The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)
Studio: Arrow Video
Release date: March 1st, 2016
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman (@brettgallman)
“Weird” is an oft-used and perhaps even vague descriptor, one that’s been trotted out as shorthand to describe those films that are somehow south of normal expectations. They zig where most would zag, or, in the more extreme cases, they zig and zag right off the rails, taking its bewildered audience along for a wild ride (or, at the very least, drag them behind, bumping their heads every step of the way). Each step may bring befuddling dialogue, puzzling behavior, jagged editing, or the feeling that one has stepped into some waking, walking nightmare. There’s more than one way to skin a weird cat, cinematically speaking, but any truly weird movie will leave you questioning if it’s the work of actual humans.
Taking this as a litmus test, one can only conclude that 1976’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea is fucking weird, man. Rather than indulge one or two of the aforementioned tactics, it blends all of them into an atonal concoction, and does so with a distinct lack of conscience. You’re perhaps used to wild tonal shifts in these psychotronic exercises, but this is an especially galling, jaw-dropping affair whose central, horrifying trauma is at odds with its constant absurdity. You find yourself rapt by its gonzo flourishes before cringing at its ghastly, unflinching depiction of childhood sexual abuse. It almost becomes hypnotic in this sociopathic approach: like many odd films, it washes over you like a dreamy haze but leaves behind a lucid, scummy residue. There’s no resisting its gaze, no matter how utterly wrong it feels.
Fragmentation and disorientation define it immediately. Opening at Muscle Beach, the film finds listless thirtysomething Molly (Millie Perkins) enjoying a day on the surf with her two nephews. The ocean prompts them to ask about their grandfather, who was once lost at sea while seeking treasure. It’s the stuff of fairy tales, and Molly expectedly speaks in adoring, broadly earnest terms when regaling them with tales out her father. Something disturbing trails in this wake, however, the beach’s scantily clad male bodies—particularly their absurdly bulging packages—unsettle her, almost inexplicably so. It’s the beginning of her unraveling, as her already fractured psyche shatters with eruptions of violence directed exclusively towards men. Fancying herself both a mermaid and a modern day Venus, she ensnares men in her razor blade traps, severing them from their manhood.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea operates with such loose illogic that it almost invites you to wonder if Molly’s gore-soaked trysts are just the fantasies of a deluded mind. Events unfold with a choppy rhythm that doesn’t delineate between fantasy and reality: one minute, Molly zones out during a drinking binge as a football game plays in the background, prompting her to seemingly daydream about murdering two star players in a seedy hotel encounter. The next minute, her sister snaps her back to reality, only for audiences—and Molly—to later discover that the two players have been murdered. Only this acknowledgement and the subsequent investigation (headed up by Buck Flower in a rare non-homeless bum turn*) confirm that Molly’s slayings are actually occurring and that the film is more or less untethered from chronological time (given what we see, Molly’s “daydream” about killing the NFL stars must be something like a future memory).
As the film continues to plunge into this chaotic tempest, it finds something of a throughline in Molly’s scattered, ominous childhood recollections, particularly the portentous interactions with her father. From the moment her sister insists that her father was a louse—pointedly reminding Molly that she, of all people, should know—it’s pretty clear that Molly has repressed some sort of trauma. Director Matt Cimber doesn’t shy away from the implications of these flashbacks, opting to dip viewers in unseemly insinuations in the glances between father and daughter before completely drowning them with one of the most sickening rape sequences ever filmed. Her memories are accented by quick, solarized shots of butchered men and a childhood clown that still provides nightmare fuel.
If you only zeroed in on these moments, The Witch Who Came from The Sea would be one of the most disturbing, skin-crawling brain-smashers ever made. You would certainly never guess that there would be any room for any laughable moments, much less entire ludicrous tangents. And yet these moments are coiled throughout, waiting to spring at the most inopportune and inappropriate moment. Movies dealing with the fallout of sexual abuse probably shouldn’t prompt chuckles from a pair of random Asian neighbors’ hilarious commentary on a neighborhood fight. They probably shouldn’t leave you howling at a mother worrying about who will take her sons to the movies since her sister may be going to jail for murder. Maybe it’s ill-advised to coax laughs from an exchange between the detectives, a Hollywood actor, and his bimbo arm candy.
Maybe your entire movie shouldn’t be pitched at cheapo 70s melodrama levels that often render the proceedings—scuzzy though they may be—farcical. Zeroing in on these scenes would leave you with the impression that The Witch Who Came from the Sea is yet another borderline softcore grindhouse flick designed to titillate and entertain by any means necessary—even if it involves a tattoo artist named “Jack Dracula” drawing a mermaid that ends just above Molly’s “curly black sea.”
