“The Love Witch” (2016): Serial Killing Meets Sexual Politics in Occult Thriller

Writer/director Anna Biller’s films are equal parts labors of love, valentines to both classic and cult cinema, celluloid discourses on sexual politics, and visual eye candy that feeds viewers’ minds at the same time — along with so much more. Her second feature-length film, The Love Witch, draws from vintage 1960s thrillers, occult shockers, and European sex comedies to tell the story of a wholly unique type of celluloid serial killer: a woman whose victims die of love. This film is a cinephile’s treasure trove and is unlike anything else you will see this year, no matter the genre.

Elaine (Samantha Robinson in a captivating performance) moves from San Francisco to Eureka, California to put the memories of her recently deceased ex-husband Jerry (“The cops . . . couldn’t prove anything,” she muses; “They actually thought that I killed him!”) behind her and for a change of pace. After Jerry died, Elaine turned to witchcraft in an effort to find a man who truly loves her. She quickly makes the acquaintance of her new landlady Trish (Laura Waddell), who finds Elaine’s ideals of love rather unrealistic.

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Elaine (Samantha Robinson) prepares a potion to make a man fall madly in love with her in The Love Witch.

Elaine makes potions to capture the hearts of men but her attempts meet with deadly consequences. She meets Griff (Gian Keys), one of the policemen investigating the case of her first victim, Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), and works her charm on him, as well. Her friendship with Elaine turns into betrayal and the body count rises as men cannot provide Elaine with the great love that she seeks.

In Elaine, Biller has not only reversed the role of the traditional male cinematic serial killer by making her villain a woman, but has also changed the motivation for murder from hatred to love – or at least, Elaine’s ideal of that emotion. Revenge still plays at least a minor part in the string of bodies that she leaves in her wake, to be sure (“No one was ever there for me when I was crying my heart out. No one ever comforted me . . . No one!”) , and she certainly hides a fair degree of sociopathic behavior under her slightly upturned smile. Elaine’s weapons are spells, potions, and feminine charms (“the Stepford wife thing,” as one character puts it), as opposed to the sharp or blunt instruments most film-franchise baddies wield. Her disguise consists of layered makeup and a wig as opposed to hockey masks or William Shatner masks. Her victims die slowly and in emotional agony from either knowing what love truly is for the first time or from her not returning it to them, not from a sudden, unexpected attack with a chainsaw or an axe.

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High Priest Gahan (Jared Sanford, center) and High Priestess Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum, standing left) lead at a witch circle.

The Love Witch was shot on 35mm film, printed directly from the original camera negative, a painstaking and outmoded process but one that wonderfully replicates the Technicolor-thriller vibe for which Anna Biller aimed. M. David Mullen’s cinematography is lush and sensational. A wide variety of period effects are on display, including a rainbow kaleidoscope lens effect, sudden extreme close-ups, and matte shots.

Anna Biller’s set design is unbelievably detailed and is a feast for the eyes. In the first few minutes alone, we are treated to Elaine’s vibrantly colored new apartment, filled with occult paintings and bottles of ingredients for casting spells, and then to a Victorian tea room richly appointed in pink and white. A wall shelf filled with record albums in one victim’s mountain getaway is enough to make a vinyl collector drool. Vivid red is a dominant color in the film, from the first dress that we see Elaine wear, to her fingernail polish and bedding, to the robes of her coven’s High Priest Gahan (Jared Sanford), to the lighting and tablecloths of a burlesque bar, to good old-fashioned cinematic blood.

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Filmmaker Anna Biller made many of the props for The Love Witch, including this pentagram rug.

Anna Biller also made props for the film, including a hand-hooked pentagram rug and paintings. In addition, she made costumes such as highly detailed renaissance costumes as well as a wardrobe for Elaine. She also wrote period music for, produced, and edited The Love Witch. In addition to the music that Biller wrote, the score includes music from Ennio Morricone soundtracks and other Italian soundtracks.

One quibble that some viewers may have is with the melodramatic level of some of the performances. Anna Biller doesn’t aim for deliberate camp with her actors, so bear in mind that these performances are part of the overall aesthetic and are in keeping with the time period to which she is paying tribute. Also, Elaine deliberately overacts when she tries to play up to what she thinks men want to hear from her, and that’s in the character; Samantha Robinson perfectly portrays these moments, sometimes cooing and comforting a lover, and other times telling a man that she loves him with a hard facial expression that belies her statement. There is a lot of subtlety and restraint in her dynamic performance and she’s not afraid to reach for the dramatically confrontational scenes, either. It is obvious that Biller wanted someone who could capture and convey the air of a classic Hollywood star, and Robinson delivers in a star-making turn. Laura Waddell also gives a standout performance as Trish, who transforms dramatically during the course of the film.

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Trish (Laura Waddell) wonders if she can make some magic of her own when she visits Elaine’s bedroom.

Objectification of women, both female and male fantasy, and narcissism are examined in entertaining, innovative ways. For example, one scene sees Gahan and High Priestess Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum) dispense their views to new students about how a woman’s greatest power lies in her sexuality and how “the whole history of witchcraft is interwoven with the fear of female sexuality” while a burlesque dancer performs on stage in front of a captive audience of men. Elaine’s initial tea room conversation with Trish and a third-act confrontation with Griff also address sexual politics points.

Anna Biller (lifeofastar.com) knows her films, filmmaking, and art. The Love Witch, currently making the film festival rounds, contains some of the most exciting, original filmmaking in recent memory, independent or otherwise. It is one of my absolute favorite movies of the year so far and I’m certain that it will remain on my top 10 list for 2016. For daring filmmaking that is outside of the mainstream, and for a sumptuous looking occult-themed horror film that will remind you of Hollywood classics and international fare while standing on its own modern merits, seek out The Love Witch.

The Love Witch: 4.5 Stars (4.5 / 5)

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Joseph Perry
Joseph Perry’s formative years were spent watching classic monster movies (starting with "The Creature from the Black Lagoon" and "Godzilla Vs. the Thing") and TV series (starting with "The Twilight Zone" and "Outer Limits"), Bob Wilkins’ "Creature Features" and Roy Shires’ Big Time Wrestling (two northern California legends); reading Silver Age and Bronze Age Gold Key, Dell, Charlton, Marvel, and DC comics; and writing mimeographed newsletters about the original "Planet of the Apes" film and TV series. More recently, he has written for "Filmfax" magazine, is the foreign correspondent reporter for the "Horror News Radio" podcast, and is a regular contributing writer to "Phantom of the Movies’s VideoScope" magazine, occasionally proudly co-writing articles with his son Cohen Perry, who is a film critic in his own right. A former northern Californian and Oregonian, Joseph has been teaching, writing, and living in South Korea since 2008.