In 1976, the cinematic world was shaken when Brian de Palma made perhaps his greatest film, Carrie, based on the novel by Stephen King. The tale of the loss of innocence of a young woman, and how she extracts vengeance on those around her, was not necessarily a new concept to horror films, but it was one that Carrie helped to solidify. Also in 1976, there was a similarly-themed feminine horror film that is far more obscure and tragically less-heralded than Carrie, and one that covers many of the same horror nuances as Carrie. That film was Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea, an offbeat and strange horror film that is as audacious as it is haunting.
Molly (Millie Perkins) is a young woman in California. She is, on the surface, relatively normal – she works as a waitress at a beachside bar, and is a welcome presence in the home of her sister where she helps babysit her adoring nephews, Tadd and Tripoli (on the surface this name seems odd, but it does bring to mind Greek Antiquity, which helps in this film’s sometimes mythical seafaring overtones). What those around Molly don’t realize is that her father, who she speaks of so tenderly and lovingly, was actually a rapist who abused his daughter and caused her to become developmentally stunted in some ways. As a result of this, Molly is a vengeful woman who takes her anger and bitterness out on her male victims in violent ways. Over the course of the film, we follow Molly as she shows her bipolarity of character – the seemingly quiet, All-American girl, and the bloodthirsty murderer who preys on innocent men.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea was considered a video nasty and was thus heavily censored in the United Kingdom. The idea of the video nasty brings up connotations of awfully low-budget, seemingly trashy films with far too much violence and sexual content, and a film that may be of interest to certain cinephiles, but have very little artistic merit outside of being trashy. The Witch Who Came from the Sea is quite the opposite. It does have some violent content (but very few horror films of the time didn’t have some sort of violence) and sexual overtones, but there is very little here that could be considered obscene by anyone with even an iota of common sense and rational thought. It is often amusing to look back at these instances of stuffy censorship preventing a film from being seen in its intended form, or sometimes seen overall. I don’t necessarily want to get into the mechanics of censorship and why The Witch Who Came from the Sea was an odd victim of that archaic system because that would detract from the film as a whole and we’d all just lose focus of this fascinating piece of cinema.
Unlike more traditional video nasties, The Witch Who Came from the Sea has an enormous amount of artistic and cinematic merit behind it. It isn’t a film that is endearing because of its low-budget aesthetics or artificiality – it is a film that can stand amongst other mainstream horror films throughout the ages and be compared favorably to many of them. First of all, there’s the matter of this film’s visual aesthetic. From the outset, we are introduced to cinematography that goes far beyond what I was expecting from this film. Dean Cundey would go on to be a collaborator with John Carpenter and is responsible for one of the most beautifully-shot horror films of all time, Halloween. For someone who came to be associated with horror, The Witch Who Came from the Sea was Cundey’s third foray into the genre (after serving in the second-unit of the ill-fated Beware! the Blob, Larry Hagman’s laughable attempt at the science fiction horror genre) and the obscure So Evil, My Sister. The Witch Who Came from the Sea shows Cundey using the camera to create a riveting and resonant aesthetic that goes with this film’s overall tone. The production design, as minimalistic as it tends to be in this film, seemingly works in tandem with the other technical aspects of this film, resulting in a bizarrely haunting visual experience. For a video nasty, The Witch Who Came from the Sea is an unbelievably beautiful film.
In terms of performances, The Witch Who Came from the Sea features a despicably great performance from Millie Perkins, who plays the titular character. Molly is far from a traditional horror anti-heroine. She is very bipolar in her characterization, and the complexities brought into the character are accentuated wonderfully by Perkins, who commands the screen in a very unconventional manner. Molly is a very complicated character as a whole, and what Perkins does with her – particularly highlighting how the character alternates between outward performativity – in one instance being an innocent and slightly naive woman, and in the other, a damaged woman with murderous tendencies – is quite impressive. The Witch Who Came from the Sea features supporting performances from a number of lesser-known (but no less talented) actors, such as Lonny Chapman’s oddly endearing Long John, Rick Jason’s Billy Batt, a scathingly satirical indictment on the Hollywood figure and most notably, Peggy Feury, who was utterly incredible as the older waitress Doris, and threatened to steal this film away from Perkins’ central performance. It is a cast far stronger than this film’s obscurity would suggest.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea is not a particularly easy film to watch. The violence and sexual content in this film might not be particularly tame, but there are far from being overly excessive or repulsive. Rather, the implications lurking beneath this film pervade to create a film that is shocking not for the things that it says, but for the reasons it has for saying these things. Child abuse is never a topic that comes across as particularly easy to convey on film, and The Witch Who Came from the Sea has some of the most disturbing imagery in terms of this loss of innocence. The dream-like memory sequences were far more terrifying than the moments of actual violence, and they leave a haunting mark on a film that sometimes veers towards being laughably exploitative in its scenes of violence. It takes a very special kind of horror film to create genuine dread and terror not from the themes commonly associated with horror, but through the uncanny representations of what is normal – while seeing Molly castrate some football players may be shocking, but it is genuinely unsettling to see her nonchalant demeanor towards such an act.
However, The Witch Who Came from the Sea is not entirely without flaws – but they are not notable enough to detract from the film as a whole. Despite the beautiful cinematography, the film is awfully edited, and it meanders a bit towards the middle, going into its final act. The script has a great concept, but it seems like this film was attempting to be far more poetic than it should have been, and it distracts from the central power this film has. However, each of these issues are resolved with the haunting third act that leaves you cold, but in the best possible way – you feel a sense of pervading dread and unease as this film winds down to its very poignant and ambiguous ending. The flaws in The Witch Who Came from the Sea are not too distracting, but they certainly do exist.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a wonderful film – it is far from being a bad film, nor is it too shocking to be enjoyed by audiences, albeit those willing to go in with an open mind a clear sense that what they are about to watch is unsettling and very dark. Technically, it is a marvel with incredible cinematography and excellent performances. Matt Cimber’s approach to showing the internal anguish and mental breakdown of an individual was extraordinary, and the ending stays with you for a while afterward. It is a film that occupies an odd space in horror cinema, combining moments of gritty grindhouse shock with uncanny moments of surreal imagination. It is a film that deserves to enter into the canon of memorable horror cinema, if only for its incredible approach to its subject matter. It is one of the more audacious revenge films, and while it may tend towards being a thriller more than a horror, it will undoubtedly elicit the same feelings of utter dread in the audience. It is a horror film more deep and meaningful than one would expect, and it is a truly special film that rises above its flaws to deliver a complex and disturbing message.