The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976) Blu Ray (Arrow)
This is one of three films which were originally included on Arrow’s 2016 box set American Horror Project Vol 1 but are being released individually on 4th December 2017.
“Molly has a way with razors!” (N.B. tagline from the original UK video release)
Millie Perkins plays Molly, a bohemian lady living in Santa Monica, California with her sister Cathy (Vanessa Brown) and nephews Tadd (Jean Pierre Camps) and Tripoli (Mark Livingston). She works at a beachside bar run by Long John (Lonny Chapman), with whom she is having an open sexual relationship.
Early on, the film flashes back to a hazy, dreamlike moment where Molly imagines she has picked up a pair of professional American football players whom she saw exercising on the beach. She ties the pair of them to a bed for what they believe is a kinky sex session, before setting upon them with a bathroom razor - cutting off genitals in an implied, off-screen manner.
The next day, after she wakes up beside Long John, she watches the news on TV. The story breaks that the two football players have been killed for real - something which leaves Molly in shock. Soon, a pair of detectives start snooping around the town, interrogating her sister and other people with whom she is involved. The rest of the film looks at the investigations, Molly’s murderous ways and the disturbing background behind her fractured psyche.
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An oddity from the “Video Nasties” list
The UK “Video Nasties” list came about in the early 1980s due to a furore around films being released on video without the BBFC certification and censorship that big screen releases got. As a result, shelves were flooded with films deemed by self-imposed moral guardians to contain material - graphic gore, sexual violence and taboo subject matter - which shouldn’t be seen by the general public. The Department of Public Prosecutions started to draw up a list of films which they identified as being in violation of the Obscene Publications Act. A total of 72 films made the list at one time or other, some of which were successfully prosecuted and some of which were ultimately acquitted.
The irony is that many of the films were low-budget, poorly-distributed affairs that would have otherwise been quickly forgotten about had it not been for the added notoriety. Quality-wise they ranged from bonafide classic horror films to unwatchable rubbish.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a rarity on the list in that it, to some extent, transcends the horror genre into the arthouse realm. Abel Ferrara’s Driller Killer and Andrzej Żuławski’s Possession are arguably the only ones comparable in this respect, while the “castrating female” archetype also lumps it in with Meir Zarchi’s I Spit on Your Grave. That said, it does stand out as a one-of-a-kind piece, rather dissimilar to any of these in its modus operandi.
More disturbing than graphic
There isn’t a great deal in terms of graphic content in The Witch Who Came from the Sea, even by 1970s standards. Millie Perkins bares her breasts on occasion, there are a few smears and splashes of fake blood, some brief psychedelic images involving dismembered bodies and some strong swear words from time to time. However, the more extreme moments are handled via implication, jarring edits and bizarre sound effects rather than by rubbing the details in the viewer’s face. It’s a film that operates more on a subliminally disturbing level than an out-and-out gore-fest.
It derives much of its power from Millie Perkins’ performance. She became famous for her screen debut, playing the title role in The Diary of Anne Frank (1959). By the mid-1970s, however, she had fallen off the radar. Despite the undoubted disappointment she must have felt seeing her stardom fade, she provides a compelling study of woman who has been reduced to a state of psychotic schizophrenia via the childhood trauma of incestuous abuse. At times, her demeanour has the sense of innate decency an innocence which she brought wonderfully to life in the role that brought her to public attention. At others, she seethes with rage. At others, she’s chillingly sadistic towards her male victims.
A script littered with mythology and archetypes
Her then-husband Robert Thom wrote the script. The dialogue is extraordinary poetic and littered with mythological references; to the sea, Venus and mermaids. Molly talks about her father as a great sailor who became “lost at sea”, a form of psychological denial of the abuses which he has perpetrated against her in childhood. The film is non-linear in its construction, mixing in flashbacks and hallucinations. What could have become pretentious all comes together superbly as a portrait of a (paradoxically) fragmented personality whose sole handle on reality is, ironically, the television - a device which, in itself, clearly portrays its own highly skewed perceptions of it.
