Newly released as a stand-alone Blu-Ray by Arrow, The Witch Who Came From the Sea was previously part of Arrow’s American Horror Project Vol. 1 along with Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood and The Premonition. It’s a much less comfortable fit within the horror genre than those two films, displaying a mix of psychological, grindhouse and arthouse ingredients that would normally consign a film to obscurity. Instead, The Witch Who Came From the Sea is comfortably the most famous film in that earlier box-set – a fact solely attributable to its presence on the Department for Public Prosecutions’ infamous Video Nasties list.
This isn’t to say that the film is only interesting as part of the history of British censorship. Even in the context of the DPP list, which encompassed everything from The Evil Dead to a Jess Franco women-in-prison film, The Witch Who Came From the Sea is a strange and unique proposition. There weren’t many films on that list that could fairly be described as haunting, but there seems to be no other word for Matt Cimber’s 1976 oddity.
Cimber had one of the strangest careers in Hollywood history, starting off as an acclaimed theatre director, then making an attention-grabbing screen debut with Single Room Furnished, the final film of his second wife Jayne Mansfield. After that he mostly worked in softcore and blaxploitation until his second big break came in the early 1980s with Butterfly, a James M Cain adaptation starring Orson Welles and Stacey Keach. Unfortunately it also starred Pia Zadora, whose husband Meshulam Riklis bankrolled the production and campaigned so vociferously for his wife during awards season that her Golden Globe nomination was widely perceived as being bought. At the moment, Cimber’s most fondly-remembered creation is the television series GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, currently the subject of a nostalgic Netflix comedy-drama.
The Witch Who Came From the Sea is eccentric enough to incorporate elements from most of these projects. It begins with Molly, played by Millie Perkins, sat on the beach with her puzzlingly-named nephews Tadd and Tripoli, ogling muscular men working out. (Wrestling: check) Cimber’s camera makes a clumsy but laudable stab at female gaze, zooming in on their crotches (softcore: check) before she takes two of them home for a threesome. One of the men she picks is Jim Sims, star of Cimber’s well-regarded blaxploitation film The Candy Tangerine Man; unfortunately for his character, the narrative he’s in is less akin to that empowerment fantasy than the Freudian, psychosexual stew of Butterfly. In scenes that drew the attention of the British authorities, Molly gets a razor out and castrates the men.
Or does she? The initial threesome-to-murder sequence is shot in a detached, dream-like fashion, with an echoing, unnatural sound mix. We’re invited to view it as a twisted fantasy until the bodies start piling up and it becomes ‘real’. But nothing in The Witch Who Came From the Sea ever feels fully real. Even considering its California setting, there’s something too-easy about the way that television celebrities keep finding their way into Molly’s life. The film is definitely readable as the media-fuelled fantasy of a troubled, unhappy woman. This reading has the benefit of refocusing the attention on the film’s major asset: Perkins’s brave, earnest, troubling, utterly convincing lead performance.
The choice of Perkins, an actress Oscar-nominated for playing Anne Frank, as the lead shows that Cimber was trying to make something beyond exploitation here. In their book See No Evil: Banned Films and Video Controversy, David Kerekes and David Slater suggest screenwriter Robert Thom might have been inspired by Yukio Mishima’s The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea, coincidentally filmed in 1976 with Kris Kristofferson and Sarah Miles. Even the castration is likened to the myth of Venus’s birth, a high-toned analogy that the movie just about gets away with. Other symbolic elements, like the mermaid tattoo Molly gets, are harder to pin down – even the obvious reading, that it aligns Molly with mythical images of femininity and temptation, is complicated once we learn where she first saw the tattoo.
There’s a lot of things going on in The Witch Who Came From the Sea, some of which are way beyond the abilities of Thom’s script. It would be a very ramshackle production indeed without Perkins’s commitment to making Molly psychologically plausible, and Dean Cundey’s evocative cinematography. Eschewing the sun-and-fun imagery you’d expect from a movie mostly set on Californian beaches, he goes for a drizzly, hazy off-season look – appropriate, for someone who’d go on to shoot John Carpenter’s The Fog. Cundey is well-represented on the disc’s hefty extras, featuring on the making-of documentary, the commentary (with Cimber and Perkins) and one of the two featurettes. They’re all worth exploring, but they leave you with the sense that no amount of analysis could get to the bottom of this film. Sleazy yet sensitive, arty yet exploitative, grisly yet tender, it exists as a genre of its own.