Viva (2007)

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threehalfstar

campstamp

One of the more intimidating aspects of discussing Anna Biller’s instant cult classic The Love Witch was coming to terms with the fact that most of its reference points as a pastiche were way beyond my grasp, even as someone who regularly watches schlock. The Love Witch mined old modes of horror-themed erotica, pictures like The Velvet Vampire, for its distinct visual palette & absurdist humor, but repurposed the genre for modernized modes of feminist discourse. I loved the results of that experiment, but have to openly admit that my very basic, surface-level knowledge of the genre & era The Love Witch was evoking was puny in comparison to Biller’s encyclopedic command of the subject. It turns out her debut film, Viva, would be even further outside my grasp as a genre film tourist. Paying homage to the softcore smut of the early 1970s that rode in on the success of Deep Throat and the optimistic promises of The Sexual Revolution (the kinds of films you’d hear detailed on the excellent podcast The Rialto Report), Viva is operating on a whole other level of schlock I have little to no experience with. My limited knowledge of smut peddlers like Russ Meyer & Doris Wishman don’t equip me with the full vocabulary necessary to discuss the ways Viva acts as a love letter to softcore smut past. The film feels very authoritative on the subject, though, and it achieves such a specific image & tone that I have to again put my trust in the fact that Biller knows exactly what she’s doing.

Viva often looks & feels like an early 70s magazine layout. Its bored housewives, swinger couples, and nudist camp vouyerism all read like a Letter to Penthouse, but its iconography is the stuff of that magazine’s advertisement: Scotch, lingerie, deviled eggs, jellos & dips. Emboldened by a newfound sexual freedom afforded to them by the commercial availability of the birth control pill, the Liberated women of Viva take charge of their sex lives by leaving behind the incessant sexual pressures of husbands, neighbors, and bosses to become high class sex workers & “models.” One friend turns to prostitution as a convenient means of making money and finds immediate fulfillment in a wealthy, older men who showers her with gifts: diamonds, horses, fur coats, etc. The other woman, Viva, has a much narrower path to satisfaction. Instead of money, she seeks a genuine emotional connection with a kind, sensitive man. No matter how many supposedly sensitive artist-types her pimp set her up with, though, the results are always the same. Men throw pouty fits whenever Viva doesn’t give them exactly what they want (casual sex) upfront and instead of waiting to meet her on her own terms, they manipulate, drug, and physically force her into copulation. It’s a fucked up plot for a campy genre throwback, but finding feminist themes in these old modes of schlocky smut seems to be Biller’s forte and the basic story structure of Viva feels true to roughies like Lorna, Another Day Another Man, and, I have to presume, the “mainstream” smut that followed in the 1970s.

If Viva has a central problem, it’s that it’s a little too faithful to the films it pays tribute to. At 120 minutes, with multiple extensive musical numbers, the film can often feel as tedious as its source material for once the initial turn-on wore off. It’s also disappointing that its modern feminist criticism wasn’t as fully pronounced in the dialogue & plotting as it was in its more outrageous follow-up. Biller threatens to steer away from genre traditions with some queer plotlines & rape culture criticism that bubble up naturally in Viva‘s era-evoking plot machinations, but imstead decides to follow the old guard and allow the story to play out exactly as it would have four decades ago. However, even though it feels slightly less brave in its willingness to shake up & modernize the formula, Viva is still an impressive feat for a debut feature. Much like with The Love Witch, Biller exudes auteurist control in nearly every aspect of the filmmaking craft – not only writing, directing, editing, and handling the set & costume design herself, but in this case also starring in the titular role. There are some thematic aspects of Viva I wish Biller had pushed a little further (and a few scenes I wish were shaved down to expedite the pace), but there’s an endlessly enjoyable aesthetic in her staging of the film’s lingerie lounging, Scotch swilling, porn-browsing swinger-era softcore smut I can’t help but take delight in. Just the way characters punctuate each of their own lame jokes with unwarranted, maniacal laughter feels both so true to the era & so clearly aligned with what Biller wants to accomplish in her modernization. It’s incredible she was able to figure out her own concrete sense of style as soon as her first feature.