Images of archetypically strong masculinity - sailors, pro-football players, actors selling men’s razors and so on - are held up in their idealised fashion only for their images to be subsequently tarnished as derogatory misogynists and sexual abusers. Furthermore, they lose their perceived power as Molly (in her sadistic and murderous form) becomes empowered. This is particularly evident in the early murders of the two football players, who become stoned and are led into a prone position of being tied on the bed, with Molly in a position to toy with them as she chooses.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea isn’t flawless; Herschel Burke Gilbert’s synth score accompanying the murders is rather lame and some scenes have a tendency to ramble on a bit. However, neither of these factors succeed in diminishing the overall power of this distinctive and devastating film. Amongst the so-called “Video Nasties” it stands out as one of the best.
Runtime: 83 mins
Dir: Matt Cimber
Script: Robert Thom
Starring: Millie Perkins, Lonny Chapman, Vanessa Brown, Peggy Feury, Rick Jason, Jean Pierre Camps, Mark Livingston, John Goff
Blu Ray Audio-Visual
Despite the fact that it’s a supposed 2K remastering from vault materials, the audio-visual restoration is very uneven throughout - quite possibly a reflection of the state of the original materials. Some images are soft, some have dust specks (especially early on) and there’s some audible background fuzz on the audio. The colours balance feels off: overly vivid in places and rather washed out in others. Apparently (according to director Cimber on the accompanying featurette Lost at Sea) the original negative was destroyed and most of the copies in storage had rotted. Hence, unfortunately, the best version we are ever likely to see.
Tides and Nightmares
A wonderful making-of documentary featuring director Matt Cimber, cinematographer Dean Cundey and performers Millie Perkins and John Goff (who played the abusive father in flashbacks). Millie herself is a particularly frank and entertaining interviewee; she admits that she didn’t like the incestuous paedophile theme and only agreed to do the film to pay her then-husband and screenwriter Robert Thom’s hospital bills. She also mentions that has never has never spoken of the film to her daughters out of concern over what they might think of her.
Director Cimber reveals that, while the film was promoted as horror/drive-in fare at the time, he had always intended it to be a more serious study. He also discusses its time at the MPAA; the two women representing the board whom he met with were appalled and said that it could only be released as a XXX film. However, Cimber appealed and managed to get an R rating by making a couple of minor cuts.
A Maiden’s Voyage
An archive documentary, again featuring interview footage with Cimber, Cundey and Perkins. While there is a fair amount of inevitable overlap with Tides and Nightmares, there is also enough new material to make it worth a watch in its own right. Once again Perkins is the highlight here, especially when she talks about her shock after moving to Malibu and encountering the level of drug use which went on there at the time. She also reveals that, during shooting in a genuine hotel casino, the mafia kicked out their extras. The filmmakers had to use a group of deaf-mutes to pretend to talk and then add their voices in post-production.
It’s also particularly interesting to hear Cimber talk about the film’s origin release. It seems that, after the audience’s shocked reactions, some theatre owners in the southern U.S. took it upon themselves to excise certain scenes. He also reveals that the infamous “decapitation” poster (which is misleading advertising since no decapitation takes place in the actual film) was devised for the second run.
Lost at Sea
Matt Cimber briefly talks about the film. He mentions that the original negatives were destroyed in some unfortunate circumstances and most of the prints rotted in the archives. Hence, Arrow were incredibly lucky to secure a usable print.
Dean Cundey, Millie Perkins and Matt Cimber comment about the film. Unfortunately, this is the most disappointing extra due to the commentary track’s awful echoing sound quality and the fact that the film’s own audio track is often distractingly audible behind the trio’s gabbing. I have to admit that I gave up on it partway through.
A Stephen Thrower intro rounds out the extras.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea is an underrated and genuinely disturbing psychological horror. It’s a pity that the audio-visual quality of this release leaves something to be desired - but this is at least partially understandable considering that it was remastered from vault reels rather than the original negative (which was destroyed). The extras are good apart from the disappointing condition of the audio commentary.