Watching the genuine trauma and ill-timed humor collide creates a disorienting effect that threatens to strip the movie of any pathos. Many gonzo films feature wide tonal disparities, but this film may feature the absolute widest. I cannot imagine what kind of brain it must take to create a film that captures a girl's castrating spree to avenge her incestuous molestation and a bunch of non-sequitur, giggle-inducing dialogue. Learning that Robert Thorn wrote it from a hospital bed perhaps accounts for the delirious screenplay, but it’s like everyone involved was swept away into this whirlpool of psycho-sleaze, yielding a devil-may-care approach that only heightens how warped an experience this is.
As if it were directed exclusively from the POV of Molly’s damaged brain, The Witch Who Came from the Sea does not care for decorum and has a palpable disdain for logic. Cimber ingests the hallucinogenic properties of Thorn’s words, allowing them to guide his film to manic highs before crashing with the inevitable downer. What the film may lack in tonal cohesion, it makes up for a suffocating, gloomy aesthetic. Legendary cinematographer Dean Cundey’s photography is appropriate muted throughout, as the sunny California landscapes drained of their vitality, reduced to something approaching a grimy monochrome. Much of the film unfolds under gunmetal grey skies and dank, seedy spaces, a no-budget odyssey of prescription pills, dingy dive bars, skeezy jacuzzis, predatory men, gleaming razor blades, and severed cocks.
Tilting at the center of this scummy swirl is a hapless barmaid clinging to her sanity. Credit is due to Cimber, Thorne, and Perkins for refusing to lose Molly to this chaos. Somehow—perhaps miraculously—an indelible portrait emerges from this slapdash arthouse/grindhouse collision. Perkins’s performance is fraught with a stark, genuine pain, even when she’s fed ridiculous lines; thankfully, her writer and director reserve a staggeringly melancholy climax that casts the rest of the film in sharp relief. By the time you’ve arrived at the image of Molly—surrounded by her few loved ones and a bottle of pills—feverishly clinging to whatever she has left, you find it hard to believe you ever dared to laugh at anything in this film.
After an 80-minute freak-out, this is the sobering comedown that leaves you sifting through the wreckage of a life demolished by shattered expectations. For all its glib asides, The Witch Who Came from the Sea leaves the haunting image of a woman undone by a world that never lived up to the fantasies inside of her television set. Television is a pointed centerpiece of the film, one that often projects an idealized masculinity that is forever toxic for Molly. If God is in the TV, she rebels against the notion, fashioning herself a goddess from a classical painting. But where Venus was spawned from castration, Molly transmutes through the act, becoming a prototype of the vengeful avatars that would populate cinema in the coming years. Her counterpart may have ascended from seafoam to take on a heavenly form, but Molly crests on a wave of blood, booze, and pills that eventually sinks her.
*Buck Flower serving as a tether to reality may be the ultimate “weird movie” litmus test. His daughter Verkina also appears as the young Molly in the film's most disturbing sequences, so I imagine this was a really strange production.
One of the original Video Nasties, The Witch Who Came from the Sea has unsurprisingly garnered quite the reputation. Of all the nasties, it’s among the most artfully directed, but that didn’t save it from relative obscurity for about thirty years. Subversive Cinema rescued it from those depths about a decade ago with a special edition DVD, but Arrow Video has gone a step further with a Blu-ray upgrade as part of their American Horror Project box set. The film looks remarkably restored but retains just enough of its natural grunginess to feel authentic, though the soundtrack features a few more hiss, pops, and static than typical Arrow releases (only one short stretch is notably affected here, so it’s hardly a deal-breaker).
Extras include a feature commentary with Cundey, Perkins, and Cimber, who also return alongside for “Tides and Nightmares,” a newly-produced 23-minute retrospective documentary, and “A Maiden’s Voyage,” which features archival material from the cast and crew. Cimber also reflects on the film in a three-minute interview, while critic/curator Stephen Thrower discusses the film in an optional introduction.
I’ve said this a lot over the past few years, but we’re certainly living in remarkable times when a film like The Witch Who Came from the Sea is released as part of a Blu-ray set focusing exclusively on films dispatched from some of the most outer-fringes of the exploitation circuit. On a personal note, I am grateful for this upgrade since my DVD copy had a rough stretch that required me to fast-forward through about a minute of the film; however, beyond that, I also appreciate that this much attention and care have been lavished upon a set of movies that truly stretch cinematic boundaries with minimal resources. There’s “weird,” and then there’s this collection of hazy, rambling bouts of nigh-incoherent artistry hailing from a time and scene that will never, ever be replicated, if only because no one will ever dare. comments powered by Disqus Ratings: