Day Three aboard our cruise around the Video Nasties harbor.
The Witch Who Came From The Sea occupies a special place in this Video Nasties series, because it’s one of two genuine “art films” (the other being Andrzej Zulawski’s 1981 masterpiece Possession) in the lineup. While most of the films to varying degrees are films designed to shock, repulse and titillate, this little gem is a great example of how babies get thrown out with bathwater as soon as governmental bodies start trying to determine what’s art, and what’s obscenity. Arguments against censorship these days are a given -- but, if one did accept the questionable premise that morally bankrupt, exploitative trash yields no benefit towards society and should be prevented from corrupting our youth, it’s ambitious films like The Witch Who Came From The Sea that best highlight the blurry distinction between art and exploitation.
With the new “X” rating in 1968, serious films were being made about all kinds of taboo subject matter, from gay hustlers (Midnight Cowboy) to heroin addiction (The Panic In Needle Park). The Witch Who Came From the Sea, made in 1971 but not released till 1976, has a little of that hot-button energy - dealing with, in this instance, the trauma of child molestation. As the unglued cocktail waitress who murders men in an attempt to reconcile the sexual abuse she suffered at the hands of her brutish father, the central performance by Millie Perkins (who collaborated with both Monte Hellman and Jack Nicholson in The Shooting and Ride In The Whirlwind) is a thing to be reckoned with. She’s not the best actress, but she is a professional actress who’s genuinely trying out things new to her. In the totally unique Witch..., she’s experimenting with her voice and her body, like a musician with serious chops trying out a “new toy” instrument for the first time.
Though director Matt Cimber has serious cult cred as a filmmaker, the real visionary of the film for me is its Yale-educated screenwriter, Robert Thom. Thom was was a real phenom in the ‘60s, specializing in youth-oriented countercultural comedies like Wild In The Streets and Angel, Angel, Down We Go - which utilized a fresh mix of pop kitsch, self-conscious purple prose dialogue and a satirical sensibility that wowed critics and audiences alike. But it’s a sign of the times that, by the early '70s, he and his wife Perkins were, in the midst of their divorce, trying to do a special art project reminiscent of the taboo-pushing avant-garde theater of the era.
The film’s attempts towards artfulness don’t end there: Cimber pulls out all the stops to create a dreamy, yet subdued portrait of a woman’s psyche imploding, complete with solarized flashbacks, a minefield of distorted audio effects, extended slow-mo staging of certain key sequences, and, of course, flash cuts of a thoroughly creeped-out angry clown. The film doesn’t always hit on all cylinders - but the indisputable high point is the bravura cough-syrup-paced seven-minute sequence towards the beginning of the film, in which we first see Perkins’ murderous impulses during a drugged-out threesome with a pair of football hunks. Very rarely will you see a slo-mo effect rendered so effective for such a long period of time, with audio intact and pitched down to match the visuals - so that the dark turn and revelation has the effect of an unavoidable car wreck seen from miles away. The detached mood, dark humor and true horror of the proceedings lulled a giggly midnight audience into rapt attention - and then eventually the appropriate shock.
And speaking of shocks, yes, we did almost forget about the Nasty Factor! This is, after all, an entire film devoted to the theme of post-molestation trauma. While not as bad a date movie as its bootleg reputation suggests, one should be prepared for child rape and implied castration. With a very small razor blade. That requires sawing motions. But despite the subject matter, the way that Thom and Cimber lay everything out never feels exploitative. The ending especially is sure to haunt the sensitive filmgoer.
Great little flick.
Tonight come to The Cinefamily for Axe!