Dredging up more shipwrecked treasure Arrow have embarked upon a great new idea introducing us to some rare and forgotten gems of yesteryear under the ‘American Horror Project’ moniker. This film has been released as part 1 in a box set along with Malatesta’s Carnival Of Blood and The Premonition which will both be reviewed separately. Naturally they have on hand an authority on these relics in the form of Stephen Thrower ex of the band Coil and film critic and author of the inexhaustible FAB Press released Nightmare USA. He introduces the movies and provides a bit of background. I decided to start on ‘The Witch Who Came From The Sea’ made in 1976 by Matt Cimber as I knew it the most from these films and had a history myself with the title down the years. I scored gold finding it first along with Zombie Holocaust and Massacre Mansion at a car boot sale on the VTC label on Betamax. With the use of a friends machine and hooking it up to my VHS I finally managed to get to copy and see it and found myself somewhat confused and bamboozled as the film I had hardly even managed to read about was not exactly what I expected from one that had landed itself on the Section 2 Non Prosecuted Video Nasty list.
Indeed this one really does stick out as being a rare example of an intelligent film on a list that is mainly made up of leave your brain at the door gross out splatter movies. It’s up there with Argento’s ensnared output and Zulawski’s (R.I.P.) Possession as a film you really have to watch and concentrate on and is far from all the others, bordering more on the art-house side of things. It also transcends genre convention certainly not being a supernatural movie as the title may suggest and not a thriller, slasher, exploitation, softcore movie either but containing elements of all. Playing devil’s advocate I can kind of understand why it ended up on the list. It’s not for the gore, although there are some horrid and cringe-worthy scenes, most of the ones that would have landed it in trouble are done more suggestively off camera. The tone is gritty and grimy but I think it is more to do with some of the underlying themes that had the moral majority gnashing their teeth on it than anything else. As for those, well you will have to watch it for yourself to unveil.
The film is centred around Molly (Millie Perkins) who spends time drifting around her family of sister and two nephews and a hippy bar where she works. It is clear from the off that she is not the most stable minded as she watches a group of muscle men working out on beach equipment, eyes lingering on their crotches and imagining them accidently hanging themselves and getting squashed by the weights they are lifting. She has a dreamy fantasy memory of her father, a sea captain who went missing and drowned although as the story unfolds her sister suggests that he was a horrible drunkard and not what she romantically imagines. Molly seems transfixed whenever the TV is on in the background and goes into mesmerised trances imaging scenarios. For instance with an American Football game on she imagines sexual involvement with two players, tying them up in an orgy of booze and drugs and castrating them with a razor. The distorted cinematography of the scene makes it all the more dreamlike but of course the players turn up dead in real life. Molly walks through the film like a piece of floating driftwood. It’s all very poetic in the way it is done although far from pretentious. The couple who own the bar seem like the only real nice characters. She is having an affair with Long John (Lonny Chapman) and sometimes stays with him and at others drifts into the arms of other lovers including a TV star who advertises razors of all things! Reality and fiction blur as she descends from what seems like coping into more psychotic behaviour and the film plays out like a fever dream before moving into a strange and it could be said beautiful conclusion.
I guess a fair few things have changed from my first viewing to this most recent one on its Blu-Ray premier. I have seen it a few times over the years having landed the Subversive Region 1 DVD of the film but consider it to have matured in time along with my own understanding. At times it plays out like a TV drama before jarring you back into dismissing that idea with another unsettling scene. It’s like a nasty as written with the romance of Hemmingway at heart in a way and really is likely to confuse and confound on first watching but as its poeticism takes hold you cannot help but be equally enchanted as you are appalled by it. Many things help along the way notably the superb acting of Perkins who although in a reverie most of the time snaps out and bites to dramatic effect. The cinematography is lush and gorgeous, the beach town setting is abandoned, derelict and rotting beneath its veneer and full of curious people (look out for the tattoo artist Jack Dracula played by Stan Ross for weird and George ‘Buck’ Flower as a detective). The man behind capturing it so spectacularly Dean Cundy went on to do Halloween and The Fog after so you can easily imagine how lush this looks. (He is also rumoured to be involved in the remake of another Arrow fave Nightmare City with Tom Savini directing, fact fans). Cimber himself went on to direct Pia Zadora in the sexpot escapade Butterfly after this but the surrealism that is noted in times within The Witch… no doubt stems from his excellent Blaxploitation film ‘The Candy Tangerine Man’ which in my opinion is one of the best of the sub-genre. Looking at Perkins filmography it would appear she has kind of drifted between disparate roles on film and TV since making this and I was keen to watch the extras here to see what insights they could provide into the film itself and the later life of those involved.
Luckily there are plenty of people involved still with us to allow new features and first here is Tides And Nightmares with Cimber, Cundy Perkins and actor John Goff (who plays Molly’s father in flashback). Apparently perusing Robert Thom’s script sent to Cimber in the early 70’s studios kind of unsurprisingly wanted no part in picking up options and providing funding to a film with such contentious issues in its narrative. Thom who was married to Perkins wrote the film with her in mind and from his hospital bed while suffering from pneumonia; perhaps with this in mind the ‘fever dream’ tag I gave it earlier is not that far from the truth. Cundy talks about getting on-board with promise of elevating the look of the picture by using anamorphic widescreen lenses and this is something that certainly worked adding fluidity of motion and a 1000 yard gaze to the film. Goff gives an insight into how he managed to get around filming his difficult scenes and the director gives us some interesting backstory on some of the other actors who starred including the intriguing Ross who was previously a famous household name comedian. No surprise that the MPAA were none too impressed at first but the director managed to pretty much trick them into an R rating. There’s lots of interesting facts and anecdotes here. Next is an archival piece with more of the same but at 36 minutes plenty of substance about it via Cimber, Cundy and Perkins. The three are all present on a commentary track too.
The 2K restoration here looks lush on the whole, sure there is an occasional patch of grain and imperfection but still, it’s certainly a massive jump from that old Beta. I am glad this golden oddity got a new lease of life here and it’s well and truly worth getting bewitched by!