I’ve been looking forward to seeing this film since I first saw the trailer last August. I bought a ticket to see it at FrightFest in London, but in the end, couldn’t attend, so I was thrilled when it finally came out in cinemas and streaming websites in the UK last week and on DVD today.
The Love Witch tells the story of Elaine (a beguiling Samantha Robinson), a beautiful woman who is unlucky in love. Taking matters into her own hands, she uses witchcraft to control her romantic destiny, with disastrous consequences. Although she has no problem bewitching men with her seductive beauty and charm, her fatal flaw is failing to understand that a love spell does not result in true love and a fairy tale ‘happy ever after’, but instead turns her conquests into lovesick emotional wrecks. She uses her lovers as pawns in her game, playing the role of Stepford Wife to catch them in her web, before ultimately becoming irritated with them when they get too needy. It’s a clever role reversal of the stereotypical man who ditches the woman when she becomes too clingy or seeks commitment.
The film is completely unique its look and feel. It does pay homage to a certain aesthetic of the 60s and 70s in its cinematic style, and especially in the stunning costumes and heightened acting, but from a refreshingly modern and feminist angle. Auteur Anna Biller shows her passion for cinematic history and she did years of research on witchcraft and practiced solitary magic, so she is not depicting the craft from an outsider’s view. Biller designed all the luscious sets, including the beautiful Victorian tea room and Elaine’s witchy apartment, which we are told, was inspired by the Thoth tarot. I particularly love the purple damask wallpaper in Elaine’s bedroom, the apothecary style shelves and bench where Elaine cooks up her potions, and the pentagram rug.
The Love Witch is sumptuous to look at – Biller really went to town with the detail – and as a result, I was spellbound much like Elaine’s doomed lovers. It mixes deadpan comedy and horror perfectly, but I don’t think it could be categorised as such. I certainly don’t think it’s a pastiche. Really, I believe, it’s quite a tragic tale about a delusional woman who cannot separate fantasy from reality. We see and hear evidence that Elaine has a history of abuse, and that she has probably created this ideal for herself as a way of holding power over men and protecting herself.
The film is shot in 35 mm and uses many of the techniques used in classic old films. It is not a realistic film, nor could it be, because, for those 121 minutes, we are living in Elaine’s fantasy world. One of her lovers tells her “what you call love is a borderline personality disorder”, and we see this in her emotional detachment from other people and her total lack of responsibility for her actions. She completely disregards the Wiccan Rede of An harm it none, do what ye will. In other words, Elaine practices magic that changes people’s will and eventually harms them. She is ruthless in her search for her Prince Charming.
I think it’s important that Biller made Elaine, her tragic femme fatale a witch, for what other symbol is s0 pertinent in female history? Women, in particular, were singled out in witch persecutions because men feared their innately feminine traits, traits such as intuition, creation and an affinity to nature. In Victorian society, the dichotomy of the angel and the whore was a common theme. Women have always been polarised, but witches transgress this in their autonomy and in their ability to shapeshift, whether metaphorically or literally. With glamour and magic, Elaine is able to become powerful. One of the definitions of glamour is that it is an enchantment, it is magic. We know the power that make up gives to us. It’s no wonder the beauty industry is worth £17 billion in the UK alone. Elaine knows she is gorgeous, but she also relies on wigs and heavy make up to achieve a certain look.
The glamorous woman is often the victim of the male gaze in films, particularly in films such as the Hammer Horror movies of the 60s and 70s, which lingered on the female characters and in particular their naked flesh. This film does not dwell on female nudity, it does not feel gratuitous, and in fact, men are shown nude here just as often as the women are. When Elaine falls for a guy, we see a close-up of her eyes, of her intense gaze on them.
There is a prolonged Renaissance scene which some reviewers have deemed unnecessary, yet I think it’s an important scene in showing the audience just how detached from reality Elaine really is. We see her fairy tale come true; a ‘play’ marriage with her as the radiant princess being led away on a unicorn by her dream prince. But we also see that the object of her affection is merely ‘playing along’ and has no illusions about romance, but instead harbors a rather pessimistic view of love and women in general.
There is one scene in a burlesque bar where the drunken punters turn on Elaine and the fear of a modern day reenactment of the classic ‘kill the witch’ scenario genuinely left me unsettled. It captures the undercurrent of creepiness which I think permeates through those old films, behind the paint-like fake blood and flashing of bare flesh. It is also timely, given the recent US election, Trump’s presidency and the resulting women’s marches worldwide.
This film could be viewed initially as a period piece but it is actually set in the modern day; the aesthetic mirrors the old-fashioned behaviour which Elaine thinks men desire; playing the role of the whore in the bedroom and the angel in the kitchen. Although there are some modern cars in the film, it’s still a shock when Trish, Elaine’s neighbour, pulls out a mobile phone. It’s akin to the helicopter arriving at the end of the French fairy tale film, Donkey Skin, which I’d assumed was set in the middle ages.
Anna Biller is an exciting filmmaker for women and says she will continue to make films for a female audience. In an interview with The Guardian, she said, “All women’s pictures. That’s where I’m heading next.” I’m looking forward to her future projects, especially her next film, which will be her take on the Bluebeard fairy tale, and I’m keen to check out her first feature-length film Viva, which is available on demand from her website. In many ways, The Love Witch is a refreshingly honest movie, largely because of its female director. I hope this becomes commonplace in an industry still largely run by men.
Okay, so this title is a misnomer. In 1992 a small film about a Californian high school girl fighting vampires was released. I remember my mum renting it from the local video store. She told me the synopsis, but wouldn’t let me watch it on account of the ’15’ certificate (thanks, mum!). And I sooo wanted to watch it, because it had Kristy Swanson as the titular character, and she was in the Mannequin sequel which I had rented out an embarrassing amount of times, along with the Splash sequel and Mac and Me (as you can see, I had a high-brow taste in films back then). So it’s ironic that instead of loving the poor man’s version of a box office success, I ended up loving the cult hit.
I grew up devouring shiny Hollywood portrayals of high school, probably because I lived in Scotland, and the amount of rain there makes Forks from Twilight seem like the Costa del Sol in comparison. I watched Saved by the Bell, California Dreamin’ and yes, Baywatch. I got excited every time a new Sweet Valley High book came out. But I also absolutely loved the supernatural. Ghost stories were my jam, Halloween was more exciting than Christmas and I would’ve given my left arm to go to Miss Cackle’s Academy for Witches. So to marry the two; glossy California high school and paranormal intrigue was so perfect.
This concept wasn’t new. In the 80s, the teen film really came into its own. Slasher films such as A Nightmare on Elm Street featured teens been murdered in an array of creative ways, while comedy horrors such as Teen Wolf and Teen Witch showed in cheesy fashion how being different can make you the most popular kid in school (if only). It’s a clever concept because as a teenager, everything feels like a horror film, especially your body. Spots, blood, and raging hormones, oh my! (This is illustrated beautifully in the film Ginger Snaps, if you haven’t already, watch it).
Unfortunately, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was nothing really more than fluff. Fluff with fangs, but nothing groundbreaking. Creator Joss Whedon was so frustrated with how the Hollywood bigwigs changed his vision, that he walked off the set and never returned.
Now fast forward to 1997. Or more accurately, 1998, because back then in the UK, we had to wait for an age for anything good from the States and it was so frustrating! I was 16 years old and had gone over to the dark side. Perfect 30-year-old looking teens from Beverly Hills 90210, I love you, but I’d chosen darkness. Several years earlier, I had discovered Anne Rice’s Interview with the Vampire in the book cupboard at school. Her books, together with Stephen King’s, had replaced my earlier passion for Point Horror novels. Scream had come out in the UK the year before, The Craft was my obsession and I was still probably growing out the red dye I’d put in my hair after Angela Chase had gone ‘crimson glow’ (I know My So-Called Life wasn’t supernatural – well apart from the ghost and angel episodes – but the angst and awkwardness was scary real).
I remember seeing the advert for Buffy on BBC2 while I was eating my dinner. I don’t remember what I was eating – my memory isn’t that spectacular – but I’d probably just been geeking out watching Quantum Leap or Star Trek: The Next Generation. There was Buffy kicking ass and wielding a wooden stake like nobody’s business. I wanted to be her. The guys fancied her, she had cool clothes (ahem – check out twitter.com/badbuffyoutfits), she had the Scooby Gang and fought the forces of evil. What more could you want? I wasn’t to know that I’d become more of a Willow later in life. Books, research, and witchery are my passions.
The series was a phenomenal success, and fans still obsess over it. It inspired countless other supernatural shows but could not be surpassed in its greatness (sorry, Angel). The actors are wonderful, but the real magic lies in Whedon’s savvy writing, whether he is being innovative (‘Once More with Feeling’, ‘Hush’), funny or heartbreaking. He creates characters that you genuinely care about (even, dare I say it, Dawn – or is that going too far?). He makes likable villains (Drusilla and Spike forever). He makes female characters that feminists can cheer on. Okay, so the fashions have definitely dated, but the enduring appeal in Buffy lies in its heart, in using horror tropes as an allegory for adolescence, whip-smart dialogue, being meta before it was a thing, and for using varied and loveable characters who significantly progressed and expanded in the show’s seven-season duration. It really was the perfect show. Except for Dawn. And Riley.
