Pulp Novels and Hitchcock: All of Anna Biller's Inspiration Behind 'The Love Witch'
The filmmaker breaks down how witchcraft and early cinema informed her 2016 cult film 'The Love Witch.'
It's easy to fall under the spell of Anna Biller's 2016 horror-comedy The Love Witch. The film is shot in a splashy palette to match '60s Technicolor, features a highly curated aesthetic that's like a vintage lover's dream come true, and the occult—following a beautiful witch named Elaine's (Samantha Robinson) quest to find love (that ends in a whole lot of bloodshed). The indie film was a hit among critics when it was released—lauding its style, Robinson's whip smart performance, and commentary on gender that explores how exhausting the objectification of women can be, and how not even the divine feminine can even shake the emotional limitations of masculinity. (Elaine literally couldn't be more of the male ideal, and yet men still won't love her half as much as she loves them.)
Since the film's release, it's only continued to grow in popularity, as fans still highlight the film's aesthetic and message on Instagram and TikTok where younger audiences end up discovering it in their feed. That imagery is simply too entrancing to look past, and its commentary is just as bewitching.
Behind The Love Witch is dozens of rich references—from Hitchcockian horror to tropes of the femme fatale—which writer-director Anna Biller can rattle off as seamlessly as Elaine might recite the contents of a spell. It's also an incredible and carefully constructed homage to '60s style that Biller went to great lengths to design, because although the film set in contemporary times, it's shown through the Gunne-Sax-wearing Elaine's eyes covered in powder blue eye shadow that see everything like out of a bygone era.
With so much concocted into the potion that is The Love Witch, we spoke to writer-director Anna Biller about all of her reference points and sources of inspiration. While many assumed she turned to sexploitation cinema when making the movie and likened her to Russ Meyer upon the film's release, she couldn't disagree with the comparison more. So, here, to celebrate spooky and Scorpio season, the filmmaker explains everything that did inform the film—from tarot cards and her own witch craft practice to Hitchcock.
Pulp novel covers
Witches historically have been a symbol of the all-powerful woman—a concept that's fearful to some, and aspirational to others. While making a film about a witch long coincided with the concept of Biller's project, how exactly did the idea exploring the subject of divine feminine come together?
"First of all, I got the image of the witch from '60s pulp novel covers. They had a lot of witches on the covers that were incredibly sexual. They're usually women that are naked or sometimes they're surrounded by a flame, or there's one with a woman sitting cross-legged on a [witches'] circle. There's another with a woman who's just a silhouette, holding a weapon. There's another that was a cover of a cookbook—that was great. It was a woman, wearing like high boots and a short outfit, sitting on a cauldron. It was a witchy cookbook, but you get inside and the recipes are actually pretty blah—you get like deviled eggs and stuff—but the cover is pretty amazing.
"[After seeing the images on pulp covers], I started thinking about how the image of the witch has changed through the ages. She used to be an old and ugly witch, but then, like in the '60s, the witch became like this figure of mystery and power and seduction and beauty. You think about a show like Bewitched—and it's really almost like her magical powers were just in the fact that she was a woman. She was an ordinary housewife, but her magic was that her husband couldn't understand her because she was a woman.
"This idea of exploring the glamorous, sexy, beautiful, powerful witch who enchants men and they think she's evil because she's cast a spell on them... I thought about how being a woman, especially a young woman, you have all of this stuff thrown at you that's very intense—like the sexual energy that you just create around yourself by being a young woman—and I think that confuses a lot of young women. They're just a person or a child, and then suddenly they get all this very intense attention and they don't really know where it's coming from. It's very confusing because usually when women start experiencing this, they're too young to understand what it is, and then they become overly sexualized earlier than they should be. A lot of times they internalize all of these feelings that there's something bad about them, or that there's a cause of evil and they're destroying people. But they're not really doing anything. It's all male projection.
"So I guess that's what the movie's about. It's about male projection onto women that they're a witch, either an evil witch or a sexy witch. And then the difference between that is a woman's interior experience of herself and her own power, which can sometimes include or encompass sexuality and beauty and glamor, but not necessarily for the sake of men.
"I think one reason young women respond to [the movie] is because this is what they're going through. They want to use their own feminine beauty and power and glamor as their own power, but not necessarily in the service of any man, in an actual witchy powerful way. I had an interest in creating a powerful witch, but also living in our daily reality, which is when she's not going to be allowed to be a powerful witch."
