Saturday, November 26, 2016

Retro Love Potion: "The Love Witch" a fun, affectionately detailed kitsch throwback

The Love Witch (2016) 
120 min., not rated (equivalent of an R).

Much like Ti West’s 1980s-set “The House of the Devil” (2009), “The Love Witch” is wholly committed to invoking a very specific time and genre, only this time the melodramatic occult sexploitation pics of yore. Thanks to writer/producer/director/composer/editor/set and costume designer Anna Biller (2007's "Viva"), the film is a loving, fastidious throwback to a Technicolored bygone era, and unless one knew otherwise, it could have come straight out of a time capsule from the late-1960s and early-‘70s with cues to Italian horror and gothic Hammer Films. The overall experience might be a studied stylistic exercise and a gateway drug to play catch-up on the movies it is so affectionately saluting, but it’s an irresistible brew and should not be underestimated. "The Love Witch" needs to be devoured.

Elaine Parks (Samantha Robinson) has been reborn as a witch. Moving away from San Francisco after her ex-husband Jerry “left” her (read: she murdered him), she starts anew in a small California town by renting out her coven friend’s upstairs apartment of a Victorian mansion. Elaine craves love and has now honed a formula to lure men: give them what they want. New in town, she makes men turn their heads and do whatever she wants. The first man weakened by her sexuality is a professor named Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), and her love potion works on him, until he becomes more of an emotional baby than the real man she needs. Pretty soon, Elaine is burying Wayne in his backyard and then off to the next man. When the handsome Detective Griff (Gian Keys) gets on Wayne’s murder case, he is immediately bewitched by Elaine, as is Richard (Robert Seeley), the husband of realtor friend Trish (Laura Waddell). Can poor Elaine just find love without being burned for her black magic?

A feminist reflection with love potions, gender-equal nudity and kaleidoscopic fantasies, “The Love Witch” isn’t so much ersatz camp as it is a vivid recreation or a recently discovered artifact of its time. From the actors’ period-appropriate faces to their kitschy clothes to the style in which they speak, the film is a spot-on homage with a ruby-red lipsticked kiss on each frame. Having a clear eye for what she’s going for and knowing how to do it, multi-hyphenate filmmaker Anna Biller gets a whole lot of mileage out of such a small budget (she even stitched together Elaine’s pentagram rug). The stylish cinematography by M. David Mullen makes sure every color pops; even the camera zooms are nice touches and one transition from a bloody wrist to a strawberry cake at a Victorian tea room is a hoot. Aside from a few knowingly amusing anachronisms—there are a few street shots that clearly attempt to frame above contemporary cars, and at one point a character pulls out a cell phone—it gets away with posing as a film made in the ‘60s or ‘70s. 

The cast is a little green, but the performances are perfection in their stiffness and earnestness. With her black-as-ebony hair, blue eyeshadow and false eyelashes, Samantha Robinson is alluring and bewitching with a cheekily self-aware voice-over as Elaine, the epitome of a man’s fantasy who just wants to be loved. If one wants to nitpick at all, the film is a bit overlong at a full two hours. A tighter edit was probably somewhere in Biller—a sequence during Elaine’s coven’s Renaissance Faire in which she and Griff have a mock wedding goes on much too long—but when it is so transparent that every nook and cranny was made with care and love by a dedicated filmmaker, it would be hard to know where to trim something. One with a more extensive knowledge of the kind of cinema “The Love Witch” is tipping its hat to may get more out of it—Russ Meyer fans, raise your hands—but rabid cinephiles won’t be able to deny it as an erotic, dreamy curio. Does anyone else smell a cult classic in the making?

Grade: B +

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