Writer-director-producer Anna Biller is establishing something of an auteurial signature with her sophomore film The Love Witch. Nearly a decade after Viva, her feature debut, The Love Witch expands on Biller’s slavish devotion to ’70s trash cinema, this time turning her attention from the “nudie cuties” of Russ Meyer et al. to the distinctly more limited subgenre of occult sexploitation. While the film often struggles to define its own boundaries between homage and parody, taken on its own terms it’s a fun — if frivolous — piece of nostalgic camp for those inclined to such pursuits (among whose ranks I count myself).
Following the success of films like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and The Exorcist (1973), misconstrued esotericism equaled big box office bucks in the minds of many studio execs, leading to a glut of poorly thought-out and hastily executed imitators. In some cases, these bandwagon-jumpers led to disastrous results, such as 1976’s To the Devil a Daughter essentially killing Hammer Films. Despite their inherent drawbacks, there’s often a lurid appeal to the technicolor vulgarity of even the worst films of this ilk, though that appeal may be somewhat limited in its reach. The Love Witch understands this attraction and capitalizes on those principal strengths with plenty of primary-color blood, ample sex and nudity, and a penchant for the bizarre narrative tendencies that defined a generation of low-budget horror.
Biller clearly has a passion for her antecedents, but her insistence on visual verisimilitude occasionally gets in the way of the thematic resonance she’s striving for with this movie. The self-conscious attempts at camp that distinguish most of The Love Witch belie any sense of a deeper reverence for the source material on par with the ’70s throwback horrors of Rob Zombie or Ti West. Even last month’s Ouija sequel played the same game with a little more sincerity. The Love Witch gives off the distinct impression that the mind behind it was afraid audiences might laugh at her work, so she decided to beat them to that particular punch by taking great pains to ensure they would.
There is something to be said for this approach, however, as a film that features lines of dialogue as brutally on the nose as, “People always ask me why I’m a witch — I tell them it’s because I want to have magical powers,” can’t be all bad. Add in significantly more than a touch of era-appropriate full-frontal nudity, and you have a film distinctly well-suited to its target audience. Fans of Lucio Fulci or Mario Bava will find plenty to enjoy here, although I ultimately found the whole to be less than the sum of its parts.
The film banks on a solid central performance from Samantha Robinson as the titular (and titillating) witch, a self-absorbed narcissist who employs black magic to seduce ineffectual men in the hopes of garnering the unconditional love she is convinced is her right. There are some allusions to an intriguing feminist gender politic at moments, but the film too often shortchanges these ideas by overemphasizing its protagonist’s latent misandry and coupling it with a level of passive misogyny that leans away from feminism and into sociopathy.
If this film had come along five years ago, it would’ve seemed almost revolutionary. As it stands now, it’s just another enjoyably goofy — yet largely forgettable — trip down memory lane. There are moments of brilliance underlying the intentionally wooden performances, leaden scripting and harsh soundstage lighting that define The Love Witch, but they never quite cohere into the cinematic serenade to a lost era that the filmmaker clearly intended. Much like its protagonist’s victims, I desperately wanted to fall under the spell of The Love Witch, but the potion left me feeling distinctly unsatisfied and maybe a little queasy. Unrated.
Opens Friday at Grail Moviehouse.