© Oscilloscope Laboratories
Last week, on two consecutive nights, I watched two recent black-comedy / horror movies about lady killers. Note that I’m not using the term ‘lady killer’ in its idiomatic sense, meaning a handsome chap who has a winning and seductive way with the opposite sex; nor in one of its literal senses, meaning a murderer who specialises in killing women (which, unfortunately, is a premise of too many horror films – the killer is a crazy bloke with a mask and a machete and the victims are nubile, scantily-clad females.)
No, here, ‘lady killer’ means a lady. Who kills.
The movies I saw were The Love Witch, which first surfaced in the UK at last year’s Edinburgh Film Festival; and Prevenge, which was released in the UK a few weeks ago.
The Love Witch is set in California, in the picturesque town of Arcata on the northern Californian coast. (My better half, who’s Californian and who adored The Love Witch, pointed out that early on we see someone driving south from San Francisco to Arcata when they should be driving north. But having them drive south means it’s easier to fit in pretty backdrops of the Pacific Ocean.) And the film could only be set in California, because its cocktail of Age-of-Aquarius occult mysticism and permissive-era free love feels very West Coast.
Newly settled in Arcata is a young woman called Elaine, the titular witch, who declares that, “What I’m interested in is love. You might say I’m addicted to love.” And she wastes no time in searching for love in the form of a hunky ideal man. Her musings on the subject suggest she’s read far too many Mills-and-Boon romances. For instance: “What do men want? Just a pretty girl to take care of them”; or “…men are very fragile. They can get crushed down if you assert yourself too much”; or “Giving men sex is just a way of unlocking their love potential.” No wonder one of Elaine’s female acquaintances retorts, “You sound as if you’ve been brainwashed by the patriarchy.”
To the men who encounter her, the gorgeous, saucy and happy-to-fall-into-bed Elaine seems almost too good to be true. And as the saying goes, if something seems too good to be true, then it probably is. Elaine gets through her men as single-mindedly as James Bond working his way through a bevy of Bond girls, seducing them, enjoying them and finally dumping them. Though each time the dumping is a necessity because, invariably, the men wind up dead.
For most of the movie it’s questionable whether Elaine – who’s been using magic spells and potions to ensnare her men, though at no point is it made explicit that her magic really works – would be convicted of murder in a court of law. The victims become neurotic and suffer heart attacks or commit suicide. Is this Elaine’s doing? Did she destroy their constitutions by ladling on the love-magic too strongly? Or did she just trigger a physical / mental weakness that was already there? That said, encouraging one poor dude to gulp down an eye-watering love potion probably doesn’t help.
© Oscilloscope Laboratories
The Love Witch isn’t perfect. At two hours, it goes on a bit and it could probably have made the same points about sexual politics in 90 or 100 minutes. Actress Samantha Robinson is excellent as the simultaneously giddy and sociopathic Elaine, but being in the character’s presence for so long gets a tad exhausting.
Nonetheless I recommend The Love Witch highly, not only for its sinisterly funny script and perfectly-pitched performances, but also for its look and style, all of which were masterminded by Anne Biller, its director, writer, producer, editor, set designer, costume designer and musical supervisor. I haven’t seen such a lovely-looking horror movie since the days of the Italian maestro Mario Bava. The Love Witch treats us to a sumptuous palette: lavender wallpapers, scarlet upholstery, blue-purple-yellow stained glass, golden flames, crimson candles and – surely the must-have accessory for witches this season – a fetching red-and-black-fringed magic-circle rug. Elaine herself first appears in a cherry-red sports car with matching frock, lipstick, nail varnish and suitcases, the red offset only by the soft blue crescents of her eye-shadow. Everything is shot with a warm mellowness that recalls both the silly, psychedelic sixties and the goofy, glam-y seventies.
