleidoscopic patterns. The movie leaps from scene to scene, we’re in a police investigation room one minute, a remote woodland cabin the next, stopping off at the obligatory occult store selling spellcasting books and ancient charms, then maybe on to a satanic ritual with a robed wizard and his disrobed acolytes all murmuring incantations like there’s no tomorrow. Naturally, we adjourn every now and then to a burlesque joint for a bit of classic exploitation bumping and grinding, or find ourselves privy to a steamy sex scene, but we take some crazy diversions along the route too – a mediaeval musical interlude three quarters of the way through may make you wonder if we’ve mistakenly inserted a reel of film from THE WICKER MAN.
Also impressive is Samantha Robinson, who stars in the title role as Elaine. First seen steering a Mustang convertible along a coastal road, in imitation of a shot seen frequently in Californian cinema, we are soon presented with a striking back-projected close-up where we see her long dark tresses framing pretty but potentially cruel features, highlighted by carefully-applied rose lipstick, turquoise eyeshadow, and spidery black lashes. Samantha resembles one of the muses of early seventies exploitation cinema, like an undiscovered rival to Italy’s ice cool queen of horror Edwige Fenech or Spain’s tragic vampire beauty Soledad Miranda – it’s almost as though this actress has, in some alternate universe, been the focus of a whole series of iconic movie roles and that THE LOVE WITCH is merely the latest exhibition of her dark, alluring persona. Miss Robinson is tantalising throughout, and as with so much here, we’re never quite certain whether to take her expressed desire and longing for the perfect husband at face value. Is this director Biller spoofing the sexist attitudes of previous generations? Is it the character’s genuine viewpoint? Or is it all a subterfuge, part of Elaine’s scheme to take her pleasures and get her own way?
In his regular review column for the Indiewire website, actor James Franco – who, quite honestly, would have been right at home in this flick himself – cites THE LOVE WITCH as being a political movie for our times. Franco compares Elaine to President Trump, and suggests the film may represent a reversal on or revenge for some of The Donald’s wilder views on sex and relationships. As James eloquently puts it – “that’s right – a female killer. Who grabs men by the dicks”.
On that note, I’m outta here. Enjoy the movie – and although you won’t understand this until you see the film itself, I wish you “bright blessings”!