The Witch, ’70s Style
“Who is she?” asks Molly (Millie Perkins) of the female figure on the painting before her. “She’s a witch come out of the sea,” responds Billy Batt (Rick Jason), the ageing movie star who is hosting a party at his groovy Malibu pad, and who is using his reproduction of Botticelli’s The Birth of Venus as an opportunity for flirtation. “She’s not a witch, she’s beautiful,” protests Molly, prompting Billy to tell her how the goddess of love came to be born out of the ocean after her divine father’s balls were sliced off and cast into the water.
This is a key scene in Matt Cimber’s The Witch Who Came From The Sea, not just because it gives the film its title, or because it adumbrates several of the film’s principal themes – the male vilification of women, unorthodox father-daughter relationships, castration, the sea – but also because it foregrounds the place of myth in the interpretation of the world.
Waitress Molly herself is something of a mythomaniac. In the opening sequence of The Witch Who Came From The Sea, Molly is seen on the Santa Monica beach with her young nephews Tadd and Tripoli, regaling them with tales of her father, a pistol-toting ‘captain’ now ‘lost at sea’, whom she lionises as ‘very, very kind’ and ‘perfect’. Molly’s sister Cathy (Vanessa Brown), however, an amateur embroiderer, spins a rather different story, characterising their father as ‘a drunken bum’ and ‘an evil bastard’ – and a series of flashbacks to Molly’s childhood, at first themselves highly subjectified and idealised, will eventually paint their own picture of the kind of man her father really was, and how Molly’s peculiar character, and attitude towards men, were born of that primal, perverted relationship. Her identification with the storybook Little Mermaid similarly serves as much to conceal as to reveal her hidden history.
Meanwhile Molly, adult yet childlike, projects her tormented sexual feelings onto the handsome heroes of sport and avatars of advertising who appear on television, rekindling through them her confused memories of Papa. With her own delusions exaggerated by drink and drugs, Molly imagines all manner of sadomasochistic scenarios involving these iconic figures who address her directly from the small screen and trigger her errant fantasies – but as police investigate a string of grisly murders in this City of Dreams (where celebrities are always within reach), it becomes increasingly clear that Molly’s hallucinatory reveries are also a part of reality’s patchwork.
Notorious for its inclusion on the list of 72 ‘video nasties’ that in 1983 the Department of Public Prosecutions declared actionable for obscenity, The Witch Who Came From The Sea is often regarded as a slasher – but to reduce it to this status is like reducing Venus to a witch. Molly may be a cold-blooded killer, but far from being a heavy-breathing cypher, she is a complex flesh-and-blood character whose derangement is presented with immense sensitivity and sympathy – and her descent into madness is figured less as visceral slice-and-dice than as heightened domestic tragedy.
Written by Perkins’ then husband Robert Thom, the film portrays its antiheroine at once as victim and culprit in a cycle of abuse which can be traced all the way back to daddy, but which, long after his disappearance, the prevailing patriarchy has maintained. Perhaps amongst all the men in Molly’s ‘crew’, only Long John (Jonny Chapman), her boss at the seaside bar – and sometime lover – is straightforwardly decent, although the film does not simply demonise its other male characters, but rather depicts them as embodying a very gendered sense of entitlement that forms just part of the cultural seascape. So the disorienting trip on which this film takes us into one woman’s traumatised psyche exposes the fault lines and contradictions in a society where there is no sexual equality. As such, The Witch Who Came From The Sea is a film of a distinctly feminist bent, where one woman’s ultimate liberation comes at an agonising price.
Its influence can still be felt some four decades later in newer titles like Lovely Molly (2012) and Goddess of Love (2015) – but even today, The Witch Who Came From The Sea holds its own as an engaging, subtle and finally moving psychodrama whose protagonist is so much more than a wicked witch.
– Anton Bitel
The Witch Who Came From The Sea is released on 22 February as part of Arrow Films’ dual-format three-film package American Horror Project Volume 1, alongside The Premonition and Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood.