These days, the term ‘cult film’ is fairly redundant in American cinema. For ‘cult’, read ‘weird, but commercial’ — or worse still, ‘kooky’. Many films now come pre-packaged as cult hits and in general are a safe, button-pushing bunch. Instead of gathering a genuine following, such films are designed for a target audience, their budgets dictated to the last dollar by their projected box office. True devotees of the bizarre and dangerous are forced to look overseas, or to trawl through the endless drudgery of the filmic fringe in search of the truly freaky.
Whilst this may sound like the rant of a celluloid snob, I think the point is valid: what stands for cult today is often merely Hollywood commercialism in disguise. “The Witch Who Came from the Sea” is a cult film in the old fashioned, genuine sense of the word, and which has earned itself a recent re-release on DVD. Although previous video boxes described it as an ‘erotic thriller’, it is in fact a genuine oddity, a truly bizarre viewing experience that fans of the abnormal would do well to seek out. Whilst not quite up there with the likes of “Eraserhead”, this is still an unsettling and disturbing film which sticks in the mind long after viewing.
The plot is quite minimalist, following Molly (Millie Perkins), a young woman who has a thing for picking up guys, having sex with them, and then castrating them with a razor. As the film progresses, her mind disintegrates further, and flashbacks attempt to explain her behavior.
“The Witch Who came from the Sea” is a strange film in that there is a very detached air to the proceedings, neither siding with nor judging Molly’s actions. Since the viewer is well aware of the identity of the murderess, the film’s suspense lies in attempting to separate reality from her fantasies. Director Matteo Ottaviano (credited sometimes as ‘Matt Cimber’, and probably best known for the 1982 Orson Welles film “Butterfly”) does this skillfully, throwing in a number of surreal sequences that leave the viewer as disorientated as poor, crazy Molly.
The waters are muddied further through the frequent and often very disturbing childhood flashbacks, some of which blur convincingly into the present day events. Ottaviano never overplays his hand, and the traumas of the past are presented quite plainly and almost without emotion and not as obvious reasons for Molly’s psychosis. Instead, Ottaviano imbues the film with symbolism and attempts to assign meaning through the visuals, and though not always successful, he certainly gives the proceedings an interesting look.
To be fair, the film isn’t exactly exciting, moving slowly towards its somewhat anti-climactic ending, though it is not without a certain dreamlike atmosphere. However, if looking for a traditional or fast paced thriller, viewers are advised to go elsewhere. The closest comparison that can be made for “The Witch Who came from the Sea” would be to a film like Polanski’s “Repulsion”, in that they are both explorations of the psyches of troubled young women. However, Ottaviano’s film is certainly more psycho than thriller, and is definitely somewhere way south of the lunatic line.
The film does have a fairly high exploitation content, being very graphic in places, and there are several razor blade castration sequences guaranteed to make male viewers squirm. The effects are pretty convincing, and the killings are made all the more effective by Perkins’ apparent indifference to her victims’ suffering. Despite all the blood and sex, the overall mood is very downbeat, and given the underlying themes of child abuse and madness, little is played for obvious titillation. As a result, this is not a film particularly recommended to gore hounds or sleaze seekers, and such fans would do well to seek their kicks elsewhere.
A film like this can succeed or fail on the strength of its central performance, and thankfully, Perkins is great as Molly. Throughout, she maintains a certain sense of innocence, and although the viewer never really sympathizes with her, the character never degenerates into psychotic farce. Interestingly, Perkins may be recognizable to some as having been a star of the TV primetime soap “Knots Landing”, though of course with a great deal less nudity and screaming. To be honest, the rest of the acting is pretty bad, and it’s quite fortunate that Perkins takes up most of the screen time.
Overall, I would definitely recommend “The Witch Who came from the Sea” to any fans of the weird. It’s an effective, unsettling psychological horror filled with disturbing imagery and graphic gore. It’s probably not the best film for good time viewing, but those who go to the effort of seeking it out won’t be disappointed.
Matt Cimber (director) / Robert Thom (screenplay)
CAST: Millie Perkins …. Molly
Lonny Chapman …. Long John
Vanessa Brown …. Cathy
Peggy Feury …. Dora