A deeper look at Matt Cimber’s moving, horrifying and emotionally sophisticated masterpiece
The job of every good horror film is to exploit, degrade and pervert that which society deems sacred, to suck us out of our comfort zone and shake our foundations. Ultimately, I’ve found – as have many other admirers of the genre – horror to be the most successful form of cinema to not-so-subtly remind us that life is NOT all strawberries and orgasms. That life is short, often painful. That the illusions we as a society work so hard to construct to make that short, painful life slip down our throats like sugar pills, are easily undone and that perhaps our only true defense against that which is inevitable is to accept and soldier on.
I find horror films – when they are on point – to be life-affirming, even when they come draped in extreme images of gruesome death, misery and general malevolent mischief.
This may seem an odd statement to make when one is about to discuss Matt Cimber’s leveling 1976 psychodrama THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA, a harrowing work that has slowly, surely amassed a devoted cult following. But despite the film’s jet-black subject matter and its wrenching portrait of a woman pushed into the deep end of psychosis, THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA has a primal power that speaks loudly to the horrors of childhood abuse, and how – when left untreated – that trauma can decimate its victims and the many unfortunate people that surround them. It offers no trite solutions to its internal terrors, it offers no comforting denouement for the grisly journey of the “witch” of the title. Rather it serves as a stark warning, a barb-wired buoy bobbing in the seaside where most of its lyrical, lurid action unfolds. And while its oft-tread subject matter has been explored in horror cinema many times prior and since, there is simply no other film quite like it.
Working from a thoughtful, mature script by DEATH RACE 2000 scribe Robert Thom, Cimber’s expressionist shocker expertly frames his canvas from the film’s opening sequence: a long, almost abandoned beach on an overcast day, waves crashing into the sand and over the lens of cinematographer Dean (HALLOWEEN, THE THING) Cundey’s camera. This meditative, lonely visage is rendered even more melancholy by Herschel Burke Gilbert’s beautiful, lilting flute and guitar score, music that speaks of the sea, and more importantly things “lost” at sea. Specifically, a woman lost at sea, hopelessly. That woman is the deeply disturbed Molly (a shattering, dissonant performance by Millie Perkins), a seemingly sweet, child-like lady who we first see embracing her beloved nephews, telling tales of their grandfather, a sailor who himself was lost at sea. The children obviously adore their seemingly eccentric aunt and she them. And it is at this level that Molly is happiest, in the company of children, safe and needed. Because in the real world, the one populated with peers and with expectations, Molly is barely hanging on.
Almost immediately, Cimber illustrates Molly’s psychosis when she spots a pair of Charles Atlas comic-strip-esque bodybuilders on the shore, her eyes fixating on their muscles, their sweaty bodies, their bulging swimsuits. Cimber expertly cross-cuts Molly’s lust-locked face with flashes of these “parts” and eventually climaxes with bursts of cartoonish blood and the men hanging dead from ropes.
At this point we are barely five minutes into THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA and we are painfully aware that our protagonist equates sex and desire with death and is only calmed by the elemental nature of the sea and the “pure” love of children. Through direction, photography, sound and Perkins’ wide-eyed, carefully controlled performance, we are completely committed to Molly’s plight, wherever it may take us.
And naturally, nothing ends well for her.
Protected by her welfare-chained older sister and endlessly rhapsodizing on her long-dead father – whom her sibling dismisses as a monster – Molly is a raging alcoholic and ritualistic drug abuser, a woman whose only protection from whatever demons have hold of her is to numb herself with substances and sex, something she seeks out like an innocent. She is loved by her salty dog boss Long John (Lonny Chapman), who owns the bar in which Molly works at and who lives for the moments he can get her in his bed. He also – like everyone close to her – enables her and turns a blind eye to her increasingly distressing psychological state. There are passages in THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA where it seems that Long John’s blind adoration might just “save” Molly, ground her and serve as a lantern to help her find her way out of her fog-drenched, self-destructing state of mind.
But naturally, it can’t. And it doesn’t.
In protracted, slowed-down and hallucinatory sequences that illustrate both Molly’s intoxication and lapses into out-of-body darkness, we see Molly immersed in kinky sexual liaisons that end in torture and murder. First, with a pair of drug-juiced Football heroes who tag-team the beautiful woman, only to awaken the “witch”, who ties them up and slowly, sadistically carves them to pieces. As the police investigate the crime, Molly declines further, ferally attacking a Hollywood hotshot, sexually fixating on the star of a shaving commercial and worse. And while Molly’s lethal libido ramps up, we are treated to gut-punching flashback’s of Molly as a little girl, brutalized by her vile father. It all climaxes in one of the most affecting, tragic and strangely beautiful final acts I’ve ever seen a horror movie. If you can even call THE WITCH FROM THE SEA simply a horror movie. It is one, but it’s so much more. It’s a work of art and it’s what all filmmakers who toil in dark cinema should aspire to be.
In some ways, THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA reminds me of an adult version of the classic Swedish/German PIPPI LONGSTOCKING movies from the early 1970s. Astrid Lindgren’s beloved child-waif Pippi is realized in those movies as a free-spirit, living alone in a candy-colored world, blessed with unlimited wealth and super-human powers, the hero to all children and the scourge of responsible adults. Like Molly, Pippi pines for her long-lost sea Captain “Papa”, of which she has a close but rather irresponsible relationship with. If you’ve seen those pictures, you’ll know that they are adored mostly for their almost experimental nature and the way they are completely free of the crushing, pedestrian confines of conventional narrative. They move like a child’s life moves, from adventure to adventure, from moment to moment. Undercurrents of serious social issues like child abuse are ignored, but there is most assuredly a darker side to the pictures that scratches just under their day-glow surfaces.
I see Molly as Pippi, all grown-up. The world has moved on. The circus has left town. The magic has long since evaporated. She’s alone at the Villa Villekulla, left to stare at her aging reflection and forced to confront the truth of her childhood. Unlike so many movies with a central character who is broken and psychotic, Molly is never painted as a villain. She is always, from the first frame to the final sequence, a victim. We cry for not only the broken woman she is, but the ruined child she was. She is OUR child, left alone, unguided and unprotected.
See this movie. Now.