One particularly horrible self-help book
It wasn't just the idea of the witch that sparked the film. The central concept about how men and women love, or their expectations of love and sex, actually came from some problematic advice in a self-help book that Biller came across.
"It was a book I was reading about women who love their men too much. It suggested that the reason that women can't be in fulfilling relationships is that they bombard their man with so much love that it's almost a form of abuse. I just thought that was the most insane thing I'd ever read! So, it's not that he's emotionally immature and closed and sexist, and he cheats on you! [It's that] your love is so bad. I just thought, that's great! I'm going to make a movie about that—how women's love is so horrible that it can actually kill a man."
The practice of witchcraft
In creating a character who seriously uses witchcraft—making "witch bottles" out of her own bodily fluids and partaking in sex magic rituals with her coven—it was important to get her rituals right. So, how did Biller study witchcraft herself?
"What I did was I read a whole ton of witchcraft books first, so I started to kind of know what it was to practice. Then, I set up a little altar and I would do spells, and then I went to some classes and some rituals.
"What I realized that was really interesting is that I have more dark energy than I thought that I have, because all of my spells were kind of demonic black magic—like anger and things that were sort of untapped. I decided to try to use spells and magic the way I naturally would if I was an experienced witch, and I noticed that it was when I had extremely dark energy that I would want to do a spell. So, it kind of made me not want to do spells anymore for awhile because I thought, well, maybe it's better to keep away from that. The way I get myself into the light is by doing my artwork. Like, doing my films and writing and drawing and doing music is how I heal myself."
To execute her vision, Biller went to great lengths sourcing vintage clothing and furniture pieces. If the ideal piece doesn't exist or it's not within budget, she took it upon herself to make something by hand. On The Love Witch, that meant hand-making pentacle rugs, Renaissance-inspired garments, and Elaine's witchy apartment full of velvet, candles, and mystical portraits. Tarot cards ended up being the sole source of inspiration for each of those looks.
"Usually, I use movies for references for my films, but I couldn't find any movies that looked like what I was imagining. So instead I used other kinds of references—and the Thoth Tarot deck (Aleister Crowley's Tarot deck) had a really interesting set of color schemes. I thought, well, rather than using actual movies for color schemes, why don't we use this deck? It had different types of warm and cool color schemes. One was red, orange, yellow, beige, and then there was another color scheme that was purple and blue, a little bit of green.
"I just used sun imagery and moon imagery, basically. So, the sun imagery is the warm colors, and the moon imagery is cool colors. And that's all about male and female—which, at least in the '60s was very, very into male, female polarity. Also, most Tarot decks have like Renaissance medieval-type costumes in them. They're all like these 14th century loose flowing gowns, so I decided to put that imagery in the Renaissance fair."
Alfred Hitchcock films
As much as The Love Witch is a contemporary film about issues women have long faced, it also references '60s horror in both shots Biller intended to emulate and themes of one's descent into madness. Hitchcock films, in particular, are what the filmmaker looked to.
"Most of his films are just absolutely incredibly genius. For [The Love Witch], I was very much inspired by The Birds and Psycho, and actually parts of the script were inspired by Psycho. It's interesting, somebody on Twitter did this thing where they compared side-by-side shots from the beginning of the film that were almost identical shots between The Love Witch and Psycho, which I didn't consciously do, but they're definitely there. Like, just looking at the police car in the rearview mirror, and then the shots of driving—a lot of that sequence in the beginning kind of came from Psycho. Then also Vertigo and Marnie—so, those Technicolor Hitchcock films from the '60s."
The Femme Fatale
The concept of the femme fatale—from films as early as the '30s and '40s—also greatly informed The Love Witch. Although the film is more so an examination of the archetype, rather than crafting a character from the male gaze who's meant to be feared, Biller studied many roles of the past within that vein.
"I really focused on Leave Her to Heaven, which is a Technicolor noir film [from 1945] about a woman who's a beautiful psychopath. The character in that, whose name is Ellen [and played by Gene Tierney], literally loves her man to death. It's the same plot, actually. She loved her father to death. She literally kills him with her love, and then she's loving her husband to death.
"There's so many femme fatales throughout classic movies—almost every woman in the classic movies is a femme fatale, all the noir films. Jane Greer is really great in Out of the Past, Jean Simmons in Angel Face—really scary, Lizabeth Scott in Too Late for Tears, Laraine Day in the The Locket, Audrey Totter in Tension."