P.S. when I originally watched the show, I was all about Angel. So much so, that my first trip to London sans parents was to meet David Boreanaz in person at a Forbidden Planet signing. It was awful because I was dreadfully shy and naturally had a quiet voice. Couple that with my British accent and the poor guy had no idea what I said to him. I wanted to be sucked down into the Hellmouth. Anyway, last time I watched Buffy, I realised I now prefer Giles. At least he would understand my accent, and being quiet is (silently) applauded in a library, my hang-out place of choice (because sadly, The Bronze isn’t real).
If you liked Buffy watch Hex. It was never as clever as Buffy but it’s still fun.
I consider myself to be a laid-back person. Easy going. Calm. But lately, I’ve been questioning whether this is my real identity or just a fabricated fantasy that I desperately want for myself in the vain hope that it will become reality. Then again, most people I know have suffered with anxiety at some point in their lives. It is absolutely nothing to feel ashamed about.
I remember feeling anxious as a child. I moved schools several times and loathed being the new kid because it meant that all eyes were on me when I just wanted to blend into the shadows. I always felt different to other people, and I can see now that that was part of the reason I was drawn to supernatural literature and films where the heroes and heroines embraced their weirdness and had cool powers to boot.
I wrote a post a while back about being an HSP or Highly Sensitive Person and the huge relief I felt when I realised that I wasn’t abnormal. I wish I’d known that as a child. I discovered that my desperate need for security stems from a deep insecurity I had in my younger years.
In school, there was a recurring theme of me starting off every new school as the exciting new girl who all the other girls wanted to be friends with. This would soon descend into cattiness and outright physical bullying. I hated school and found escape in books, movies, and writing. I preferred my own company to other people’s because it was the only time I could truly relax and be myself without fear of judgment.
As an adult, I have frequently dug deep into what makes me the person I am today, and why I occasionally suffer from bouts of anxiety. These bouts have ranged from full on panic attacks and episodes of sleep paralysis to just a mild feeling of being unsettled and not knowing why. In what is often referred to as shadow work, we need to confront our inner demons face on and get to the root of what we’re grappling with. I believe it’s an ongoing process, and the work is never ‘done’ because our lives are not linear; there are potential changes and upheavals around every corner. That’s life. My magical friend Veronica Varlow uses the analogy of choosing whether you want your life to be safe but dull like the monorail at DisneyWorld, or an exciting roller coaster like Space Mountain. Or as Homer Simpson says to Marge, “I can’t live the button-down life like you. I want it all: the terrifying lows, the dizzying highs, the creamy middles.”
Anxiety can be that annoying person who outstays their welcome or it can creep up on you and shout “boo!” in your ear when you least expect it. I recognise certain triggers that set off my anxiety, but likewise, sometimes I have the physical symptoms of stress and I’m perplexed as to why.
A big thing for me at the moment is feeling comfortable in my writing. I’m writing a novel and it’s only in the first draft stage, i.e. the stage where writing is supposed to be freeing and perfection can go out the window. As Ernest Hemingway so eloquently put it, “The first draft of anything is always shit.” But I come to my work every day with a crippling fear that it’s far too terrible to ever be shared with anyone. I know this is my inner critic pulling a fast one on me, but it still gets me. I have to try and acknowledge the negative thoughts and change them into something positive.
I was even anxious about publishing this post. I actually wrote it early last week but kept putting off clicking the publish button because I worried that I was making a serious subject come off as frivolous. If it comes across that way at all then it’s not my intention.
I’m also aware of how food can bring on anxiety, especially if I drink too much coffee (I try to limit my intake to two cups a day) or consume too much sugar. Hormones can also obviously play havoc with your emotions, and I’ve found that tracking my cycle is really helpful to highlight patterns. I use the app Hormonology as a cycle tracker, but I’m not completely convinced that an app has all the answers so I also make a note of my moods and energy levels every day. For more information on cycles, I highly recommend Lisa Lister‘s books Code Red and Love Your Lady Landscape.
So how do I cope with anxiety? There isn’t a magical solution (believe me, I’ve looked), but I have little habits which I believe help me. The following suggestions are tips which help ease my anxiety and in no way am I advocating doing these instead of seeking help or seeing a GP. Also, these are just my go-to solutions for mild anxiety. In the past, when I’ve experienced more serious symptoms such as panic attacks, then there has often been a root problem which needed identifying and solving.