Elaine (Samantha Robinson) is travelling to a small town on the American West Coast, trying to get away from a marriage that fell apart - or was it she who fell apart? She has occasional memories of dark deeds intruding on her mental state, but she is assured enough to believe she can stand on her own two feet away from the husband she murdered - sorry, left behind, she definitely did not use her witch powers to poison him to death. As she drives by the sea, she is stopped by a traffic cop because of a broken tail light, but he allows her to continue with a warning, such is her power over men. When she arrives in the small town she is allowed into her new apartment by the estate agent Trish (Laura Waddell), neither of them realising what terror Elaine will visit on her...
It took writer and director Anna Biller almost ten years to make and release her follow-up to Viva, her tribute to the swinging softcore sex movies of the seventies which she also took the lead role in, but for her fans it was worth the wait. As with her previous effort, the judgement was that it was exquisitely designed but ran too long, and many treated it as a spoofy comedy when she actually pointed out that comedy was not on her mind when she was making it, those arch, almost camp feminist themes and plot points were intended entirely seriously, something the audience had difficulty believing when the tone was so blatantly of an earlier era, and those female empowerment aspects were regarded as part of that.
One thing was for sure, Biller's eye for décor and fashion were impeccable: she designed both herself, and not for nothing was there a motif where characters would try on and dress up in clothes, the men as well as the women (though mostly the women). Her sense of period-specific appearance in every scene meant the occasional glimpse of a mobile phone or twenty-first century car was unexpectedly jarring, and even made you wish she had found a way around them, but the whole affair took place in some fantasy realm where witchcraft was the most perfect expression of femininity thanks to the spell, literally, that a woman could cast over a man, taking the sexuality of a female and creating something mystical out of it.
You could argue horror movies had been doing this for decades, ever since the genre began, be that the monsters and villains in thrall to the object of their desire, or a villainess who represented the fear that men have when a woman can seize control over their impulses and have them at their beck and call emotionally and physically - some call it love. In this instance, there was an unavoidable dose of kitsch in that presentation that made it difficult not to giggle at certain points, but this was mostly because you would recognise what Biller was highlighting or the milieu in which she was working in was familiar enough to amuse when you twigged what was once up to the minute was now part of the pop culture of seasons past. Time and again the director made us reassess what those gender depictions made us feel.
As mentioned, there were grumblings that Biller simply allowed her indulgences to be over-indulged and the whole thing went on far too long, yet while that criticism could be levelled at Viva with some justification, here she was more in control and the film was better paced and contained more variety in its scenes, so much so that if you were enjoying this after the first half hour you would be happy to allow it to play out over the rest of an hour and a half. If you were not a fan of the touchstones she was marking in her visuals (even the music, also by Biller, was spot on) then you would find your patience tested, yet there was a lot irresistible about the entire package, from its pitch perfect leading lady (Robinson "got" exactly what was required of her) to the way that men fell by the wayside, often at Elaine's hand, in ridiculous but somehow just right methods of witchery. That said, you more or less had the idea of where it was going from the outset, but if that was a trip you wished to take, Biller had everything planned with fetishistic attention to detail, and not merely sexually either.