The Witch Who Came From the Sea

The Witch Who Came From the Sea
Director: Matt Cimber
Screenplay: Robert Thom
Stars: Millie Perkins (Molly), Lonny Chapman (Long John), Vanessa Brown (Cathy), Peggy Feury (Dora), Jean Pierre Camps (Todd), Mark Livingston (Tripoli), Rick Jason (Billy Batt), Stafford Morgan (McPeak), Richard Kennedy (Det. Beardsley), George "Buck" Flower (Det. Stone), Roberta Collins (Clarissa), Stan Ross (Jack Dracula)
MPAA Rating: R
Year of Release: 1976
Country: U.S.
The Witch Who Came From the Sea DVD
Some of the most interesting films are the ones that lie at the often bizarre crossroads where exploitation meets art cinema. Neither here nor there, these films are often perplexing experiences because it's difficult to get a sense of the filmmaker's intentions. Since such films tend to be about extreme subject matter, their artistic pretensions often transcend simple exploitation, yet there's almost always a veneer of tastelessness that challenges any seriousness the viewer brings to the film.

The Witch Who Came From the Sea is such a film. It presents itself as a serious psychological drama about the plight of an emotionally damaged woman, yet it contains enough graphic depictions of castration, incest, and general madness to qualify it as some kind of deranged horror film. It is clearly meant to be a shocker, particularly in its frank depictions of a father sexually abusing his preadolescent daughter, but it is done with enough attention to character and thematic development--not to mention visual and aural artistry--that it's impossible to simply write it off as an exercise in lewd exploitation.

Millie Perkins, who started her film career in 1959 playing the title role in George Stevens' production of The Diary of Anne Frank, stars as Molly, an attractive and seemingly normal young woman who is hiding a history of sexual abuse at the hands of her sea captain father that has damaged her beyond repair. She hides her past by concocting fantastical stories about her father being a good and decent man, a renowned sailor who was lost at sea and may return at any time. She also idolizes masculine media heroes, particularly football players and actors. She tells her stories to her two young nephews (Jean Pierre Camps and Mark Livingston), much to the chagrin of her frumpy older sister, Cathy (Vanessa Brown), who knows the truth.

In the company of others, then, Molly covers up her emotional wounding with storytelling and hero worship, but in private she violently lashes out against the very men she professes to admire. We first see this in a sequence in which she lures two professional football players up to a hotel room, ties them up with the suggestion of kinky sex, and then proceeds to castrate and murder them. Director Matt Cimber stages this sequence as a fantasy-dream-turned-nightmare, using echoing vocal distortions and soft focus to give the actions a surreal, did-it-happen-or-not? quality.

If we view The Witch Who Came From the Sea as a horror film, one of its most striking qualities is the way it inverts typical gender expectations in terms of victims and assailants. One of the most oft-repeated (and often misguided) criticisms of horror films is the way in which they turn women in helpless victims and men into either killers or heroes. This film reverses that by making Molly into the aggressor, although one whose violence is borne out of her previous role as a victim of patriarchal sexual violence. Nevertheless, the scene with the football players is shocking in the way it presents her as a calmly rational psychotic, slowly unfolding her plan while the players, drunk and stoned, blissfully follow along the path to their eventual emasculation. It is even more pronounced in a scene in which Molly turns the predatory self-assuredness of a cocky actor named Billy Batt (Rick Jason) against him. In both instances, though, Molly is able to inflict damage because she plays on the men's sexual confidence.

Screenwriter Robert Thom, best known for penning such Roger Corman classics as Bloody Mama (1970), Death Race 2000 (1975), and Crazy Mama (1975), was clearly striving for a literary film, one that relies heavily on symbolism and Freudian overtones. The sea is the film's overarching symbol, as it represents Molly's escape from the nightmare of her life. It is also a place of birth, which is explained to Molly as she stands in front of Boticelli's famous painting of Venus, who is seen as a witch who came from the sea after her god-father Zeus was castrated. Thus, Molly sees herself as a modern-day Venus, who was born out of sexual abuse and therefore emasculates any man who takes her as a sexual object. She is caught in a vicious cycle that has no out except the metaphorical sea, which for her is death.

The Witch Who Came From the Sea is certainly the high point of director Matt Cimber's career. Cimber, who was the last husband of blonde bombshell Jayne Mansfield, began his filmmaking career in the late 1960s making hard-core films such as Man and Wife (1969) and He and She (1970) that escaped prosecution because they were structured as "educational films." He also made a few blaxpolitation films in the early '70s, including Candy Tangerine Man (1975), although he is probably best known in the world of trash film for having directed not one, but two Pia Zadora vehicles, the execrable Butterfly (1981), which costarred Orson Welles and Stacy Keach, and Fake-Out (1982). Cimber is beloved in cult film circles, and The Witch Who Came From the Sea is his artistic peak. Although the film is somewhat marred by hammy 1970s techniques like quick zooms and rapid cutting, it is overall very well made, partially because of the 'Scope cinematography by Dean Cundey, who went on to a notable Hollywood career working on numerous projects for John Carpenter, Steven Spielberg, and Robert Zemeckis.

Because The Witch Who Came From the Sea is primarily a character study, Millie Perkins' performance is crucial. While she is very good throughout, her role is arguably undermined in the same way Jack Nicholson's role was undermined in Stanley Kubrick's The Shining (1980): Namely, she is presented as being psychotic virtually from the get-go, which deflates part of the narrative development. From the opening moments with Molly on the beach with her nephews, it is clear that she is not right, which is underscored by her obsessive watching of bodybuilders lifting weights nearby (her tendency to stare at their crotch seems purely sexual at this point, but we quickly realize that she has something entirely different in mind). Nevertheless, Perkins does a fine job of getting the audience to empathize with someone who is not only psychotic, but commits brutal crimes. The film's quiet ending, in which Molly escapes her agony with the help of her family, is done with such tenderness that it recasts the film's more exploitative moments into something almost serene.

The Witch Who Came From the Sea Special Edition DVD

Aspect Ratio2.35:1
  • English Dolby 2.0 Surround
  • English Dolby 1.0 Monaural
  • SubtitlesEnglish
  • Audio commentary by director Matt Cimber, star Millie Perkins, and cinematographer Dean Cundey
  • Maiden Voyage retrospective documentary
  • Bios for Millie Perkins, Dean Cundey, and Matt Cimber
  • DistributorSubversive Cinema
    Release DateDecember 7, 2004

    Before this DVD release, The Witch Who Came From the Sea was only available on home video in old, badly washed-out and pan-and-scanned VHS copies. New video label Subversive Cinema has done a fine job restoring the image for a new anamorphic widescreen transfer that was supervised by cinematographer Dean Cundey. The film certainly looks like a product of the mid-1970s, as the colors throughout the film are fairly muted and the image is somewhat soft. The elements used for the transfer must have been in very good condition because there are virtually no age artifacts or dirt to be found. Overall, an excellent presentation of a film that has languished in obscurity for too many years.

    The soundtrack is presented in both its original monaural mix and a new two-channel surround mix. Both sound fairly good, with the new mix opening up the soundscape just enough to be noticeable. Despite its low budget, The Witch Who Came From the Sea has surprisingly good atmospheric and sometimes dreamlike sounds effects that are well replicated here.

    The two main supplements are a screen-specific audio commentary by director Matt Cimber, star Millie Perkins, and cinematographer Dean Cundey and Maiden Voyage, a 35-minute retrospective documentary that relies heavily on video interviews from the same three participants. The audio commentary is informative and entertaining. Cimber, Perkins, and Cundey have a good rapport with each other, although the commentary does a bit at times and the participants tend to repeat the same points over and over again (particularly Cimber, who feels compelled to point out every time there's nudity that it's not exploitative). The recording of the commentary itself sounds somewhat hollow, as if the participants were sitting too far away from the microphone, but it doesn't distract. The retrospective documentary essentially sums up the main points made in the commentary in a more organized format, but unfortunately it doesn't include any behind-the-scenes footage. The disc also contains bios for Perkins, Cundey, and Cimber.

    Copyright ©2004 James Kendrick

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    All images copyright © Subversive Cinema

    Overall Rating: (3)

    James Kendrick

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