The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)
I had briefly heard about The Witch Who Came from the Sea when I was listening to one of my favorite horror film discussions. At least, I thought I heard about it, because it sounded like it was European horror and was one of three movies that were kind of connected, but not really. I went into this expecting something Italian, Spanish or possibly French, with bad dubbing and an incomprehensible plot.
I was surprised to find out it's an American production, directed by Matt Cimber, who many people will recognize as organizing the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (GLOW). That makes this movie even stranger because, even though he didn't write it, this is in no way some fun, sexy Russ Meyers-type film. It's a serious psychological horror film that explores the results of extreme child abuse, and became one of those famous "video nasties" over in the UK. Originally rated X in the U.S., it shows certain scenes that, although they are meant to be horrific, cross some major lines.
Molly (Millie Perkins) is a waitress at a bar who often takes care of her sister Cathy's (Vanessa Brown) kids when she is not working. She is an alcoholic, among other things, and has been carrying on a long affair with her boss Long John (Lonny Chapman). She absolutely idolizes her dead father, regaling her nephews with his exploits as a sea captain and how he was lost on a voyage. Meanwhile, Cathy tries to temper the stories, reminding her how abusive he was, and that he's dead and buried.
The other things Molly is obsessed with is television and muscular, chiseled handsome men. While she finds herself attracted to them, she also finds herself attracted to the idea of murdering them, often having fantasies of doing so. It soon turns out that they may be more than just fantasies, as two football players (Gene Rutherford, Jim Sims) turn up murdered in a hotel room, with evidence pointing to her. She slips even deeper into her fantasies after meeting Alexander McPeak (Stafford Morgan), who she has seen repeatedly in shaving commercials, and starting an affair with him. When he also goes missing all eyes once again turn on her as she becomes more and more consumed by her fantasy world.
Cimber obviously didn't have a lot of money to film this, as evidenced by the fact that the actual scenes where any violence happen shows fake blood being smeared on people rather than cutting, as I am sure there was no budget to hire someone who could do gore effects properly. What he did have, though, was Millie Perkins, who as a child had starred in The Diary of Anne Frank. Fortuitously she was married to Robert Thom, who was the writer for the movie. This also features above-average performances from Vanessa Brown and Lonny Chapman, while everyone else is decent as well, including George "Buck" Flower as a police detective.
I think the only reason this didn't get a bigger production was because of the subject matter. It doesn't shy away from what happened, showing flashbacks of both the sexual and physical abuse Molly suffered at the hands of her father. While in true Hollywood style a lot of the explanations for her suppressing the memories and creating a fantasy world are highly simplified, Perkins does an amazing job of playing the role of a damaged woman trying hard to hold on to her denial. If this movie wasn't framed and presented as a piece of exploitation horror chances are her performance would have received Oscar nomination.
The pacing of the movie, however, is what causes it to stumble. Most of it is quite well done, but it still has a student film quality about some scenes, particularly adding an annoying echo to some of the dialog, which is excruciating in scenes that go on for 10 minutes or more and would have been tense just on their own. There is this tendency to add in that psychedelic element that was still hanging around, even this late into the 1970s, rather than just going for the stark realism that is present in the majority of the film and is actually quite effective.
Without the more experimental scenes, for which the film, like with the gore scenes, didn't have the budget to make effective, The Witch Who Came from the Sea would be an amazing film. It would not be one anyone would want to watch often due to its disturbing nature, but it would lift it out of cult status. As it is the movie is still quite harrowing to watch, but it falls short of what it wanted to do.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)
Time: 83 minutes
Starring: Millie Perkins, Lonny Chapman, Vanessa Brown, Stafford Morgan
Director: Matt Cimber