“My therapist says I’m not that unusual; people have nervous breakdowns all the time, all over the world, and they do fine.” So says Elaine Parks, a vision in raven hair, blue eye shadow and red lipstick, chain smoking as she drives along the coastal highway with the elegance of the archetypal starlet of a late sixties/early seventies American International Pictures feature, most likely produced by Roger Corman, if not directed by him too.
The Love Witch, however, is entirely the vision of Anna Biller, and if anyone was entitled to a nervous breakdown it was her, taking on the roles of writer, producer, director, production designer, costume designer, set designer, set decorator and art director.
What could easily have become an indulgent vanity project is instead a flawlessly crafted homage to and pastiche of that golden age of drive in movie double bills too risque for the mainstream, now rarely seen other than as late night fillers, a lurid occult flavoured sexploitation flick with the tables turned by a driving force which is entirely female.
The classically beautiful Samantha Robinson gives a performance consciously free of guile or any undercurrent of menace, a being of pure spirit who communes with nature and mixes potions to charm men to her bed, yet leaves a trail of devastation in her wake. “Goddess, please send me a beautiful, smart man to love me as I love him,” she chants. “Love me, love me, love me.”
Over cake at the pink pastel tearoom seemingly frequented by the womenfolk of Stepford, her friend Trish (Laura Waddell) is concerned by Elaine’s single minded pursuit. “You sound like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy. Your whole self worth seems wrapped around giving a man what he wants.” Sure enough, the purity and intensity of Elaine’s desire is too much for any man.
First up is Wayne Peters (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), professor of 18th century English and French literature who takes her to his cabin in the woods, but whose love for Elaine is so intense it breaks him, wailing like something out of a Tennessee Williams play before he expires during the night.
Elaine accepts the ephemeral circle of life, recalling her much missed black and white cat Graymalkin even as she buries her lover of one night in the woods, but soon others fall under her spell, Trish’s husband Richard (Robert Seeley), then Griff (Gian Keys), the police officer investigating the professor’s disappearance.
The retro hair, fashions and vivid colours are exquisite, a kaleidoscope of soft focus lens flare as Elaine casts her spells in her tarot deck inspired bachelorette lodgings, the soundtrack (by Biller, of course) channelling the mystery of Les Baxter, composer of many a Corman creation as rituals unfold in the night before Satanic cocktail mixers with cookies served on pentagram plates.
While it first appears that Waddell’s performance is out of tone with the tightly woven fabric of the film, it becomes apparent that this is a deliberate choice within Biller’s meticulously crafted whole, the one character who does not seem to be in on the joke, just slightly out of step to throw contrast on all those who are part of Elaine’s world, her fellow cultists, her lovers, her victims, even the rowdies who wish the town of Eureka rid of witches, Elaine convinced that men burn witches at the stake because they fear the feelings they elicit.
Lovingly filmed on colour saturated 35mm and likely to appeal to a similar audience as enjoyed The Lost Skeleton of Cadavra or Trail of the Screaming Forehead but without the mugging or overt winks to the cheap seats, The Love Witch is currently playing the festival circuit with the British premiere at the Edinburgh International Film Festival, and it is to be hoped that it is in the cards for Biller to cast her spell over a wider realm in the near future.