Another film in the American Film Project released by Arrow Video, The Witch Who Came From the Sea was designated as a video nasty in the U.K. in the early 80’s. Close to fifteen years ago, I went through the video nasty list and watched every title i could get my hands on, including The Witch Who Came From the Sea. I remember the dvd had a terrible transfer and honestly I hated the movie. So, during the last decade or so, when this film came up in conversations or on lists, I always disregarded the positive comments. The film really didn’t work for me and wasn’t what I was looking for. In hindsight the film shouldn’t have been put onto the Video Nasty list. It’s likely it was only included because of it’s lurid cover art, not because the actual film was extreme. In the intervening years I’ve grown and matured and was ready to give the film a second chance. I’m glad I did.
The Witch Who Came From the Sea begins with Molly and her two nephews having fun at the beach. They run, they jump they play, and she tells the boys about how wonderful their Grandfather was. She tells them he was a sea captain, a gentleman, and a strong force on his ship. She tells them he was lost at sea but may return someday. She also stares at some beefcakes working out on the beach and then envisions them dead. From here we meet the boys’ mother, Molly’s sister, who tells the boys that their Grandfather was a drunk and an awful man. Molly gets mad and defends her father much to her sister’s chagrin. Here we learn that perhaps the world that Molly lives in may not be the real world but a world created by her imagination. She imagines killing two football stars and later we find out that the stars really are dead. Did Molly kill them? Or was it a coincidence? Molly works at a bar where her boss, Long John Silver, loves her and her co-workers like her. There she meets other men and has some bizarre interactions with them. Again it’s clear that Molly’s view on the world is one of her own making and not one that reflects reality. We as an audience don’t know what’s real and what isn’t and we hang out with Molly throughout the run time while she drinks and pops pills to bury painful memories.
The Witch Who Came From the Sea is very good. My younger self hated it but now I understand what the film was meant to be. I was hoping for a crazy witch killing dudes in gory ways, as the cover art suggests. Nope. This is a purely psychological film about a woman who has been damaged by her father and subsequently lives in a fantasy world that at any moment seems possible to bubble over into violence. I was simultaneously afraid of Molly and what she might do to each character and sympathetic towards her. The fear kept the suspense up for me, waiting to see how she would react to situations in the film, and the sympathy kept me from wishing someone would hurry up and catch her. The film is a psychological portrait of a damaged woman that isn’t played for gory thrills. It’s an uncomfortable film with a performance from Millie Perkins as Molly that really makes the film. It’s a tough role to play but she walks the line between dopey innocence and fericious danger very well. The performance allows the audience to simultaneously fear her and want to help her. Obviously this is not the typical thrust of a horror film and indeed The Witch Who Came From the Sea is not a typical horror film. It is a layered film populated with interesting characters, most notably Molly’s sister and her sometime lover/boss Long John Silver. It’s a film that refuses to use a broad brush when characterizing men (some are sleaze bags, others more sympathetic), or women (Molly’s sister is grounded in reality and honest but sympathetic). The film also isn’t one for young horror fans, much like The Premonition. It doesn’t rely on much overt violence and explores mental illness and abuse in a way that doesn’t lend itself to the cliche “psycho on the loose” horror plot.
Again, like with The Premonition, the film has never looked better. Lensed by John Carpenter director of photography Dean Cundy, the film is finally presented in a format that allows the compositions and camera moves to be appreciated. Again the print does have some wear and tear but the image is crisp and the colors solid. The film also features new and archive interviews with the cast and crew.
The Witch Who Came From the Sea requires an open minded audience that is willing to accept a film that while within the horror genre, does not lean on genre cliches in the way that we expect. It’s a unique film and one worth rediscovering.