Wednesday, 20 October 2021

Killing Me Softly [Reviews: The Love Witch and Season Of The Witch]

Witches are an endless source of fascination. Despite the attempts of Hans Christian Anderson, centuries of overzealous missionaries and Roald Dahl to paint them as agents of evil, our culture is full of more positive examples of witchcraft, whether in books, films, or in the real world with the modern day resurgence of Wicca. As a child I learned to read with Meg and Mog and later enjoyed reading about Mildred Hubble which should allow you to calculate my age. TV is full of portrayals of witches as powerful but sympathetic figures, such as Julia Wicker in The Magicians, or the magical cadets of Motherland: Fort Salem. Meanwhile there are plenty of films that use the concept of the witch in interesting ways - here are two recent examples I enjoyed.

The Love Witch

The Love Witch (2016) stars Samantha Robinson as modern-day witch Elaine Parks who sets out to start a new life and find love - with unfortunate, deadly consequences for her would-be lovers. It's filmed as a stylish tribute to 1960s Technicolor, with lavish settings and exaggerated colour schemes. Parks is literally a femme fatale but also a complex character, vulnerable, lonely and driven, and mesmerizing to watch. In some ways she reminded me of Alice Lowe's character Ruth from Prevenge, but Parks is not actually driven to kill (well, not often), it's just that her love is too intense for the men she charms.

The Love Witch also celebrates another form of witchcraft - that is, obsessive auteur-driven filmmaking. Anna Biller wrote, directed, scored, edited and produced the movie, spent several years finding, restoring or making the furniture for each scene, and made her own foray into witchcraft. The result is a unique and powerful vision combining feminine and feminist themes.

Season Of The Witch

Season Of The Witch (1973) is an early George A. Romero film. It's curiously deficient in brain-eating swarms of zombies, instead the story revolves around dissatisfied and Wicca-curious housewife Joan (Jan White), her controlling husband, and her daughter who is having an affair with a teacher. Joan is introduced to Marion, a newcomer to the suburb who practises witchcraft, and gradually becomes drawn into witchcraft herself. This is more of a drama than a horror film, although there is threat and violence in places, and Joan experiences some creepy dream sequences in which she faces exaggerated or metaphoric versions of her everyday life. 

Romero described this as a feminist film, and I think this is justified: it is the story of a woman in a controlling relationship who finds a way to empower herself and change her life (this escape theme also qualifies it as Science Fiction TM). The feminist aspect is simpler and less sophisticated than The Love Witch, and arguably the feminist credentials are further eroded by the release history, as a cut-down version was published and marketed (I think misleadingly) as softcore porn.

Both films portray witches as powerful and unintentionally dangerous, while at the same time portraying witchcraft as a positive feminine role and as an alternative to patriarchy and convention. I awarded both films three pentagrams out of five.

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