Film Review: The Love Witch

Anna Biller’s 'The Love Witch' nails the look and spirit of macabre ’60s B-movies, but largely leaves chills and thrills out of the brew, resulting in a handsomely crafted curiosity that’s far from magical.
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A lushly styled and photographed throwback to ’60s Technicolor thrillers, The Love Witch, like its titular sorceress, labors painstakingly to concoct an enchanting formula, but the overall effect leaves much to be desired. At turns gleefully morbid or broadly melodramatic, writer-director Anna Biller’s second feature, which she also edited and produced, busily stirs a cocktail of suspense and comedy, sex and the supernatural, served with dashes of gothic horror—from harpsichords and Victorian tearooms to satanic rites and phantasmagoric visions. While the various elements often coalesce into striking tableaux, the haphazard plotting and uneven performances substantially lower the stakes and impact.

A raven-haired siren in a cherry red ’64 Mustang convertible, Elaine Parkes, the self-proclaimed Love Witch, arrives in a quiet coastal town among the California redwoods, bent on starting fresh in her ongoing but ill-fated search for Prince Charming. Unhappily without the love of a man since the untimely departure (or demise) of her beloved husband, Elaine (screen newcomer Samantha Robinson in her first starring role) has turned to witchcraft to secure her hold on the opposite sex. As she explains to her new acquaintance, the prim, married Trish (Laura Waddell), “We may be grown women, but underneath we’re just little girls dreaming about being carried off by a prince on a white horse.” Like many a fairytale femme fatale, Elaine delights in conjuring dark magic to get what she wants.

Therein should lie the fun of this feminist take on the man-hungry vixen, a clear labor of love for filmmaker Biller, who designed the film’s cheap-chic sets and costumes, in addition to composing and arranging much of the score (heavily abetted by vintage Morricone music). Biller’s keen eye for kitsch and dedication to color-coordinated motifs nicely complement the robust, saturated look achieved by cinematographer M. David Mullen and crew, shooting on 35mm Kodak film using ’70s-era super-speed lenses. The eye-popping blood reds and sharply contrasting shadows alternately echo the work of genre masters from Hitchcock to Argento. It’s Hitchcock’s Marnie (1964) that Biller cites, along with the Italian giallo thrillers of the ’70s and New Wave Euro art-house films, as her main inspiration for this lovingly crafted homage.

A different reference registers more strongly, though, as the intentionally hammy acting, clunky sound design and emphasis on Elaine’s bare, nubile flesh scream of the pulpy B-movie horror films of the ’60s. A particular picture creeps to mind: Eye of the Devil (1967), a ghoulish black-and-white chiller featuring Sharon Tate as the distaff half of a deadly brother-sister pair of Satan-worshipping witches. Tragically cast in the real-life cult horror show of the Manson family murders, Tate was not revered as much of an actress, but as an evil witch in Eye of the Devil, amidst the silliness of midnight pagan rituals and demonic amulets, she brings an icy allure and disarming meanness to the part that genuinely gets under your skin. The Love Witch shares that film’s devotion to mod fashion and dangerous femininity, but attains none of its straightforward creepiness. Although star Robinson, possessed of a wholesome beauty that rivals Tate’s, manages her character’s shallow swings from mischievous to malicious, director Biller seems wholly uninterested in making her witch or anything else in the movie truly fearsome. Without the edge of present-tense menace, what we’re left with is well-appointed parody, like Vincent Price in his full-color, camp period.

Some members of the cast fare quite well in this vein. As Trish, Waddell delivers a precisely overacted performance in the role of a woman who worries that she’s lost her feminine wiles to wifehood. Likewise, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, as a college professor caught in the Love Witch’s web, seems to know just how archly to play this over-the-top material. On the other hand, the performance of Jared Sanford as the head warlock of Elaine’s coven suggests less a high priest of the dark arts than a really committed witchhunt re-enactor, while Gian Keys, playing a police detective Elaine sets her sights on, is more wooden than the stake Van Helsing would drive through the heart of a vampire. In fact, a good staking might have livened up these deadpan proceedings, but in lieu of shocks and terror, we’ll just have to admire Elaine's beautiful hand-hooked pentagram rug and paintings of unicorns prancing under rainbows.

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