Halloween Horror Week: The Love Witch (2016)

(This was originally written in 2017 for a website that is no longer online. In honor of Halloween, I’m posting it here.)

“We may be grown women, but underneath we’re just little girls, dreaming about being carried off by a prince on a white horse.”

That’s not our intro to Elaine (Samantha Robinson), the titular love witch of Anna Biller’s The Love Witch, but it’s sort of her thesis statement. She’s fled a bad marriage that came to a bad end (as did her husband, Jerry) and ended up in a small Northern California town to find love.

The glamourous Elaine has decided the best way to go about it is to shape herself into “just a pretty woman to love” – in other words, the perfect male fantasy. Her preoccupation has little to do with what she wants and rather what she believes men want. So of course, Elaine turns to witchcraft to accomplish this. And of course, it does not go at all according to her plan. There will be more bad ends to follow.

Writer-director-editor (among other roles) Biller’s The Love Witch occupies a delightful space between camp and high art. Biller’s film is self-aware – it’s at once romantic and serious, arch and hilarious, beautiful and tragic. The acting is performative and stylized but adds perfectly to the heightened reality this film evokes. There is a confident vision to this movie that few filmmakers would be able to pull off.

Biller famously spent years designing and fabricating the costumes and the sets as well as composing music and even hooking a rug to accomplish her singular vision. The movie’s aesthetics are a huge part of its appeal, giving it both a timeless and a time-displaced feeling. It’s not a pastiche nor a parody, but rather it creates its own world that draws you in. It will remind you of other movies you’ve seen – clearly, it’s been influenced by everything from Technicolor musicals to giallo to ‘60s melodrama  – but it’s also like nothing else.

As the story unfolds, Elaine – all winged eyeliner and bright eyeshadow, shiny hair and seductive sweetness – sets her eyes clearly inferior men, such as Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise), a professor; and the husband, Richard (Robert Seeley), of her friend Trish (Laura Waddell). They both immediately fall under her literal spell. But Elaine soon gets bored with them and their over-emoting. It’s not a surprise when they both eventually end up dead.

Flashbacks and voiceovers reveal the everyday abuse Elaine faced – from a husband who said she wasn’t doing enough to a father who said she was fat and unattractive. Even her initiation into her coven feels more male-dominated than a goddess-worshipping group should be.

In one scene, Elaine listens with caution as male witch leader Gahan (Jared Sanford) instructs two young women that “A woman’s greatest power lies in her sexuality” while in a burlesque club. In another, she pushes him away as he tries to kiss her breasts in a traditional greeting. This is all under the eye of fellow witch and friend, Barbara (Jennifer Ingrum), who allows it to go on. Elaine understands these are the people with who she’s chosen to align herself, but she still lingers on the outside.

It’s not until midway through the movie that we’re introduced to a police detective, Griff Meadows (Gian Keys), who is Elaine’s greatest love match and also the only man who doesn’t completely fall under her spell.

There’s an idyllic ride on horseback through the woods and then a mock Renaissance wedding between the two of them (it’s that kind of movie) but it’s in those scenes that show how far apart the two are – Griff, in the inner thoughts of his voiceover, refuses to completely fall in love with Elaine. Elaine, for her part, has decided he’s the one. She’s fallen under her own love spell, perhaps, and refuses to let Griff go, but making men love her is the power she has. It’s maybe the only power society has given her.

After the town turns on Elaine for being a witch, Griff, despite his better judgment (and his judgment of her), saves her. However, Elaine knows his true colors – and more importantly, he knows hers. So, of course, she has no choice but to stab him to death. Heartbroken, with his blood on her hands, she dreams of her fantasy – being loved, being carried off by her prince on a white horse.

Trish said to Elaine early in the movie, “It sounds like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.” As much of a gorgeous, brightly-colored delight as The Love Witch is, it reveals the darkness under the surface of so much beauty and glamour. We’ve all been brainwashed by the patriarchy. The question The Love Witch leaves us with is what we’re going to do about it.