10/26/2018 – Anna Biller: The Love Witch (2016)
Directed by Anna Biller
For once I do not need to update what has happened with female directed films since I already covered 2016 last time. Today’s director, Anna Biller, would receive a bachelor’s from UCLA before receiving a master’s degree from CalArts in Art and Film. While there, she would make her first short (they are all here to rent), Three Examples of Myself as Queen, a classic Hollywood inspired fantasy musical starring herself in 1994. Four years later, she would follow it up with the musical short Fairy Ballet, a scene from a failed attempt to make “The White Cat” into a movie. In 2001 she would direct the forty-five-minute short The Hypnotist, based on classic Hollywood melodramas, as well as the horror western musical A Visit from the Incubus.
Biller’s first film would be the ’70s sexploitation influenced musical Viva which like all her previous works she would star in (among her many behind the scenes roles. Taking two years to film, it would be released in 2007 and gain her some modestly positive reviews. It took Biller about seven years to make The Love Witch, her second film and one that was written, produced, directed, edited, scored, production designed, set designed and decorated, and costumes designed by her (slacker).
The Love Witch takes its influence from the 1960s technicolor horror films and the look and feel of the film is going to be the first thing any viewer notices about the movie and its most lasting impact. It’s highly stylized with heavily made up actors, acting that is intentionally very stiff and very camp, dialogue that is very on the nose and expository, and even rear projection used while driving. It’s garish and colorful getting the technicolor look down beautifully with its absurd 1960s costumes and sets (though cell phones and modern cars are included) perfecting the feel. Even something as simple as the witch-y chemistry, the tarot cards (which were seemingly ubiquitous for such films), or the sound feels straight out of the era. There’s just one major thing she got wrong which I’ll get to in a bit.
Elaine is looking to start a new life in California. After having a nervous breakdown and murdering her boyfriend by poisoning for leaving her, she became reborn as a witch in an occult ceremony. She’s become (or always was) addicted to love and wants to give man their fantasies, living in a fantasy world. Throughout the film leans heavily into the argument of female empowerment through sex appeal, or at least that is the belief expressed by the witches since the film operates on the dual level of plenty of those exploitation films from the era and the 1970s. On one level it promotes the claiming of a feminist view of women reclaiming the position of power while still taking every opportunity to show off scantily clad women shaking their bodies about while on the other it also show that the person behind this view is a man who while not depicted as lecherous, has just about every other stereotypical depiction of such a man and is surrounding himself with young beautiful women for a reason.
Elaine stays in a room of an old Victorian house of a friend she had danced with in a room made up to appeal to all her witch sensibilities. In fact, she nor any of the other witches in the movie make any attempt to hide that they are a witch from anyone else. She’s able to transfix men with a glare, but even beyond that she isn’t satisfied as she resorts to love magic to get the men to fall even harder for her. As with all love magic, there’s consequences to be had as she struggles to deal with them and to find the perfect man. When she gives a man hallucinogenic herbs, I’m sure most will be drawn to the requisite kaleidoscope shot as the film takes a brief psychedelic visual turn, but it was the attention to the soft lighting, glow, and the rest of the details of that scene that impressed me about it.
What the film doesn’t get right about the era, and I harp on this a lot with modern movies, is its length. The film asks a lot of the basic visual and thematic premise to carry the movie and while they are great, it lacks the substance to fill it out. Therefore, once the appeal of seeing the era so perfectly captured, my interest started to fade as the film ran through the same points again and again. That intentionally on the nose dialogue creates the Death Proof issue where many of the problems are accurate reflections of the period or involve the writer essentially having a discussion on the screen about the genre, but neither make the film more interesting. That’s the problem with warts and all (stylistic) remakes and the length amplifies it.
In every technical aspect, the movie is an absolute treat and the feminist themes discussed can make for compelling thought if you wanted them to, but your enjoyment of the film will be tied largely to how far the aesthetics carry it for you. For me, that and Samantha Robinson’s lead performance which felt so perfect for the period was enough even if I felt myself slipping at times to merely appreciated what it was trying to accomplish.
Bonus Episode #36 – A – 1980s: The Brain (1988)
Directed by Ed Hunt
I’ll admit that I saw this one as part of the MST3K live show, so I was neither taking notes nor getting the proper experience of it throughout as a movie. Not like that’s ever stopped me from judging the film however. In terms of the shows (yes, I saw both) I wound up enjoying the late Deathstalker II show more as it went for more traditional host segments and riffing while the show for The Brain was loaded with a gimmick-y idea and more of an emphasis on running jokes. The film itself has plenty of mockable moments to be sure, but there’s also quite a bit I found myself unironically enjoying about it.
Jim is a smart slacker who takes nothing seriously and commits numerous pranks. After getting busted for a particularly brazen (and pathetic attempt to dispose of the evidence) prank involving flushing a bar of sodium down the toilets, he is threatened with a prevention of graduation unless he undergoes treatment with a local TV self-help doctor (played by David Gale of Re-Animator) on the cusp of breaking out nationally. His program, Independent Thinkers, is instead a front for a mass brainwashing program powered by a giant murderous brain. The brain is a delightful effect complete with face that pops out and devours people and tentacles to stab them.
The brain has a way of getting inside your head and even if you resist it, will still make you see illusions that are real to you and ridiculous to everyone else. The film suffers like so many other MST3K titles from its unlikable lead played by Tom Bresnahan whose every action seems asking for a slap. It’s hard to be paranoid for him when you don’t really want him to succeed, no matter how obviously evil Independent Thinkers is with or without telepathic killer brain with its obvious mix or televangelism and self-help sayings. Still, this Canadian b-movie horror that a distinct ’80s charm that no amount of never ending stairs or droning alarms can stop. Also, the sight of that hulking orderly never stopped amusing me by his simple presence let alone his continuous, dogged determination.
Next up: Tobe Hooper’s final film Djinn representing the United Arab Emirates.