How do you judge a movie that’s supposed to be an over-the-top campy satire of over-the-top genre films?
Is the send-up a success if it transcends the genre, or if it's as goofy and cringe-inducing as the original?
That’s the conundrum that had me in a pretzel with The Love Witch, Los Angeles indie filmmaker Anna Biller’s loving homage to the wave of witchcraft and Satan-worship horror yarns from the 1960s and '70s.
A less-successful follow-up to Biller’s wonderful 2007 sex comedy Viva, which made fun of '70s sexploitation pics, The Love Witch gives itself over to the camp aesthetic so thoroughly that it undoes the satirical intent.
Shot with a wild palette of bold, bright colors – it features slinky, sexy dresses that are lined with fabric straight out of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – The Love Witch stars Samantha Robinson (Sugar Daddies) as a survivor of childhood sexual abuse who uses witchcraft to subdue and torment men.
Biller is a brilliant student of the genre, and she fills every scene with a nudge-and-wink reference to a host of forebears, including George Romero’s wicked B-movie Hungry Wives (also known as Season of the Witch), Ted V. Mikels’ creepy and garish Blood Orgy of the She Devils, and Paul Wendkos' utterly strange and beguiling shocker The Mephisto Waltz, which featured Alan Alda playing against type as a demonic classical pianist.
Biller’s film has a lot going for it.
On the one hand, it represents small-budget auteurism at its finest. Biller not only wrote, directed, produced, and edited the film, but also hand-crafted the sets and costumes.
And, visually, the picture is a sumptuous treat, a triumph of style that marshals every resource – from the sets’ wall coverings to the actors' hairpieces to the camera work and editing – to evoke its whacked-out aesthetic.
On the other hand, the filmmaker surrenders to the trash aesthetic instead of harnessing it for her own purposes.
Biller’s visual splendor is also wasted on a mediocre script riddled with structural problems. Scenes follow one another willy-nilly, as if moved around late in the process.
Robinson plays Elaine, a former go-go dancer from San Francisco who moves to the small Northern California town of Eureka after her husband dies under mysterious circumstances.
Recently tutored in witchcraft and the art of sexual magic, Elaine starts a string of romances. She seems unfazed when her partners end up dead or insane.
Then, just as we're getting into the swing of things, The Love Witch takes a weird pedagogical break when Elaine’s witchcraft teachers, Barbara and Gahan (Jennifer Ingrum and Jared Sanford), take her to a burlesque show. We go from a zany-and-deadly love story to college lecture as the teachers give wooden monologues on postmodern-feminist theory while throwing back cocktails.
“The normative human being,” Gahan intones as a dancer strips in the background, “is a hyper-stoic male, and women’s emotions and intuition are illnesses that need to be cured.” Right on.
Then another sudden plot switch lands us in the middle of a murder mystery with a new set of characters, including a square-jawed detective named Griff (Gian Keys), who looks like a refugee from Dragnet. There's unrelated banter. Who are these people?
The stories mesh when Griff begins to investigate the deaths of Elaine’s lovers. Of course, before he knows what hit him, the cop has fallen in love with Elaine, too.
At 120 minutes, The Love Witch is too long. Biller has too much material on her hands and too many non sequitur scenes, including a visit to a Renaissance Faire and a long pagan ritual and beer bash.
It took Biller about a decade each to get Viva and The Love Witch made. The time was well-spent in the first instance, allowing her to hone the story. In the second, I think she took on too many conflicting ideas for a single film.
It’s a shame: Biller is a remarkable filmmaker – and a funny storyteller – who deserves a wider audience.