Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: Anna Biller’s New Cult Classic The Love Witch

This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today’s theme is witchcraft.

“I’m doing that with The Love Witch, reclaiming the figure of the witch, the femme fatale, an old sort of male fantasy figure, and make it a femme fatale seen from the female side.”

That’s what director/writer/producer/composer/editor/painter/set and costume designer Anna Biller told The Guardian about her peculiar 2016 indie. Since debuting at the International Film Festival Rotterdam and subsequently making its way through the festival circuit, The Love Witch has been crowned a new cult classic. It ended up ranking high on many notable Best of 2016 lists. Earlier this year, RottenTomatoes argued it’s one of the top 40 horror movies of all time. Just two days ago, The New York Times’ Sean T. Collins penned a lovely tribute to the film for the publication’s “Watching” newsletter:

With The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina almost upon us, I had been looking to do a double feature of witch-themed movies but was coming up short on potential titles since this particular section of the horror spectrum has never been my area of expertise (and The Witch and Halloween III are off the table since I already wrote about them). Thanks to Collins’ recommendation, I decided to start this double feature with The Love Witch. Having now seen the movie, I get why he and so many others love it so much; I just wish I did too.

For starters, you have to both know and love the era of filmmaking being homaged here to truly appreciate The Love Witch, and even if you do that still means sitting through purposefully stilted line readings/flat performances and avoiding the persistent, nagging thought that this might all just be retro or retro’s sake. For another, once the storyline’s repetitive formula becomes clear – Elaine uses a love spell on a guy, they have sex, the guy dies when the spell turns him suicidal, she moves on to the next guy – you start to wonder why in the world this needs to be 2 hours long.

What’s never in doubt is the level of artistry and conviction on display. Shot on 35MM and inspired by sources varied as Douglas Sirk, Rainer Werner, Sam Fuller, pre-Hays Code female-driven films, Hammer Studios, Rosemary’s Baby, and the Technicolor women’s pictures of the 1950s and lush melodramas of the 1960s, Anna Biller has created a true artistic wonder. If you’re in the bag for her unique recreation of the past, you’ll hoot the moment we meet Elaine sipping an impossibly big teacup whilst wearing an oversized pink hat like she’s Audrey Hepburn.

And if you’re receptive to Biller’s feminist message, you’ll dig the construct of using 1960s-style witchcraft to comment on gender roles and the struggles of being a woman trying to claim your own agency in a male-dominated world.

Not everyone, however, feels that way. In fact, according to Biller on Twitter last year, members of her own crew hated the film and what it was trying to say and actively tried to sabotage her efforts. The larger message seems clear: it’s a damn horror show out there, whether you’re an abuse victim-turned-Stepford Wife version of a witch in the 1960s or a female director attempting to get shit done in 2016.

For Biller’s efforts – this film represents 7 years of her life, from concept to fundraising to shooting to release – she certainly deserves applause. But The Love Witch is far longer than it needs to be and can prove quite grating for anyone not already steeped in as much film history as Biller and her cast clearly are.

In the larger pantheon of witch movies, as Biller told The Guardian this is secretly a femme fatale movie from the femme fatale’s point of view. It certainly goes a long way toward upending male fantasies, highlighting the mental and spiritual toll on Elaine as she tries so hard to be the type of woman every man would want. However, for the next part of this witch-themed double feature, I picked an actual older film that similarly uses witchcraft as an allegory for feminism and was made by someone who not only wrote and directed but also edited and did the cinematography.

Next Up: George Romero’s Season of the Witch

The Love Witch is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime.

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:

Tomorrow: Rosemary’s Baby

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