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Monday, November 2, 2020

Guest Review: Mona Swan LeSueur on The Witch Who Came From The Sea


                “Do you shave with straight razors? Or is this all going to be agonizingly slow?”

Matt Cimber’s “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” (1976) feels like a movie that shouldn’t have existed when it did. Released amongst a slew of exploitation films(and eventually marketed and edited down to resemble one), this transgressive character study was both out of place and in the wrong time.

The story starts out simple enough. Molly (played by Millie Perkins) is out at the beach with her two nephews. While sitting in the sand, Molly observes a few muscle-bound bodybuilders exercising in the distance. One does reps and borderline gymnastics on a pull-up bar. Another lifts heavy weights. A third does leg swings while hanging from hoops. The camera lingers on their chests and colorful speedo crotches. This sensual observation suddenly turns to death fantasy as we see them die one by one. The one doing arm pull-ups falls to the sand, his mouth covered in blood. The one doing leg swings hangs by the chains, his throat veins bulging. We see rotoscoped blood squirt out of the eyes of the weight lifter. The fantasy is then interrupted when one of the nephews asks Molly about their grandfather. Specifically, they ask if there was treasure on his ship when he went down at sea. Molly clarifies that he was “lost at sea”, and insists that he will one day return (despite it having been fifteen years since he was “lost at sea”). They leave the beach and, after a bizarre run-in with a tattooed man (whose name we later learn is the equally bizarre Jack Dracula), they return to Molly’s sister's place to watch TV. Molly loves TV. She reminds us of this several times throughout the film. She frequently talks about TV actors, film actors, football players, you name it.

Molly is also an alcoholic. We see her down a few half tall glasses of straight vodka on multiple occasions throughout the film. The first time we see her drink, she is mid-argument with her sister about their abusive father. The film starts to look dreamy, with the audio distorted and it cuts to: Molly in a bedroom with two meaty football players she saw on TV. It starts out like a sweet and playful kink scene. The three share some weed, have a few laughs, and then she ties them up. One of them promptly passes out from the weed. The other is still lucid enough for fun and conversation. Molly stands on the edge of the bed and teases him, demanding he try to do something with the leg she has yet to tie.  He gently lifts up his leg and places his foot on her chest. She smiles. She grabs onto his foot, gently at first, and then begins to dig her fingers in harder and harder. Things take a dark turn here. She talks about shaving him and bursts into a stoned rendition of the 1880’s sea shanty “Sailing, Sailing”. She retrieves a razor from the bathroom and we see jump cuts of what appears to be her castrating him just out of frame. It cuts away from there. Molly then finds out on the TV that the football players were found murdered. She is heartbroken. Particularly because her nephews were so fond of them. She then goes to serve drinks at the bar she works at/lives in with her boss/lover, Long John, as if nothing has happened.

“The Witch Who Came from The Sea” was written by Robert Thom (Millie Perkins’ then-husband). He was struggling to pay the hospital bills at the time, so he wrote the screenplay (which includes various elements from his and Millie Perkins’ life). The script is filled with all sorts of oddball dialogue from characters whose names almost sound like comic book characters. Take for example, an exchange between Molly and a tattoo artist named Jack Dracula. While getting a tattoo of a mermaid on her torso, she recalls a nickname she once had when she was younger, and compares her name to his. Jack Dracula responds by simply affirming that Jack Dracula happens to be his real name. Or, another example: Molly goes to dinner with her boss Long John, the TV actor, and the TV actor’s girlfriend. Molly openly flirts with the TV actor and suggests that, since they are not officially an item, his girlfriend should be shipped off to China. The next day, after Molly has slept with the TV actor, the former girlfriend storms up to his big mansion with a revolver and starts shooting at both him and his car. She shouts that she is not going to be shipped off to China. I like to imagine what could have inspired some of these scenes and characters.

As the film progresses, we see the line between fantasy and reality blur more and more. She waxes deliriously about getting “lost last at sea” and refers to the men she is seeing as being part of her crew. At one point while working at the bar, she starts to hallucinate during a shaving advert featuring the TV she just slept with. The ad starts normally, but then he starts to address Molly directly through the TV. He cuts his neck and chest with the razor while describing what he wants her to do to him (this bit feels like it could have been lifted straight from a Nightmare on Elm Street film). At another point, we see her on a wooden raft at sea. She is clinging to the sail and cackling. She is surrounded by the members of her “crew”. All of them have been butchered.

