Witches have been portrayed onscreen as evil, hideous hags (Hocus Pocus), as eccentric but kind neighbors (Practical Magic), as rebellious teens in Hot Topic clothing (The Craft). In The Love Witch, Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is a different archetype from the ones we’re used to seeing—she’s a beautiful, stylish woman whose main goal in life is to find a man who loves her, which she attempts using methods of seduction and spellwork.
Elaine is “reborn as a witch” after a nervous breakdown following the departure (read: death) of her abusive husband Jerry (Stephen Wozniak). After leaving San Francisco to start over in Eureka, California, she meets her first new friend, Trish (Laura Waddell), an interior decorator who greets her at Elaine’s new witch home. They get to know each other over lunch in a gloriously pink tea room, and Elaine’s reveals her true intentions for the witch life: She hopes to fall in love, and believes she’ll achieve that goal as long as she gives a man everything he wants. Trish, who is married, gives her the side-eye. “It seems like you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy,” she tells Elaine. “Your whole self-worth is wrapped up in pleasing a man.”
She doesn’t care, though, and starts casting love spells over all the poor suckers in town. The irony is, once someone falls for her and shows emotion and weakness, she’s over it immediately. And it really sucks for them. Though her narration is high-pitched and bubbly, she is still describing the murder of her ex-husband, foreshadowing her suitors’ ultimate end.
While its era is never truly addressed, so much of The Love Witch invokes a the ‘60s and ‘70s, including the way the actors look (don’t some people just have faces that look vintage?). Biller has said that it wasn’t her intent to pay homage to old B-movies; her wheelhouse is classic Hollywood flicks, with their focus on glamour and costume design. Yet The Love Witch would make an entertaining thematic fit in a double matinee with She Devils on Wheels, The Mini Skirt Mob, Coffy, or Foxy Brown—all films from the ‘60s and ‘70s with dominating woman characters exacting revenge. There are instances of modern technology—one with a character’s smartphone and newer cars seen in the background of some scenes—and the ambiguity of its time period gives it a timelessness as well as the sense that it is all somehow part of Elaine’s feminist fantasy world.
While Biller said that it took her seven years to complete the film, its urgency in the current climate is serendipitous, and the story of a powerful woman enacting vengeance upon an assembly of lustful men is deliciously entertaining. However, with her fixation on male-pleasing, Elaine isn’t your typical feminist hero. Trish, with her refusal to prioritize a man’s wants and desires over her own, is actually more of a traditional empowered heroine, and yet she herself ends up getting screwed over.
“The whole history of witchcraft is interwoven with the fear of female sexuality,” the High Priestess of Elaine’s coven explains by way of a thesis. “They burned us at the stake because they feared the erotic feelings we elicited in them. Later, they used marriage to hold us in bondage and made us into servants, whores and fantasy dolls, never asking us what we wanted. They teach us that normative human being is a higher rationalist stoic male and women’s emotions and intuitions are illnesses that need to be cured.”
As Elaine listens to them speak, she nods in painful agreement—her entire life has been tainted with unhealthy and abusive experiences involving men. Now, as a witch, Elaine can reclaim her own power, and at the encouragement of her coven she uses sex magick to exert that power over the opposite sex. The other bind is, even as a witch, Elaine’s new life is not impervious to the evils of men—the coven’s High Priest is just as sleazy and manipulative as the other men in her life. A secret scumbag hiding under the guise of a woke bae, feminist magick man? As we all know, the worst of their kind.
Marie Lodi is a writer living in Los Angeles and is currently the beauty editor at HelloGiggles. Her work has appeared in Rookie, Broadly, Racked, Jezebel, and Refinery29. She will happily feed your period at thebloodfeast.com.