At first glance, 1976’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea looks to be a standard low-budget exploitation film of the era, replete with bloody violence, genital mutilations, and gratuitous nudity, but do not dismiss it so quickly. Screenwriter Scott Thom and director Matt Cimber have put together a film that deals with the lingering aftermath of abuse; it is really a psychological drama masquerading as grindhouse fodder. The film describes not so much with a woman’s descent into madness, but more her realization of how mentally ill she has become. Strong performances by lead Millie Perkins (Thom’s wife) and supporting players Lonny Chapman and Peggy Feury elevate the story to the level of tragedy by building the viewer’s sympathy for the characters. Cinematographers Ken Gibb and Dean Cundey give the film a richer and more dynamic look than one would expect. While the bloodshed and sexual elements are abundant enough that The Witch Who Came from the Sea earned a place on the infamous UK “video nasty” list of the 1980’s, the psychological elements, seasoned cast, and rich cinematography make it a film worth seeing.
Molly (Millie Perkins) is a 30-something waitress at the seaside bar/restaurant run by her occasional lover Long John (Lonny Chapman). She lives with her seamstress sister Cathy ( Vanessa Brown) and her two pre-teen nephews Tadd (Jean Pierre Camps) and Tripoli (Mark Livingston). Molly often speaks glowingly to her nephews about her late sea captain father (John F. Goff), who she claims was lost at sea, though her sister disputes this. Unbeknownst to others, Molly has begun to have blackouts where she has violent and sexual fantasies about strangers, be they muscle men on the beach, television spokesmen, or NFL football players. Her fantasy life even crosses over to her real life when she meets a television commercial actor and starts up a relationship with him. Molly’s coworker Doris (Peggy Feury) notices Molly’s increasing agitation and providers her with various “mother’s little helper” pills to take off the edge. When two football players who were subjects of her fantasies turn up dead, Molly begins to suspect that there may be more reality to these episodes than she first thought. As Molly’s fantasy blackouts begin to feel more real, she also begins to have increasingly detailed flashbacks of her father that indicate that his relationship with her may not have been as loving and wholesome as she originally remembered. With police investigating the growing number of sexual murders and with increasing self-realization of her own mental illness, Molly takes desperate measures to resolve the violence.
While Ken Gibb (who is also cinematographer on such “gems” as “Sweater Girls” and “Deep Throat IV“) is listed as the Director of Photography for The Witch Who Came from the Sea, much of the film is reportedly shot by noted cinematographer Dean Cundey. Cundey is known for lensing the Back to the Future trilogy, Jurassic Park, and a whole host of John Carpenter films, among others. Cundey chooses to shoot the film with the more expensive option of anamorphic lenses, and these bring a wider field of view, proving to be especially effective in capturing the emptiness and expanse of the beach and ocean scenes. Much as he does in Carpenter’s Halloween (1978), he moves the camera expertly and smoothly, using slow panning shots in places where a lesser cinematographer would stick with simpler static setups. This gives the film a more polished and dynamic feel than the usual genre fare.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea would not work as well as it does were it not for its strong cast. Millie Perkins, who made her big screen debut in the title role of 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank, gives the character of Molly a depth and sadness that makes her madness all the more tragic. As Molly comes to realize that her “delusions” may have more reality to them than fantasy, she projects as sense of hopelessness; she realizes she is in decline and feels there is no way to avoid it. Viewers are drawn to her and feel a sympathy for a character that would otherwise be a simple mad slasher. This is all the more notable, as Ms. Perkins has stated that she felt the film was simple exploitation, bordering on softcore porn. The fact that she turns in a strong performance for a film for which she has such contempt shows how deeply she is committed to her craft. The film is further elevated by the performances of supporting cast members Lonny Chapman and Peggy Feury as Molly’s close friends and coworkers. Veteran character actor Lonny Chapman brings a gruff but gentle demeanor to Long John. One can feel Long John’s love and concern for Molly. Peggy Feury, noted acting coach and founding member of the Actors Studio in New York, brings her considerable talents to bear in the small but crucial role of Doris. Long John and Doris figure prominently in the resolution of the film and having two such talented actors like Chapman and Feury in those roles helps strengthen the emotional impact of the final scenes and the film overall.
A key theme of The Witch Who Came from the Sea is the difference between reality and illusion, be it the fantasies peddled by television and the media or the self-delusion from the lies one tells oneself. It looks at the emotional and psychological impact of forcing oneself to see through those illusions and what happens when one confronts the ugly realities they hide. Early in the film, Molly is fully blinded by her fantasies. The violence of the early episodes is presented in a cartoonish fashion, even so far as to having cartoon blood splashes superimposed on the screen. This fantasy view of sex and violence mirrors her fantasies of how great her sea captain father was before he was “lost at sea”. Along similar lines, Molly becomes obsessed with an actor in a television commercial. Later, she actually meets and has a fling with the actor, and her fantasy version of him clashes strongly with the reality of who he is. As the film progresses, Molly’s memories of her father become clearer and she is forced to confront a terrible secret from her past. This is expressed in her violent “fantasies” becoming more realistic as the film goes on, to the point where there is no longer any question of their reality. It is interesting, as many films deal with a character slowly slipping into madness and becoming disassociated with reality. Molly’s journey is the reverse of that. While her madness does seem to be getting worse, she faces it with an almost contradictory clarity; she knows she is going mad and therein lies the tragedy.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea shows that exploitation pictures can rise above their baser nature while still providing the blood and sex for which they are known. Rich and dynamically shot by cinematographer Dean Cundey, much of the film looks like a higher-end Hollywood production versus the low-budget affair that it is. Strong performances by veteran actors Millie Perkins, Lonny Chapman, and Peggy Feury help give the film an emotional core that is essential to its success. With a structure that mirrors the theme of one being forced to abandon one’s fantasies and confront harsh reality, the film has more to say than other grindhouse films of the time. While it may have been labelled a “video nasty,” The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a much better crafted film than that label implies and is well worth a look.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea (3.8 / 5)