Loving “The Love Witch”

Loving “The Love Witch” April 9, 2017

Some of the best “Pagan movies” don’t always portray we Pagans in the best of lights. The Wicker Man* was a delightful musical romp, but the Pagans and Lord Summerisle were still nominally the “bad guys.” Despite my love of Corn Rigs (and Barley Rigs-it’s a poem turned into a song) the Pagans of The Wicker Man were trying to sacrifice a human being. Was their sacrifice a complete tool who probably had it coming? Yeah maybe, but taking a life is still pretty awful.

Rosemary’s Baby is considered one of the most influential Witch/occult movies of all time, and yet the movie’s Witches were manipulative assholes trying to birth the Anti-Christ (and that’s just the start of their awfulness). Even when we find ourselves liking a Rosemary’s Baby or The Wicker Man it often comes with a caveat. “I know the Witches/Pagans were the bad guys, but . . . .” and I found myself thinking the same thing during The Love Witch.

Witchcraft and magick have always been “the other” when it comes to religion and spirituality, and that it extends into film shouldn’t be a surprise. Or perhaps movies like The Love Witch are secretly love letters to the Witchcraft world, reminding us that with “great power comes great responsibility?” Lots of portrayals of Witchcraft on TV (Salem, American Horror Story) and at the movies (The Witch) the last few years and all of them skirt a weird dynamic as to whether or not Witchcraft is “good.” Not a criticism, witch is a many layered word, more of an observation I felt was necessary for this review.

I want that rug, sadly her athame has a white handle.
I want that rug, sadly her athame has a white handle.

The Love Witch debuted last year to mostly positive reviews, was played at a several film festivals, and then had a limited theatrical run (which is still ongoing). In February it began to make its way onto (rental) streaming services such as Apple TV, Amazon, and Vudu, and was released on Blu-ray this past March. Stream it, buy it, rent it, borrow it from your local library, it doesn’t matter how you legally watch this film, but do so, because this is going to become an absolute Witchcraft Classic.

Yeah the main character, a young witch named Elaine (Samantha Robinson), is a killer, but you kind of find yourself rooting for her anyways. Elaine is egotistical, talented, and stunningly beautiful, but also broken in the absolute worst way. (I wanted to wrap her up in a blanket and let her know that she didn’t need a man to be happy.) Despite her black widow-like ways I found myself wanting her to have the proverbial movie happy ending, even while knowing it wasn’t likely.

Much of my love for the film is due to its timeless “between the worlds” look. Director Anna Biller and cinematographer M. David Mullen capture the look of 1960’s Technicolor films, and do it so well that I had to remind myself several times that this was not a film from 1965. Biller’s characters use cell phones and other contemporary devices, but often drive classic cars and dress like they are from another era, the effect makes the movie feel like a dream you don’t want to wake up from. I’ve never commented publicly before on the “lighting choices” in a movie, but they are so divinely inspired in The Love Witch that you’ll find yourself appreciating them out loud.

Elaine "The Love Witch."
Elaine “The Love Witch.”

As a Wiccan-Witch what most impressed me were just how accurate the rituals were. Biller has talked previously about the research** she did for the movie (and there were several “real life” Witches in the film as well), and it really pays off in the Witch-ritual scenes. I’d go as far as to say that The Love Witch features the most impressive looking Witch rituals I’ve ever seen on film. Biller’s film captures the “Alex and Maxine Sanders aesthetic” that tends to show up when people google their names in search of pictures documenting Witch ritual.

If you love seeing ritual that features mostly skyclad folks interspersed with dialogue from sources like Janet and Stewart Farrar’s The Witches Bible you’ll be delighted by The Love Witch. If Witchcraft with a more “ceremonial magick” type of vibe leaves you cold you’ll like it less than I did, but still dig it. Even the solitary ritual scenes with just Elaine still looked and felt like ritual that was mostly familiar to me.

One of the reasons for that “mostly” is because Elaine’s coven seems to be made of cash. Every ritual is a lavish spectacle, and Midsummer sees the local witches setting up a medieval fair with musicians, lots of food and drink, and more tents than most large festivals. It was all completely absurd and great at the same time.

Though I loved the ritual in The Love Witch, and the descriptions of Witchcraft and Paganism were generally spot on, there were moments when I felt as if Biller was shining a mirror on our community. The featured Witch-coven’s High Priest “Gahan” is a grabby asshat, and I can’t help but think we’ve probably all come across someone like that in the Pagan world.

Gahan on the left is kind of an ass.
Gahan on the left is kind of an ass.

The few negative reviews of The Love Witch are often critical of the wooden and sometimes cartoony acting. The George Lucas-like performances aren’t a sign of ineptitude, but a clear and conscious choice by Biller. The performances are meant to portray a different era of acting, one that was less “real” than what we are used to today. Though nominally a horror-movie The Love Witch is often delightfully funny, especially the performances of the men who end up completely infatuated with Elaine. And don’t miss the weakest punch throw in the history of humanity towards the end of the film, it had us howling.

Samantha Robinson’s Elaine reminded me a great deal of Los Angeles Witch-legend Louise Huebner. Robinson’s cadence and delivery has a lot in common with Huebner’s performance on her 1969 album Seduction Through Witchcraft, and the movie even replicates much of the so-cheesy-its-good music and sound effects from that record. Biller’s film is a Valentine to 60’s era Witchcraft and had there been a Pagan sympathetic director in Hollywood in 1969 I suspect their film would have looked a lot like The Love Witch.

Director Anna Biller’s film was a true labor of love, not only did she write and direct the film, she also designed its sumptuous outfits and jaw-dropping sets. Elaine’s apothecary-style-Witch-apartment had everyone in my living room saying “I want to live there!” Pretty much any set that was Witch-related resulted in a lot of envy, just “playing Witch” on those sets had to have been incredibly fun.

One could probably build a movie around Elaine's eyes.
One could probably build a movie around Elaine’s eyes.

Many of the promotional materials related to The Love Witch focus on Elaine’s eyes, and deservedly so. The combination of eye makeup and Robinson’s natural beauty are hypnotizing, and I’ll admit to being fully hypnotized. The Love Witch is a Pagan must and some of the most fun I’ve had watching a movie in several years. Two big horns up!

*There is only one version of The Wicker Man and it was never remade. To suggest otherwise is not allowed at Raise the Horns.
**Click that link, Heather Greene’s article and review on The Love Witch is much better than mine.

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