Certain scenes evoke periods further back in time. Elaine frequents a pink-decorated Victorian tearoom where giant flower-laden hats are the thing to be seen in, the waitresses dress as maidservants and music is supplied by an Edward Burne Jones-style nymph with a harp. And there’s a sequence where Elaine and her latest beau attend a medieval pageant staged by the local coven of witches and warlocks (who, it must be said, are generally less barmy than she is). This features candy-stripe tents, scarlet-clad minstrels and jesters, ladies in virginally-white gowns and an equally white unicorn. It harks back to the happy dayglo colours of old, medieval-set Hollywood kids’ movies like Jack the Giant Killer (1962).
The Love Witch fashions its surreal world out of such cultural flotsam and jetsam as old horror and fantasy movies, pulpy romantic fiction, hippy-dippy New Age tracts and cod pre-Raphaelite art, none of which bore much resemblance to reality in the first place. In contrast, the world that Prevenge is set in is real, grim and very British.
It’s a place of soulless Travelodge-type hotel rooms, concrete underpasses and pedestrian bridges, hellhole Saturday-night city centres full of boozed-up louts and crap pubs trying to lure in punters with 1970s-theme nights. But somehow, it’s streaked with a weird unreality too. It’s a fitting if unhealthy environment for Ruth, played by Alice Lowe (also the film’s director and screenwriter). She’s a lonely and depressed woman in the late stages of pregnancy who may be – probably is – going out of her mind.
Ruth had found a man, fallen in love and conceived a child with him… But then things stopped going according to plan. The man has died in an accident and now, seven months pregnant, she’s on her own. But not wholly on her own because Ruth can hear the unborn child speaking to her – in a horrid, throaty voice that suggests she has a little Gollum gestating inside her. And the advice it gives her is pretty one-note. It’s ordering her to kill, and kill again.
At first it seems that the bloodthirsty foetus is inducing Ruth to kill randomly, but later we realise that the victims are loosely implicated in the death of its father / her partner. Coincidentally, many of them are so anti-children and anti-family in their attitudes – a work-obsessed and self-isolating businesswoman, a shag-happy but commitment-fearing lothario, a sporty suburbanite who refuses to give money to children’s charities – that Ruth almost seems like a crazed vigilante acting on behalf of downtrodden and unappreciated mums-to-be everywhere. Between the bloodletting, meanwhile, she keeps her appointments with a cheerful midwife (played by the excellent Jo Hartley) whose platitudes like “Baby knows what to do” unwittingly prolong Ruth’s killing spree.
Prevenge is Lowe’s first outing as a director – previously, she’d starred in and co-written the 2012 movie Sightseers, directed by Ben Wheatley. While she hasn’t quite mastered all the tricks of the trade yet, she orchestrates some impressive sequences: for example, one set in a specialist pet-shop where close-ups of the creepy-crawlies on sale accompany the innuendo being spouted by the shop’s creepy-crawly owner (who offers at one point to show Ruth his ‘big snake’); or a sequence set at Halloween, simultaneously phantasmagorical and horrible, where Ruth tramps through the streets encountering both people dressed as ghouls and drunken yobs acting like ghouls. Ruth is in costume herself, looking a little like the fearsome kuchisake-onna from Japanese urban myth.
Ruth seems able to kill with impunity and after a while the movie started to remind me of the Brett Easton Ellis novel American Psycho (1991), where the forces of law and order are also absent no matter how many bodies pile up. (In Prevenge, the only evidence of the cops is the wail of a distant police siren, which facilitates a gag about high-pitched noises and lactation.) While it’s easy to assume that Ruth is imagining the baby speaking to her, I found myself wondering if she was also imagining the whole thing, murders and all. That’s the insinuation you eventually get about Patrick Bateman, the supposed killer in American Psycho.
A meditation on the more disturbing aspects of pregnancy – feelings of bodily invasion and loss of bodily control – Prevenge is gruelling in both tone and content. But if you can handle that, it’s also very funny in its bleakly-observant way.
If only Elaine from The Love Witch could meet some of the men that Ruth meets in Prevenge – like the drunken D.J. Dan, whose technique with the ladies involves vomiting into his Afro wig just before attempting to French-kiss them. A few encounters like that and Arcata’s Love Witch might be less addicted to love.