Matt Cimber/ USA/ 1976/ 87 mins
Available on Blu-ray Mon 4 Dec 2017
Easily the most interesting of the three films released by Arrow Video as part of the American Horror Project, The Witch Who Came from the Sea transcends its overtly Grindhouse trappings and ostensible adherence to a grungy rape revenge template. Awash in surreal, dreamy imagery with a nautical theme, Matt Cimber’s psycho-horror is a cut above most of the other films that fell victim to the infamous “Video Nasties” list of the early 80’s.
Molly (Millie Perkins) is a disturbed woman who loves to tell her beloved nephews about her brave, kind father; a sailor apparently lost at sea. She also fantasises about castrating and murdering “beautiful men” that she encounters. When it turns out that they may not be fantasies and she appears to be guilty of murder it becomes clear that the unspeakable trauma she suffered as a child has come surging to the surface.
There are moments in Witch that feel like you’re watching from an underwater Quaalude binge. Speech is slowed down and slurred, and the score is mixed with crescendos of breaking waves. It’s both disturbing and sexually-charged, especially when mirrored by some genuinely distressing scenes of incestuous child abuse. Both the dreadful past and Molly’s vengeful present are presented in similar hallucinatory sequences featuring strong early work from director of photography Dean Cundey, who would go on to work on the likes of Halloween, The Thing, and Jurassic Park.
It has to be said that The Witch Who Came From the Sea did not attract the ire of Mary Whitehouse and her ilk for no reason. For all the intensity and harrowing nature of the scenes of abuse, there’s a dark strain of cracked humour that is hugely incongruous. These wild tonal shifts threaten to suck the entire film back into the murky Charybdis of schlocky sexploitation, despite Perkins’ committed portrayal of a woman losing her grip on sanity. Ropey acting from some of the ancillary characters doesn’t help either, making it more likely to be easily dismissed by some viewers; particularly those more used to contemporary, more polished horror.
Fortunately, Perkins’ fierce performance comes to the fore, abetted by a script by her then-husband Robert Thom (of Death Race 2000 fame) that is unusually strong for the genre. There are references to classical mythology, with Molly strongly identifying with the goddess Venus, who rose fully-formed from the waves after the castration of Uranus. Certainly more ambitious than the majority of the generic hack-n’-slash of the nasties list.
Distressing subject matter aside, Matt Cimber’s psychodrama was a really pleasant surprise. It’s packed with haunting imagery with a protagonist who retains sympathy while carrying out horrific acts. It’s well worth tracking down.