What a wild, warped little morsel this is. Like startled beachcombers stumbling onto a bloated whale carcass, viewers of 1976’s “The Witch who came from the Sea” will not easily shake this film’s uniquely tainted imagery. It’s not necessarily a great movie. Perhaps not even a good one. But it’s one of the strangest things I’ve ever seen on film (including a recently-screened remaster of “Eraserhead”).
For this reason alone, “Witch…” merits inclusion in “Cinema CPR.” While the sheep gather to escape reality with committee-sanctioned, test-screened, hack-helmed hunks of innocuous celluloid waste like “RV” and “The Sentinel,” I’ll hunker down with director Matt Cimber’s supremely freaky female revenge shocker, recently resurrected onto DVD by Subversive Cinema as a gorgeous anamorphic transfer. “Witch…” ain’t for the nose-in-the-air art crowd, but it’s definitely an experience you’ll never find at the multiplex.
“The Witch who came from the Sea” starts out like friendly family fodder. Millie Perkins, perhaps best known for her star turn in 1959’s “The Diary of Anne Frank,” stars as Molly, a middle-aged, coast-inhabiting bartender with two preteen sons. We initially meet Molly on the beach. Gazing into the surf, she reminisces about her long-lost father. In idealized, mythical imagery, she paints her salty dog of a dad as a heroic legend. Despite his being lost at sea nearly twenty years ago, Molly holds onto the hope that this paternal influence is still alive.
So far, so unremarkable. But within minutes, Molly’s attention is diverted by nearby muscle-beach hunks bulking up via free weights and chin-ups. One moment, she’s leering at their Schwarzenegger-caliber biceps and bulging briefs. Later, she’s visualizing their ghastly demises. No two ways about it – Molly is one sick puppy. Is this twisted duality – both a drooling admiration of rippling manflesh and a murderous rage against all things masculine – a product of childhood trauma? Paging Dr. Freud!
Faster than you can say Electra complex, football-playing celebrities are having family jewels extracted and throats slashed. Could Molly be responsible? Granted, the bloody murders in “Witch…” didn’t benefit from today’s state-of-the-art movie illusions, but they remain astonishingly unpleasant. “Re-Animator” creator Stuart Gordon once remarked that the scariest things on film aren’t oversized reptiles terrorizing Tokyo. Rather, they’re life’s common, identifiable fears – like razor cuts. Indeed. Never has the image of blade-to-skin been more cringe-worthy.
The fact that “Witch…” aspires to be more than just a sensationalized slasher pic makes it all the more luridly fascinating. By incorporating Botticelli’s famous painting “The Birth of Venus,” screenwriter Robert Thom (“Death Race 2000” scribe and Perkins’ husband at the time of filming) creates a literate spine for Cimber’s oddball thriller. And the film’s female avenger theme was certainly ahead of its time. “Hard Candy” might be a more contemporary spin, but “Witch…” came up with the concept thirty years earlier. And one could argue that “Witch…” handles themes of incest and sexual abuse in a manner that’s more aggressively honest than its more recent counterparts. Cimber leaves no doubt as to why Molly is damaged goods, and how her warped nature came to be.
Unsettling, unmarketable, unlikable films like “Witch…” also work on another level. They expose the early talent of collaborators who ultimately become renowned for superior offerings. It’s difficult to gauge whether Perkins is sensational or merely coasting by – her spacey affect lends itself to an abused, delusional basket case of a character. But whether it’s great acting or simply a fortunate casting choice is impossible to decipher.
However, there’s no question that Dean Cundey’s cinematography is the product of an artist destined for greatness. The film’s restored, 16:9 widescreen format boasts huge, sweeping shots of beachfront waves that bookmark “Witch…” and lend an epic touch to its low-budget trappings. Cundey’s genius for reinventing natural landscapes as apocalyptic portals for threatening invaders was later evident in director John Carpenter’s “The Fog” (1980). Carpenter’s 1982 remake of “The Thing,” another of the filmmaker’s horror collaborations with Cundey, suggested similar dread, with white blankets of arctic ice and snow housing alien spaceships and parasite-inhabiting canines. And who could forget the first dinosaur sighting in “Jurassic Park,” another unforgettable, Cundey-conjured panorama of feeding brontosauruses and overhead pterodactyls? Again, it’s an initially beautiful, eventually disastrous collision between incompatible worlds.
In “Witch…,” Cundey casts waves, sand, and sunsets as harbingers of a paternal influence gone perverted and rancid. Molly’s sailor father has forever infected the family bloodline with a slug’s trail of madness. Like Cundey’ waves forever slapping the shoreline, “Witch…” suggests that this family curse will live on through eternity.
In typical Subversive Cinema tradition, the recently released “Witch…” DVD version gives Cimber’s movie the Rolls Royce, red carpet treatment. Even if you don’t care for the film – and it’s certain that most mainstream filmgoers will have reservations – there’s no question that you’ll marvel at the care that’s gone into this impressive resurrection. Subversive delivers more crimson bells and whistles than even the most encyclopedic movie-geek mind could hope to absorb.
Special features include an audio commentary with Cundey, Cimber, and Perkins. Subversive’s main man Norm Hill laments the moment where Cundey’s phone rings in mid-commentary. “It’s not as clean as it should have been. You do what you can do.” There’s also a new trailer for the film. “We had to create a trailer for the movie,” informs Hill, “because the original trailer’s gone.”
Meanwhile, the creators of “Witch…” are delighted with the tender loving care bestowed upon their harsh, benevolent thriller. “Matt Cimber is so incredibly happy with the DVD that I licensed six more movies from him,” reveals Hill, who also confesses to being a die-hard fan of the director’s work since taking on the “Witch…” transfer.
“He’s one of my favorite directors,” Hill gushes of Cimber, who, according to the Internet Movie Database, was once married to blonde sex symbol Jayne Mansfield. “When I first saw ‘The Witch who came from the Sea,’ I didn’t like it. Then, I saw it in Cinemascope and figured that Matt was a really smart filmmaker who knew exactly what he was doing. I thought that the movie had never been given proper justice. Now, as I work on Cimber’s movies, I love them. Matt’s a pleasure, and his movie are fun. He was an auteur who was ignored, from the group of John Carpenter, George Romero, and the whole team that was coming out in the seventies. Matt’s movies always made a lot of money, but he never got the recognition he deserved.”
If you share Hill’s enthusiasm for Cimber’s directorial approach, take solace in Subversive’s plans to release more of the filmmaker’s titles. “Candy Tangerine Man,” “Lady Cocoa,” and “The Black Six” are currently on the company’s back burners, awaiting DVD transfers in the months ahead.
Meanwhile, like that unusually shaped pebble you pocket during a morning walk on the beach, “The Witch who came from the Sea” has washed in with the tide to satiate your appetite for something different.
KJ Doughton resurrects reels and breathes life back into films currently on life support and verging on extinction. Applying his “rave resuscitation” to movies at risk of fading into obscurity due to old age, faltering promotional systems, premature delivery, societal stigma, or a runty box-office take, he advocates a second chance for flatlining films too important to die.