Movie Review: THE LOVE WITCH – extremely faithful homage to the camp horror of the 60s and 70s, with a great performance from its star.

I’ve seen some bizarre movies in my time, and I have to say, The Love Witch is up there.  If you haven’t heard of it, you’re not alone.  Released in November of 2016 it ended up with a domestic box office of less than a quarter million, but I feel it’s going to have an extended streaming shelf life through word of mouth.  Billed by many sites as a horror movie, I’ll tell you that it barely rises to meet that definition.  The witchcraft driven plot isn’t strong enough for it to be considered horror – it’s more of an occult thriller than anything else.

A shout out to my old pal Sloane, who asked me if I’d review it soon.  I almost reviewed it while visiting LA, but it’s a good thing I didn’t watch it while commuting; the movie has an erotic aspect that caught me off guard.  Using an analogy, the sexual content is more burlesque than strip joint, but not the kind of thing to watch sitting next to someone on a plane.  I don’t recall why it popped up on my radar – I literally hadn’t heard of it before I saw the movie poster, reproduced above.  As you can see, it’s got a cool retro vibe featuring a painted, technicolour version of the titular Love Witch, Elaine Parks, in what should be a springboard role for Samantha Robinson.

I generally avoid movies that feel similar to anything I happen to be working on, and almost didn’t watch this movie because of that.  One of the final few short stories for my upcoming two volume anthology features a young witch and her use of a love potion to get what she wants, but my plot is wider reaching, and deals with a different set of themes, and is deadly serious – The Love Witch is far from serious, in fact, its biggest selling point is that it’s a parody of 60s and 70s cinema, specifically the camp, low budget horror movies of that era.  Written, produced, directed, edited, AND with costume design by Anna Biller, the movie totally nails it.  As someone old enough to remember watching movies like these in my youth, with no shred of out of context irony, Biller has crafted an astonishing piece of work with respect to the mood and look, the feel, of that era.  It’s hard to imagine watching this movie as someone not old enough to have seen those movies and truly appreciating what Biller has pulled off here.  From start to finish, it’s all so expertly done.  The framing, the set decoration, the costumes – all very well done.  But if I have to quibble, I will say that the parody is too well done.  At times, it feels like a post-modern, smart-alecky, SNL skit in the performances.  Robinson is note perfect, but the other actors tend to lay it on just a little too thick for me, and the two hour running time extends the gag a little too long.  Having said that, the movie still feels mostly fresh and clever, so this isn’t a major criticism.

The plot is a little thin – beautiful, but hopelessly shallow and narcissistic, modern day witch Elaine arrives in a new town determined to find true love.  Her husband died under mysterious circumstances, leaving her alone and lonely.  During the course of the movie, she uses her skills in the black arts to seduce a number of men, who fail to meet her impossibly high, naïve expectations.  That’s not the whole plot, of course, just the set up.  Elaine is a knockout, vampy and seductive to the point where I wondered why she’d need any kind of potion, but she’s a lame duck in terms of personality.  She might be drop dead gorgeous, but it’s equalized by her sheer vapidity, so you quickly realize her need for a love potion.  Unfortunately, while this is a truism about the character, the movie doesn’t play up this angle at all, so if the goal was to create a humourous movie, it doesn’t succeed.  The Love Witch is a parody of certain movies of a certain era, but it isn’t a funny parody, and doesn’t succeed as a comedy either.

There are funny moments, but the big takeaway from viewing this is that it’s just straight up weird – in a good way, I should add.  The movie is set in the present day, but only because there are modern day cars in some scenes, use of a cellphone, and computers in one scene.  Half of the cars used in the movie are from that earlier period, but literally, so is everything else.  The confluence of old and new is trippy, and I really liked that.  There are two scenes involving a weird renaissance fair in the forest outside of town (the second such scene is imaginary) that made me think of the masquerade in Roger Corman’s immortal Poe adaptation, The Masque of the Red Death – that isn’t to say that the scenes are similar tonally, but they serve the same purpose in the narrative, I thought.

One thing I saw in the Google search result blurbs was the word “feminist” a few times.  Without clicking on any of links, I hope the articles are not trying to frame The Love Witch as some kind of feminist statement.  I got absolutely no sense of that whatsoever from my viewing.  At times, some dialogue contains some pretty simplistic notions of the inequality of traditional gender roles, and relationship expectations, but these themes are never actually explored much in the movie.  I suspect if Biller originally wanted to make a message movie, she either wasn’t skilled enough to not be heavy handed about it in the context of this particular movie, or she decided she was more interested in making a movie that wasn’t intended to educate or protest.  In fact, there are so many scenes in this movie that, if it was written and directed by a man, might easily be interpreted as chauvinistic.  Elaine strips off to underwear and near nakedness a number of times, and does it in a faintly burlesque style (the character has, in her past, been a burlesque performer), and the idea of someone who pursues the love of a man in order to feel fulfilled definitely feels quaint in this day and age – not only that, Elaine’s relationship advice to an acquaintance (“friend” is too strong) is to give the man what he wants, in order to keep a marriage strong.  I get the irony, of course – Elaine’s advice comes from an idealistic, unsophisticated worldview, and could be interpreted as being self-affirming, but feels crazily outdated, even in the context of a 60s/70s parody.

In less capable hands this would have been a real dog of a movie, but Biller did a bang up job here – so too did Robinson, with a performance that’s a wild mixture of vacuousness and predatory sexuality.  I appreciated a lot about this production, including some generous campy scenes of witchcraft as practiced by the local coven – even though there’s lots of naked flesh in these scenes, they’re shot in a decidedly unerotic light, presented more matter-of-factly than anything else.

In all honesty, I came away from the movie feeling a little disappointed.  As a parody, it works well enough, but I would have liked to have seen a straight horror movie that dealt with the same themes, just in a darker, more serious way.  Once I was able to let my thoughts about the movie ferment before plunging into the review, The Love Witch felt like the well-intentioned alternative to a better movie.

3.0/5.0

© Andrew Hope 2017

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