Michael Johnston, Hannah Marks, Michael Ian Black, Missi Pyle
SXSW: 16 Mar 2016
UK theatrical: (Edinburgh Int. Film Festival)
The Love Witch
Samantha Robinson, Laura Waddell, Gian Keys, Jared Sanford (Gahan)
BAMcinemaFest: 6 May 2016
UK theatrical: 19 Jun 2016 (Edinburgh Int. Film Festival)
Screening at the 2016 Fantasia Film Festival, Slash may be a spiritual cousin to the raunchy teen comedies of the ‘80s, but it’s got a lot more on its mind than getting laid. Director Clay Liford goes deep into the world of erotic fan fiction without ever looking down his nose at these off-kilter characters. Charming, funny, and disarmingly honest, Slash is a delicate search for sexual identity that doesn’t patronize us with easy answers.
“Internet rule #34: If it exists, there is porn of it.”
This truism may seem self-evident, but to a repressed teenager like Neil (Michael Johnston), it’s a startling revelation. Neil is a good-hearted kid who obsesses over age verification buttons and disconnects his computer when someone makes lewd advances during a chat session. An aspiring writer, Neil lives vicariously through the homoerotic adventures of his sci-fi creation, Vanguard: a muscle-bound conqueror who looks suspiciously like Idris Elba.
Neil is perfectly satisfied writing his sordid little stories in anonymity until he meets the bubbly Julia (Hannah Marks). One year older than Neil, Julia might as well be on a different psychological plane. She writes fan fiction about the fearless nymph, Fain, and approaches her own life like a sexual smorgasbord of strapping jocks and dainty ladies. Julia and Neil bond over their stories, eventually crashing a nearby Comic-Con to showcase their particular talents for other discerning (and much older) fan-fic enthusiasts.
Slash is a subtle charmer that builds humor through quiet observation and clever misdirection. No one slots perfectly into the niche you might expect, with each character adding more depth as the story progresses. Neil starts out as a clueless dork who thinks, “I like the way you eat,” is a beguiling opening line to women. He’s no pushover, though, and even discovers a ruthless side to his submissive personality after he enters a writing competition.
Likewise, Julia figures to be the ‘worldly mentor’ for Neil, but writer-director Clay Liford (Wuss 2011, Earthling 2010) understands that experience and wisdom make strange bedfellows for a 16-year-old girl. If Neil is repressed, Julia is overcompensating on all cylinders. She has just as much invested in their budding relationship, but her fragile ego can’t bear to admit it. It’s an interesting dynamic that allows Julia to provoke Neil repeatedly, stoking his confused adolescent passions before pushing him away in favor of a more dashing suitor.
The performances remain authentic even when the dialogue and scenarios get a bit stilted. The opening act is particularly sluggish in spots, with Liford playing things a bit too broadly. It feels like he’s reaching for a laugh instead of trusting his characters to provide the ammunition. When dealing with quirky characters from the land of erotic fiction, the jokes can practically write themselves.
Yet, Liford always respects these obsessive characters. He’s not here to pass judgement or make fun of anyone; their predilections serve only to inspire a young man desperately confused about his own sexuality. For Neil, erotic fiction is a safe way to express the inexpressible. When Julia and Neil finally arrive at the Comic-Con, they find real people instead of caricatures. Even the convention’s organizer (Michael Ian Black), who made inappropriate online advances toward Neil (not realizing he was only 15-years-old), is a thoughtful person with a surprisingly strict moral code.
Slash is probably too slight to make a huge impact at Fantasia Film Festival, but that doesn’t diminish its good-natured humor or delicate insight. This is observant filmmaking with something valuable to say about sexual awakenings at the most awkward of times.
The Love Witch
Also screening at the Festival, The Love Witch is a Technicolor fever-dream of style and narcissism. Filming on luxurious 35mm, writer-director Anna Biller infuses every frame with the spirit of ‘60s/’70s erotic horror. Not to be outdone by the period-perfect costumes and set design, Samantha Robinson delivers a deliriously breathy performance as the witch who wants to be a fairy tale heroine. It’s certainly easier to admire the aesthetic of The Love Witch than to embrace its hyper-stylized caricatures, but it’s a worthy one-night stand for serious cinéphiles.
Elaine (Robinson) is a beautiful artist obsessed with finding her Prince Charming. So obsessed, in fact, that she took up witchcraft to tilt the odds in her favor. “They say I’m cured now,” she insists as she flees the Big City in favor of small-town life in Eureka, California. Her former husband “left her” under mysterious circumstances—the kind of circumstances that involve poison and police investigations. She rents a room in an outrageously ornate house and quickly sets about luring a suitable lover into her web.
Robinson is haunting as a witch who looks like the love child of Edwige Fenech and Olivia Hussey, and sounds like she’s channeling a demonic Marilyn Monroe. Her cold, dead eyes stare blankly through her lovers, as if she’s already searching for the next conquest. She’s the physical embodiment of the narcissistic notion that ‘true love’ is an entitlement. “I’m the love witch… I’m your ultimate fantasy,” she coos, offering her randy suitors a home-cooked meal before drugging their wine and ripping through a night of torrid sex. She’s every man’s dream woman… if that dream were a nightmare.
Writer-director Anna Biller (Viva 2007) has a passion for Technicolor melodramas, and it really shows here. The Love Witch is insanely beautiful. With its splashy primary colors and dazzling psychedelia, it’s a reverent homage that remains cheeky and engaging throughout. The lascivious overtones and stiff dialogue lend a cinematic authenticity that makes Witch a gleefully exploitative indulgence.
Still, there’s no denying that this is a mannered affair that’s difficult to embrace as anything but a slavish exercise in style. None of these characters, including Elaine, are particularly interesting beyond their one-note motivations and transparent desires. Of course, that’s the point of pulpy melodrama, but the lack of a compelling story leads to some serious drag once the novelty wears off.
Luckily, there are several bravura scenes to compensate for the narrative boredom. One particular highlight finds Elaine visiting the leader of her Order, a delightfully bizarre creation named Gahan (Jared Sanford), in a “witch friendly” burlesque club. There, we are treated to a painfully earnest recitation of the witch’s love manifesto, intercut with the gyrations of a supple temptress on the stage. Lines like, “We need to teach men how to love us in ways they can understand,” are both ridiculous and informative, relics of a sexual revolution still struggling to reconcile romantic ideals with its militant promiscuity.
The soundtrack is also a sublime delight. Classic music cues from the likes of Morricone and Piccioni are playfully introduced by the famous opening notes of Beethoven’s “Fur Elise.” It’s an ironic whiff of class for a movie that makes no apologies for its sordid intentions.
Ultimately, The Love Witch is a movie for people who love movies. It’s an intoxicating fairy tale that mixes horror, romance, and voracious sexuality into something both familiar and original. This is a lurid world where a Renaissance Festival frolic in the woods can logically co-exist with brutal stabbings. The Love Witch may wear its influences on its sleeve, but those sleeves are beautiful.