The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)

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After the disappointing Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood, Arrow Video’s American Horror Project finally delivers the goods. The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a gem.

It’s a complex movie. Shockingly so. The sexual abuse of a child is central to the story and the scenes depicting those horrors are sickening and raw. Director Matt Cimber uses the film to really burrow into characters’ consciousness and reality is frequently submerged under dark fantasies and deceptive hallucinations. The sound design often plunges dialogue and background noise into a chamber, making it sound as though we’re hearing it through a fishbowl. It’s very disorientating and effective and much more inventive than it has any right to be.

Last year I watched Monte Hellman’s The Shooting and saw, for the first time, an actress called Millie Perkins. When you watch enough movies you develop a kind of gut reaction to actors and actresses and certain ones just stick with you. Something about Perkins immediately struck me in Hellman’s film and for some reason I became a fan for life. Now Perkins is the star of Witch and again I found myself enamoured by her. She shot the film while she was in her late 30s. That in itself is something special. How many 70s horror films have you seen anchored on a middle-aged woman? The added maturity makes her shine, maybe even brighter than she did in the earlier film. She bears all Witch, not just her body but also her soul. It’s a brilliant performance with real nuance and depth. Again, the kind of thing you don’t expect to find in a film of this nature.

The film’s real power comes from it’s perspective. It feels refreshingly female. The movie begins with Perkins watching topless body-builders on a beach, with their oiled up torsos and bulging swimming trunks granted huge, anamorphic close-ups (courtesy of the great Dean Cundey no less). Cimber isn’t afraid of showing Perkins’ body either. Of-course seeing a woman lose clothing in a horror film is no rarity but seeing a woman close to 40 go topless and indulge in her sexuality is. It feels revolutionary rather than gratuitous. Even though Perkins’ character goes on to commit some satisfyingly bloody and excessive crimes (genre box ticked!), we never really leave her side or lose sympathy for her. She herself is a victim and her psychosis stems from great trauma.

I actually wonder if The Witch Who Came from the Sea should even be classed as a horror film. There are horrors on show and it provides much discomfort but the film doesn’t seem designed to shock, titillate or necessarily entertain. It’s a lot heavier than that. Even it’s imagery and aesthetic goes beyond what most meager horror films of this era were happy to settle for. The mostly daylight and seaside setting is quite unusual and the screenplay by Robert Thom (also Perkins’ husband at the time) is so thematically rich. Why this film ended up on the video nasties list is beyond me. To lump it in with grindhouse tripe is doing it a big disservice. The Witch Who Came from the Sea is an excellent little picture and so far the crowning jewel of the American Horror Project. The box-set is worth it for this title alone.

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