It’s exciting to know that Biller’s best work is likely still ahead of her, but her aesthetic’s beginnings in Viva are worthwhile enough on their own merit that it doesn’t matter that she wasn’t yet fully formed as a filmmaker at the time she made it. If nothing else, the film expresses an incredible knowledge & affection for the past of America’s mainstream erotica. It also helps that Viva can be riotously amusing in stray absurdist moments, never playing like a dry, academic exercise in genre pastiche.

-Brandon Ledet

The Velvet Vampire (1971)

three star

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It was a little difficult for me discuss Anna Biller’s recent camp cinema triumph The Love Witch in full detail, at least partly because I don’t have the full mental library of reference points she was pulling from for the film’s psychedelic goth erotica pastiche. There’s an endless sea of cheap, sexed-up, psychedelic horror from the late 60s & early 70s that I don’t know nearly enough about to speak with any kind of critical authority. The Velvet Vampire easily fits that bill, though, and as soon as I saw the trailer my mind went straight back to Anna Biller’s The Love Witch. The interesting thing about watching The Velvet Vampire in this context is that because it’s a Free Love era horror picture directed by a woman, Roger Corman protigee Stephanie Rothman, it already has some of the feminist underpinnings foreign to the genre that Biller would later bring crashing to the surface in such a pointedly satirical way. The Velvet Vampire is by no means a forgotten pillar of fiercely feminist cinema; it’s just as much of a compromise between thoughtful art house horror & sexploitation smut as anything you’d expect to see from its spooky erotica peers. Its feminine gaze & dreamlike tone within that genre framework did help me better understand where The Love Witch was coming from culturally, though, a quality I expect to find in plenty more titles as I slowly catch up with Biller’s encyclopedic knowledge of this corner of schlock.

This dirt cheap, Corman-produced horror (alternately titled Cemetery Girls) starts by following a female vampire’s POV, an odd choice for a protagonist, as she’s threatened with sexual assault and stabs her would-be attacker, a nobody biker, to death in public. She calmly washes her bloody hands clean in a fountain while blues singer Johnny Shines wails onscreen about how she’s an Evil Woman (another odd choice). Later, we see our “Evil Woman” scouting potential victims at an art gallery and convincing a young married couple to visit her place in the desert for the weekend. The horny dolt husband (Beyond the Valley of the Dolls‘s Michael Blodgett) drags his perpetually annoyed wife out of the hellish desertscape just so he can ignore her and openly flirt with their vampiric host. They don’t even try to hide it either. While sitting down for dinner, the titular vampire describes her dune buggies to the lout right in front of his not-having-it wife, “It’s slow getting started. At first it takes a little manipulation. But once it’s warmed up it really comes alive. And you have to watch out. It’s really hard to control.” Subtle stuff. During the day she takes the couple sight-seeing to such exotic locations as a desert shack and an abandoned mine (fun!). At night she calmly watches them sleep & fuck from behind a false mirror and invades their dreams to seduce them individually with her feminine wiles. She’s not harvesting their blood for her own sake, though. She merely needs it to sustain the mummified, undead body of her husband, whose open coffin she visits often.

The frustrating thing about The Velvet Vampire is that it’s almost something truly great. The dreamscape seduction scenes have a surreal Altered States quality to them that makes them immensely exciting and there’s a few stray moments of cinematic beauty elsewhere in shots of the titular vampire eating raw liver in her lingerie or lying naked in her husband’s coffin. The film’s also slightly transgressive in its third act shift toward lesbian seduction once the husband is no longer interesting as a plaything, especially in the vampire’s monologue about men’s envy over the power of female sexual pleasure. The film doesn’t follow through on any of its genuine art film impulses, though, so it’s much easier to take delight in its campier touches like its rubber bats, loosely defined vampire rules (sunlight’s apparently not a problem), and inane dialogue (listening to a man scream in pain, the dolt husband shrugs it off with, “It’s probably just a coyote.”). Because The Velvet Vampire is so beholden to the slow & stoned hippie energy of its era (as opposed to the much more alive go-go erotica of The Vampire and the Ballerina), though, it’s difficult to get too excited about the film’s occasional pleasures that languidly float by onscreen. However, as some insight into the kind of territory Biller might’ve been mining for The Love Witch, it was invaluable, especially since it clued me in that female filmmakers have been working in the genre as long as it’s been around. Their work is just a lot harder to come by.

