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Film Review: ‘The Love Witch’

"Viva" director Anna Biller is back mining vintage exploitation tropes with this tribute to sexy early 70s occult chillers.

Cast:
Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddell, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Jared Sanford, Robert Seeley, Jennifer Ingrum, Steve, Randy Evans, Clive Ashborn, Lily Holleman, Jennifer Couch, Stephen Wozniak.

Anna Biller’s delightful 2007 “Viva” seemed to be the result of many years of exhaustive thrift-store scavenging, at the end of which the writer-director-star at last had every last pair of bell-bottom pants and Naugahyde living-room sets she needed to craft the ultimate satirical homage to late-’60s/early-’70s sexploitation cinema. It’s taken nearly a decade for her to create followup “The Love Witch.” No doubt much of that time was again spent meticulously accruing every tacky bauble of decor and dress necessary to recreate another semi-forgotten subgenre: the early- to mid-’70s occult thriller, in which glam suburban housewives frequently dabbled in black magic, casting spells that invariably went very wrong.

Their floodgates having opened for a while by the success of “Rosemary’s Baby,” such exercises were occasionally major-studio releases (“The Mephisto Waltz,” “The Pyx”), but more often grade B to Z (“Simon King of the Witches,” George Romero’s “Hungry Wives,” Ted V. Mikels’ “Blood Orgy of the She Devils”). This not particularly lucrative minor vogue, which also encompassed a number of similarly themed TV movies, was soon buried by the more violently assertive horror strains introduced by “The Exorcist,” “The Omen,” and slasher cinema. But fans of garish Me Decade style and vintage erotic cheese treasure the earlier films even for their meandering, narrative pokiness — a quality “The Love Witch” reproduces all too faithfully, alongside more inviting flashback elements.

Driving along scenic, back-projected coastal Northern California roads to music that would be right at home in a 1972 ABC “Movie of the Week” (indeed much of the score here is lifted directly from old soundtracks, including some by Ennio Morricone), beauteous Elaine (Samantha Robinson) informs us via voiceover that she’s starting a new life in redwood country “where no one knows me.” We quickly grasp this has something to do with the unfortunate fate of ex-husband Jerry (Stephen Wozniak), and her becoming the focus of a subsequent, inconclusive,  police investigation. Nevertheless, Elaine is a free woman — even if her turquoise eye shadow and raven hair extensions suggest she may be far from guiltless.

Elaine has fled San Francisco for this picturesque small town at the invitation of a couple (Jennifer Ingrum, Jared Sanford) who preside over the area’s thinly tolerated cult of goddess-worshipping, free-love-practicing “white” witches. (As a reminder that in many ways the early ’70s were considerably more liberal cinematically than today, this group’s frequent orgiastic rituals feature plenty of equal-opportunity, full-frontal nudity.)

But the games Elaine plays with her spells and potions shade toward the darker end of the supernatural spectrum. Forever prattling about seeking “love,” which she views in the most traditional, fantasy terms (even as she paints pictures of herself straddling a dead knight and clutching his bloody heart), she isn’t content to let kittenish allure alone snare potential Mr. Rights. Indeed, her witchy tactics are so potent they prove fatal to the likes of a groovy university professor (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), and the hapless husband (Robert Seeley) of her trusting landlady (Laura Waddell). She spares no pity for “weak” men, however. Instead, she refocuses on a new potential Prince Charming found in the swaggering machismo of police detective Griff (Gian Keys), though it’s a tad inconvenient that he’s simultaneously investigating her as a murder suspect.

If Viva (played by Biller herself) was a Candy-like innocent prone to exploitation as she explored the brave new freedoms of the Sexual Revolution, Elaine is a malevolent force who inwardly excuses her predation in terms of feminist self-fulfillment. She’s the old-school sexist pig’s nightmare of a liberated woman, one whose sexual availability comes with an emasculating price tag. Robinson does a great job encapsulating another era’s kitten-with-a-whip affectations, and Biller drenches her star turn in all the date-appropriate accoutrements: not just the expected over-the-top splendors of retro costume and production design (by Biller herself, natch), but zoom lensing, prism effects, gauzy soft focus, garish lighting gambits, and so forth. It’s all duly shot in widescreen 35mm by d.p. M. David Mullen, who’s clearly done his homework researching the target screen era’s visual tropes.

The woozy bad-trip-at-the-sex-club atmosphere of the films to which “The Love Witch” pays tribute were notorious for prizing soft-core titillation over horror, or narrative for that matter. In that respect, “The Love Witch” is perhaps a bit too slavishly devoted to its sources. “Viva,” at a full 120 minutes (likewise at least a half-hour longer than the vast majority of its inspirations), also overstayed its welcome. But that earlier film boasted more variety in an episodic treatment that spoofed a wider gamut of psychotronic cinema, from grindhouse “nudie cuties” to Russ Meyer’s “Beyond the Valley of the Dolls.” Here Biller resuscitates a much narrower strip of drive-in turf. The fact that the films that serve as her models often sported the same flaws doesn’t excuse this fairly poker-faced spoof’s sometimes borderline-torpid pace and disappointing fade-out. (The angry townsfolk do indeed eventually chant “Burn the witch!,” but they — and the viewer — get no such satisfaction.)

Still, it’s hard to not to be somewhat awed by Biller’s fetishistic thrall to every cheesy detail of movies that were disreputable then and largely remain so, their cult followings today small enough to be accommodated by boutique retro-sleaze DVD distributors like Something Weird Video. It’s a lovingly crafted ode to little-loved cinema that’s secure enough in its obscurantist nostalgia to make a sly joke of its occasional anachronisms: No one blinks at the fact that the luridly hued widescreen world of Me Decade duds and dialogue is time-warped now and again by the unexplained phenomena of personal computers, cell phones, and SUVs.

“Viva,” had a very modest theatrical career following extensive festival travel; it will be interesting to see if Oscilloscope’s planned fall release of “The Love Witch,” an equally insular throwback, can cast a wider spell.

Film Review: 'The Love Witch'

Reviewed online, San Francisco, July 15, 2017. (In Fantasia Film Festival. Also in Rotterdam, Edinburgh festivals.) Running time: 120 MIN.

Production: An Oscilloscope release of an Anna Biller Prods. production. Produced by Biller. Executive producer, Jared Sanford.

Crew: Directed, written, edited by Anna Biller. Camera (color, widescreen), M. David Mullen; production designer/costume designer, Biller; sound, Karl Lohninger; assistant director, Travis Huff.

With: Samantha Robinson, Gian Keys, Laura Waddell, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, Jared Sanford, Robert Seeley, Jennifer Ingrum, Steve, Randy Evans, Clive Ashborn, Lily Holleman, Jennifer Couch, Stephen Wozniak.

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