The Importance of “The Love Witch”

Writer Merrill Watzman writes about "The Love Witch," the 2016 camp feminist horror film.

Story by Merrill Watzman

“The Love Witch” is a campy feminist horror film writen, directed and produced by Anna Biller. The 2016 film follows a young witch named Elaine (Samantha Robinson), who dramatically declares via inner-monologue, “I’m starting a new life,” as she takes a drag of a cigarette and drives down a California highway in a 1960’s red mustang. 

The sets and costumes, (both handmade) are beautiful and indulgent, it’s shot on 35mm film cut from the negative, but “The Love Witch” is more than a wet dream for the tarot-curious horror snobs. Through dark humor, self aware dialogue and the feminist lens, Biller reshapes a familiar trope—a witch who uses magic to make men fall for her, from the witch’s perspective. It’s a twisted story that critiques social ironies of heterosexual relationships through the eyes of a murderous witch.

The film delivers a complex horror villian, whose charming innocence leads her friend’s husband and even the audience to fall for her. Elaine believes that she isn’t doing anything wrong and for a second, it’s easy to believe that too. But the more we learn about her, the more self possessed she becomes. When we think that Elaine has finally quenched her insatiable thirst for love, she reminds us to never doubt her. 

Trish (Laura Waddell), an interior decorator and Elaine’s companion gasps in horror after Elaine says with off-the-cuff cadence, “giving men sex is a way to unlock their love potential.” Trish exclaims, “It sounds like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy!” Trish is shocked by Elaine’s seemingly unequivocal need for a man’s love and subordination to men. But as the film goes on, it’s clear that Elaine’s actions are deeper and darker than mere male-centric validation.

Katie Rife of the AV Club wrote, “On the surface, Elaine’s worldview appears pathetically retrograde; she’s obsessed with finding true love through witchcraft and believes that a woman should devote herself to fulfilling her man’s every desire. But there’s a subversive edge to this philosophy and not just because Elaine kills her lovers if they disappoint her (and they always do). Elaine views men as dumb, easily manipulated creatures, susceptible to the simplest of tricks and most clichéd lines.”

Yes, Elaine may be using her magic to gain love, but the men are falling for it. And when the spells work too well, is it really her fault? It is a horror film, afterall. She wants nothing more than for men to love her and not objectify her. The men are all overcome by their emotions and die before they succeed. 

Elaine sets her sights on a professor at a local college named Wayne. In minutes the two are driving to Wayne’s cabin in the woods for a romantic evening. Elaine performs love magic on Wayne and after they have sex, he changes. Her once-fun now emotional and needy man drops dead the next morning. Elaine pitties his weakness and buries him with a witches’ bottle, containing her urine and a used tampon. Her inner monologue reads: “Tampons aren’t gross. Women bleed and that’s a beautiful thing. Do you know that most men haven’t seen a used tampon?,” setting up a flawless joke execution when two male homicide detectives are investigating the crime scene. 

“Carrie” was the first film to show period blood in 1976. A nod to this female driven horror classic, it’s interesting that Anna Biller included a used tampon in the film in such a non-threatening way. This may be the first used tampon in a movie that was more than the butt of a nosebleed joke. 

After reading an interview with Biller, the whole point of the film became much clearer. The film isn’t supposed to be focusing on the destruction that comes with a witch’s sexual agency. Biller told The Guardian, “[This is] what would happen if men loved women as strongly as women want them to; the way women crave to be loved by men. Men are known for being much less emotional than women, but, in my experience, they’re much more emotional. And that’s why they won’t, or can’t, open that gate – it would destroy them. And that’s what kills all the men in my movie – having to experience their own feelings.”

Biller deeply understood the feeling she wanted her film to evoke. Not only did she write, direct and produce the film; she also sewed the costumes, constructed and painted most of the elaborate sets and scored the film with original songs.

Biller constructed most of the film singlehandedly because she had a precise vision and she didn’t have the budget. The tone of her movie was very important and she wanted to get it right. Maybe that’s the je ne se quoi in a movie made by a woman—that the tone shines through. The film itself is a visual masterpiece, but after taking a closer look at the production and timing of its release, its cultural significance is haunting. 

“The Love Witch” took seven and one-half years to make and its release date? Three days after the 2016 election of Donald T*ump. When your feminist film’s release immediately follows the election of an openly misogynistic president, it’s seen in a completely different context; the hateful, once-latent ideologies of the country now on display and now on the minds of people everywhere. 

There’s a scene near the end of the film where Elaine and her homicide detective boyfriend Griff, talk about how she would have to go to jail for the deaths of the men that she used love magic on. Patrons overhear this conversation, figure out she’s the witch they’ve hear horror stories about and attack her, screaming “burn the witch!”. Townspeople blindly joining in a crowd-mentality brawl is eerily Trumpian. You cannot help but fear for Elaine in that moment. Biller thinks that it came out at the right time. 

The end of the film may be the most haunting of all. After Griff helps Elaine escape the bar scene and escorts her safely home, he says that no one man can ever love her enough. Elaine reacts by stabbing him to death. In lieu of her inner monologue, we see her imagining their wedding; a twisted smile crosses her face. She soaks up Griff’s love in that moment.

The Love Witch is paced and designed as if Biller was pulling tarot cards while writing the story. That’s the quiet brilliance of the film– Its feminist messages are nuanced, not shouting girlboss from the rooftops. Biller is taking a familiar character and restructuring her; a feminist unlearning of the male fantasy. 

Women are vilified in horror often but Elaine is a refreshing villainess. Biller told The Guardian, “I’m doing that with “The Love Witch, reclaiming the figure of the witch, the femme fatale, an old sort of male fantasy figure and make it a femme fatale seen from the female side.”