For most of the film, the palette is fairly (and I think deliberately) drab in color. Lots of greys and browns. However, not long after the bloody shaving advertisement, she hooks up with the TV actor again. Only this time, she slices him up and down in his rich, Hollywood bathroom covered in blue. Just like he asked her to on TV. The red blood particularly pops in this scene. She finishes him off with a charged castration. There are a few instances of castration throughout the film. Some literal. Some less so. Muscular, conventionally attractive men all fall victim to Molly’s drunken wrath (and razors). The only man we see her have a seemingly normal relationship with is Long John, who is middle-aged, scruffy, and gentle. There are a few moments where we see them in bed together, in each other's arms, watching TV. A stark contrast to her violent and angry encounters with the men on the TV.

Despite the odd balance of eccentric characters and hallucinatory sequences, the movie manages to feel grounded with the way it portrays Molly’s experiences. In a scene shortly after the football players are murdered, she goes to a party hosted by film actor Billy Batt (a different actor than the TV actor). They discuss the Boticelli’s “The Birth of Venus”. She is fascinated and saddened by the tale of Venus coming out of the sea. He changes the subject and suggests they go have some fun. Any room. Doesn’t particularly matter where. She responds and says: “I think you’re too gentle for me”. Billy, with a single expression and stance shift, becomes the second most terrifying figure we see in the film. They do go off to his bedroom. They start to get intimate. She bites his hand. He slaps her and knocks her over to the other side of the bed. She climbs back up, shouts at him, curls her hands like talons, and leaps off the bed. She bites his ear. He then knocks her on the floor outside of his bedroom. The other party-goers completely dismiss Billy and make sure that Molly is alright. Most other films would portray the party guests rushing over to Billy to make sure he is alright. Not this film. Or take for example, the ending. After coming to terms that she has been murdering people, she rushes over to her boss/lover Long John and a regular, Doris, to confess her crimes. The police are on their way. Now, you might expect a film from this era to show her friends trying to restrain her and prevent her escape, which then leads to a dramatic apprehension sequence, followed by a sneak peek at her stay in an asylum. Not this film. Instead, she asks to see her nephews one last time. Then, surrounded by the people she loves, she takes a large amount of painkillers and slowly drifts off to an eternal slumber. Perhaps this is why, despite all of its idiosyncrasies, that it feels so lived in. Or perhaps it is because of those idiosyncrasies?

This film also has a particularly noteworthy stamp of disapproval. It was one of the original 72 video nasties (though it was not prosecuted). I suspect its inclusion was not solely due to the castration and blood sprinkled throughout. Those elements are fairly tame compared to other entries on that list. But rather, I believe it was included due to the portrayals of child abuse laid bare through flashbacks to times we learn Molly refers to as being “lost at sea”. “We were lost at sea so many times”, she recalls in the ending scene. 

There were few films at the time that truly recognized women’s suffering without being exploitive, yet this film (which I must reiterate was written and released in the 1970’s) respectfully tackles this subject in a tasteful and frank manner. The only other film that even comes close to accomplishing what this film does would have to be David Lynch’s “Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me” (1992), and that film was greeted with lines upon lines of women at the cinemas when it was released in Japan. Sadly, “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” never received such a treatment upon its initial release (even after they issued the lurid poster featuring a nearly nude Molly raising a dagger in one hand, while also sporting a dripping severed head in the other). The film was censored to varying degrees in its initial theatrical release and remained relatively obscure until a number of uncut theatrical and home media releases started cropping up in the last couple of decades.

“The Witch Who Came from the Sea” might not be the first film that comes to mind when you read the words inspiring cinema, especially considering it is a sad horror film that deals with alcoholism and child abuse, but having watched it twice in one week (the second time with a friend who expressed a similar sentiment), I can say with certainty that this low-budget feature inspires and instills hope in struggling creatives due to what it achieved with so little. This refreshing gem of a film is finally getting the due it deserved so many decades ago.

As of this writing, “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” is currently streaming on Amazon Prime, The Criterion Channel, as well as the Arrow Video Channel on Apple TV. It is also available from Arrow Video on Blu-Ray/DVD for you collector types out there. Sailing, sailing, over the bounding main…

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