Psychotronic Ketchup: The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976)

The Witch Who Came from the Sea is not an easy watch. In climbing deep into the recesses of a mind wracked by a childhood full of sexual abuse – which culminates in an adulthood full of swinging sex and drug addiction – director Matt Cimber made quite the interesting counterpart to his later film, Butterfly… you know, the one that got Pia Zadora a Golden Globe award (and a couple of Golden Raspberries) but is generally considered to be one of the worst films ever made.

This is not the case for the far more interesting The Witch Who Came from the Sea, which is sparked by a frankly astonishing performance by Millie Perkins (an actress to whom I have paid little attention over the years), along with sharp, evocative cinematography, some of it provided by Dean Cundey, who worked on this film before performing the same duties on several of John Carpenter’s biggest films (Halloween, The Fog, The Thing, and Big Trouble in Little China), as well as filming the Back to the Future trilogy, Rock ’n’ Roll High School, Romancing the Stone, Who Framed Roger Rabbit, Apollo 13, and Jurassic Park.

Honestly, I would not have watched the film today except that my pal Aaron and I were discussing it early this morning, and he mentioned that he found the film streaming on Amazon, along with a couple of other titles which recently had gotten the Blu-ray treatment in something called The American Horror Project Vol. 1. The purpose of The American Horror Project is to recognize lost classics of the horror genre from the 1970s and then give those long-neglected films (some never even had decent VHS releases) restoration and high-end release to the public. The film’s selection for this honor instantly made us both realize we need to see it, but the cost of the Blu-ray set (well over $60, even with a discount on Amazon.com) is more than slightly prohibitive for both of us right now, with a new baby in his household and me without steady employment. Luckily enough, he found all of the three titles (the others being Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood and The Premonition) on Amazon’s site, and lucky me as well, I have a Shudder subscription on there so that I too can now watch and (hopefully) enjoy those films.

In the end, The Witch Who Came from the Sea is more of a psychological drama (its not, even with its murders and resulting police investigation, even really all that much in the thriller genre) than it is an actual horror film. Don’t get me wrong… there is violence within the film and it might indeed be troubling to some (it was one of the 72 films declared to be a “Video Nasty” and banned from England in the 1980s), and when you add in the nudity and sexual scenes, this is not a film for the kiddies or truly weak of stomach (and especially mind). Even though most of the more graphic violence is merely suggested and occurs offscreen (and the razor cutting scenes that are shown aren’t done all that believably), when the lead character gets around to murdering, her fallback move is that of castrating her victims. So if you are a guy and overly sensitive about your manhood, just repeat to yourself… no, never mind. You are just a big baby. It’s a movie and the violence is faked. Get over it.

The film has gained some controversy in the horror nerd realm for its appropriation of some Frank Frazetta artwork from the cover of an old issue of Vampirella. The face of the artwork was changed to that of Millie Perkins and she is holding a man’s severed head in the movie poster. The fact that such an image (or even a severed head) does not occur within the film itself seems to really set a lot of people who encounter this film on edge. And sometimes their reaction is such that they savage the film entirely without taking into account that The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a very sincere look at child abuse and the sexual politics of the 1970s. Since the film is most decidedly not a book, I guess the armchair critics feel justified in judging the film solely by its poster (i.e., cover) and its ability to deliver those goods promised by the image. But then, they aren’t taking into account that the elements within the image all are either discussed or implied within the film (seriously, the poster image makes perfect sense fairly early on in the film), whether an actual supernatural witch bearing a scythe manifests herself or not.

I had thought for a good while that I had seen the film before this morning, but discovered just a scene or three into the film that I had not. The Witch Who Came from the Sea bears slight thematic and title similarities to another 1976 film of greater note, The Sailor Who Fell from Grace with the Sea, which I have seen a couple of times (and which came into my life at the age of 12 when I saw a particular picture of a naked Sarah Miles (and that Kristofferson guy) getting it on in one of those “Sex in Film” annual recaps in the pages of Playboy). So a film with a similar title has been kicking around my head for a good while (though it would be about a decade more before I first saw it). When you take into account just how many horror films (and films in general) that I have seen in my life, I find it quite reasonable that I sometimes get confused when confronted with certain titles.

But now I have actually seen The Witch Who Came from the Sea on its own, and while it wasn’t really the horror film suggested by its garish, gaudy (but intriguing) poster artwork, it turns out that found the film a very worthwhile watch and one that is quite worthy of further discussion and study.

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