Friday, November 18, 2016

The Love Witch: Getting Her Wicca Groove Back

Although it directly pays homage to cult movie favorites of the 1960s and 1970s, the roots of this satire go back to satirical 1940s war-of-the-sexes novels like Fritz Leiber’s Conjure Wife and Thorne Smith’s The Passionate Witch. According to their eerily believable premise, many if not all women secretly practice witchcraft, while just about every man is, not so secretly, an idiot. Fleeing the scandal of a conveniently dead husband, Wicca-practicing Elaine wants to start fresh in a Northern California town, but she is not about to change her spell-casting, man-consuming ways in Anna Biller’s The Love Witch (trailer here), which opens today in Brooklyn.

This Marin County-esque community should be perfect for Elaine. They generally tolerate the local coven of witches and the strip club serves a major communal gathering spot. She will not even have to redecorate her new apartment. It is already appointed in Early American Naugahyde, with Tarot Card motifs.

Elaine just wants to be loved and she is willing to give everything of herself in return. However, she will not solely rely on her conspicuous sex appeal alone. She will also resort to the overwhelming force of a love potion. Perversely, this often reduces viral men to simpering children, who must be gotten rid of, for everyone’s sake.

If feminist cinema were always this hot and naughty, you would find a lot more Ms. Magazine readers in frat houses. There is enough eroticism in Love Witch to keep Jean Rollin distracted. However, the real indulgence for genre fans is Biller’s lovingly lush recreations of the look and trappings of the groovy Serial-era. Channeling Douglas Sirk and John Stahl (Leave Her to Heaven) as well as Hitchcock, Polanski, and late career Russ Meyer, cinematographer M. David Mullen gives the film a strikingly vibrant, candy-colored look appropriate to the swinging milieu. Those rear-screen projections and soft-focuses are just spot-on bonuses.

Arguably, Biller could have used some collaborative help in the editing bay, because the two-hour running time is really pushing it. Someone with a little emotional distance should be able to tighten up the third act with no ill effects. However, even when the narrative hits a slow patch, it is easy to just imbibe the nostalgia as you wait for it to pick up again.

Biller further burnishes her reputation for richly detailed period art and design work, but the real discovery in Love Witch is Samantha Robinson, who smolders up the screen as Elaine. Simultaneously sinister and vulnerably needy, it is a wonderfully ambiguous and surprising performance. Laura Waddel counter-balances her nicely as the sympathetic but tragically conventional Trish (a pseudo-rival for Elaine, who simply isn’t in her same league).

There are macabre bits and pieces to be found regularly throughout Love Witch, but it is not really a horror movie per se. Nevertheless, there are enough naked black masses to prevent hardcore fans from getting antsy. It is just loaded with killer attitude and style to die for. Enthusiastically recommended for fans of spell-casting witch movies, The Love Witch opens today (11/18) at the brand spanking new Brooklyn Drafthouse.