-Brandon Ledet

The Love Witch (2016)

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fourstar

campstamp

I understand why a lot of people are immediately turned off by intentionally “bad” movies. Forced, manufactured camp value can often feel cheap & disingenuous, especially when the filmmaking it supports aims lazily low in its overall sense of ambition. Accusations of taking the low road and making an intentionally “bad” movie are certain to accompany Anna Biller’s erotic horror comedy The Love Witch, but the film is far from lazy in its ambition & attention to craft. The Love Witch carefully recalls the cheap sets, rear projections, absurdly stilted dialogue, and half-hearted attempts at sophisticated smut of many erotic horror B-pictures of the 60s & 70s. Biller doesn’t rely solely on easy humor & cinematic nostalgia to make this schlocky throwback worthwhile, however. Besides writing, directing, and editing The Love Witch, Biller is also credited with the film’s set & costume design. She exhibits a godlike control over her visual palette, crafting an intricately detailed work packed with occult paintings, pentagrams, potions, candles, jars, lingerie, and intensely-colored make-up. She elevates the depths of lazily decorated schlock to a new high standard of meticulous visual artistry, a kind of personalized, auteurist ambition that’s often missing from “bad”-on-purpose cinema. More importantly, though, Biller uses this backwards gaze into the B-picture abyss to reappropriate traditionally misogynist modes of genre filmmaking for a fresh, fiercely feminist purpose. The Love Witch is more than a comedic exercise in camp-minded nostalgia; it’s also a beautiful art piece with an unforgiving political bent.

Samantha Robinson stars as Elaine, the titular witch, who finds herself in constant trouble with the law for her deadly seduction of men. Elaine uses “love potions” & “sex magic” to lure men into her dangerous web of lust & overwhelming devotion. She doesn’t exactly murder her suitors & side flings in cold blood. Rather, the men she seduces just aren’t physically or spiritually capable of handling the immense pressure of true love & genuine emotion that accompanies her supernatural mode of romance. Their bodies crumble while trying to reconcile a basic human experience the women around them handle with grace on a daily basis. The Love Witch airdrops legitimate feminist criticism into its cartoonish narrative in this way. There’s plenty of inane banter played for laughs, like when Elaine babbles about “parapsychology” or explains that she first wanted to become a witch because she “wanted to have magical powers.” What’s striking, though, is the way these camp cinema callbacks are interrupted by lines like, “Men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself in any way,” and “You sound as if you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.” The Love Witch filters modern feminist ideology, particularly in relation to heterosexual power dynamics, through old modes of occultist erotica & vaguely goth burlesque to craft the ultimate post-modern camp cinema experience. Biller establishes herself as not only a stylist & a makeshift schlock historian, but also a sly political thinker and a no-fucks-given badass with a bone to pick, which is more than you’d typically expect with an intentionally “bad” movie about witchcraft & strippers.

The Love Witch plays like a restoration of the best camp film you’ve never heard of, one where time-traveling cellphones & feminist ideology appear as if they’re a natural part of the territory. The film is eerily accurate in its dedication to recreating cheap horror erotica, right down to the awkward dead space that punctuates each line of dialogue & the over-use of goofy lighting tricks to evoke its love potion psychedelia. It plays exceedingly well with a crowd; the raucous audience I saw it with was enthusiastic and treated it like a midnight movie despite it being an early evening screening. Beneath all of the film’s gloriously bad visual art, eye-melting costume design, and absurdly overstated dialogue, however, it’s a surprisingly dark, quietly angry political piece. The men of The Love Witch range from selfish crybabies & power-hungry rapists and the way the film undercuts & subverts their privilege & control is surprisingly pointed for something so deliberately silly & narratively slight. Mixing in a little sugar to sweeten the medicine, the film appears to be an intentional exercise in dimwitted, oversexed schlock, but that “so bad it’s good” facade is only one layer to a work that’s much more visually & politically fascinating than it initially appears to be.

-Brandon Ledet