There are a number of films that use women’s childhood trauma as a jumping off point for psychological inquiry, but there are none quite like The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976). Matt Cimber’s mid-70’s drama hinges on how desire often doesn’t make sense, and how outside forces such as alcohol, pills and television can multiply and twist the depths of fantasy. While it has tropes and a title that imply a horror film, it is much more of a slow moving character study than a haunted or supernatural tale. From the opening scene, the audience is presented with a juxtaposition of images that are seldom seen in mainstream cinema.
Molly (Millie Perkins) sits on a beach with her two nephews Tadd (Jean Pierre Camps) and Tripoli (Mark Livingston), mediating brotherly antagonism while also eyeing the muscle-bound men working out nearby. We are quickly invited to share a woman’s gaze, something still uncommon in cinema, as she takes in the sweating bulges of masculinity flexing and swinging on camera. Soon enough the male bodies are seen lifeless and bloody on the sand and morbidly tangled from gymnastics rings swinging back and forth.
Quite early on we know that Molly has a problem, but as The Witch Who Came from the Sea continues, it becomes more ambiguous whether the violence we see on screen is showing the audience actual events or psychic manifestations of our protagonist’s wild mind. She repeatedly mentions the television, a place where we are given information and visual representations of desired objects, very much like the screen the movie is projected on. In this way, the film is critically questioning the devices that transmit desire, not necessarily holding them responsible for what viewers are compelled to do, but providing possible catalysts for inklings waiting in the mind.
A number of the situations presented to the audience are quite subversive, in that they show a woman in full control over men, immobilizing and crushing their macho grips both literally and figuratively. Within the first twenty minutes, Molly is tying two toned and sculpted men (Gene Rutherford and Jim Sims) to bed posts and each other. Not only is she exerting control over the male bodies as they smoke weed and converse in a droning, reverberated dream space, but she–and the filmmaker–are implying homosexual desire between the men. The scene appropriately cuts away as she begins castrating one of them with a safety razor, an option that is particularly time consuming and painful. Male viewers expecting a sexy witch movie are left with a scenario of masochistic, cross-gender identification.
She wakes up the next morning–after a wild evening bartending sequence–in the bed of her boss, Long John (Lonny Chapman), to hear a TV news report about two murdered football players, the very men who were in her fantasy. The confusion over whether the violence shown throughout the film is part of Molly’s imagination or the diegesis of the film swings back and forth–like dead men from gymnastics rings–from here.
In a later scene she manhandles a cocksure fellow (Rick Jason) who thinks he can dominate her, in the process breaking his hand with seeming superhuman strength. This scene feels far more “real” than the previous scene involving the football players being tied to a bed. After she injures the man and escapes from his clutches there is a confrontation in front of a whole party of people. This back and forth between fantasy and reality very much resembles the mind of someone addicted to booze and/or pills, making it difficult to decide what actions hold more importance and what people should be held responsible for.
As the film continues we get more and more visual information about Molly’s incestuous relationship with her father (John Goff), to a point not usually seen in cinema. The only film that comes to mind which is possibly more uncomfortable regarding this kind of subject matter is Takashi Miike’s Audition (1999). Molly has conflicting feelings for her father, speaking of him proudly from the first scene and defending him amidst criticism from her sister Cathy (Vanessa Brown). It is almost immediately apparent that this childhood trauma is intertwined with her current neuroses and violent behavior, but nevertheless the film continues to deliver until the final moments. A spectral, Salvador-Dali-with-face-tattoos artist known as Jack Dracula (Stan Ross) and a crude mermaid tattoo bind Molly and her father together, but the narrative holds out on the connecting information until late in the picture.
The final scenes of the film show behavior completely unexpected from some characters which only further blur the lines between fantasy and the film’s diegesis. Cinder takes the irrational nature of desire and addiction to an ambitious level that is risky for a genre film, drama, and even independent picture. Viewers are compelled to re-think everything they witnessed previously in an attempt to come to terms with Molly and the supporting characters. The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a haunting film that continues springing up in the mind long after it is over. The seaside environment of the film evokes countless places around the world, while also placing the sea and beach life in an archetypal space that can be substituted with other environs in order to support the allegorical qualities of the movie.
The Witch Who Came From the Sea is currently available from Arrow Video as part of the American Horror Project: Volume 1 anthology set, and will be released individually as a stand alone blu ray on December 5th. It is also currently available streaming on Amazon Prime, for those who don’t mind missing the extra special features.