Writer-director-producer Anna Biller’s “The Love Witch” is a brightly hued homage to Technicolor horror movies, but with a twist. Women in such movies were often little more than eye candy to be discarded — quickly, vividly and violently. Biller subverts the genre’s gender roles, focusing on a powerful but lonely female villain.
Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a beautiful young witch who has left San Francisco for a small Northern California town after her husband’s death. (In a flashback, we’re shown her husband’s death by poisoning, presumably at the hands of his wife.) Alone in a new town, Elaine lures a series of new men to what, it is implied, may be a similar fate.
From the retro font of the opening credits to Elaine’s heavy makeup and the use of rear-screen projection, the film immerses us in a spot-on recreation of “giallo” cinema, as the cheesy Italian horror films of the 1970s were known. M. David Mullen’s cinematography uses saturated color for a gorgeous vintage look, and Biller herself created costumes from dress patterns of the era.
Yet what make “The Love Witch” more than just an impressive pastiche is its sly satire of genre tropes. After Elaine lures Wayne (Jeffrey Vincent Parise) to bed, he becomes needy and emotional. In a burlesque club, a warlock explains the fear of witchcraft as a fear of female sexuality, while a stripper gleefully plies her craft onstage.
Biller explores the female gaze, addressing the limits of women’s sexual fantasies. Men may satisfy Elaine’s physical needs, the film suggests, but do they really like her? As with giallo, “The Love Witch” features deliberately wooden acting, and can be a little boring at times. But it’s a stunningly photographed, fascinating reinterpretation of classic melodrama.
Unrated. At Landmark’s E Street Cinema. Contains strong language, sexuality, nudity and graphic violence. 120 minutes.