Anna Biller's ripe, vibrant The Love Witch is an act of reclamation — and love. In this out-of-time extravaganza of feminist-satanist serial-killer erotica, the writer-director-producer — plus editor and set and costume designer — has crafted the best kind of homage or parody, the kind that honors every thrill and quirk of the original while improving on it. Catch half a scene of The Love Witch and you might think it a glistening new print of some gem of '70s parapsychological softcore. All those cultists, nude and chanting while their leader brandishes a knife; all those tight, tense zooms onto the eyes of man-killer Elaine (Samantha Robinson).
But listen: As the requisite burlesque dancer spins her tassels, the leader of the cult celebrates the awesomeness of what he calls the “sex dance.” “We don't view this power as satanic or antifeminist but as a celebration of woman as a natural creature — an earthly body, a spiritual essence and a womb.” And look: The camera regards the dancer as a performer rather than a collection of body parts, and we see how hard she works, how fluid and inventive she is in her gyrations and how proud she is.
The Love Witch isn't the exploitation film it looks like, despite its bacchanals and seductions and black-magic murders. It's a humane exploitation of exploitation itself, a celebration and a correction, from an artist who has taken everything she loves about her genre, dashed what she doesn't and then shaped what she's seized into a work of urgent, personal expression. Here are all the swooningly gorgeous actors you might expect, their faces Disney TV wholesome. Here's Elaine stripping away her fantastic vintage skirts to expose lacy underthings and set the men she beguiles into grabby ecstasies. But after sex, a rakish professor praises her for not demanding commitment and then muses that usually women as beautiful as she is aren't smart enough for him. Worse: “All the bright ones are homely and don't arouse me.”
“That seems like quite a problem,” she purrs, and then he bawls. (They all get too emotional for her.)
At the film's opening, Elaine has been ditched by her ex and now is relocating to a small town before she's linked to the fate that eventually befell him. There she turns predator, working minor charms to lure new men into bed and then, finding them wanting or weak, eventually facing the problem of how to do away with their corpses. (Biller parodies the banality of male fantasy, with one lover carrying on about how what he really wants to do is shoot up a town like the black hats in a Western and then nip off to the brothel.) She wants love above all else, a Prince Charming and the whole bit, and she tries to use her craft to win it — and then to help clean up when it doesn't work out. After an early death, she works a spell with a vial of urine and a used tampon, musing that no man even knows what a tampon looks like; Biller wins a laugh later when two hunky cops are flummoxed by this choice of evidence.
Biller doesn't just re-create the pop-bright look and black-widow storyline of retro occult sexploitation. She embraces the genre's easygoing pace, letting her film run longer than its inspirations, and she emphasizes — fetishizes, even — what's most fascinating about those ‘70s cheapies today: the world and the time in which all the sinning unfolded, established here through her own production design. (Music borrowed from those cheapies helps.) It's hilarious when Elaine's first date with the cop (Gian Keys) who is investigating her own murders finds the lovers-to-be in crisp, matching white button-downs and khakis, astride matching white horses. But when they happen upon costumed ren-festers, celebrating midsummer and tootling away on recorders, the joke becomes reverie, a celebration of this time in this world. That's The Love Witch: not a spoof but a re-creation, an improvement and an enchantment.