Hey sweetie, let a man 'splain it for you: the 70s were a great time for feminist horror, though the word back then was "women's lib." It was all about being liberated, one way or the other: Sex, pills, books, grass, and the occult were the tools; the movies went one of two ways, either she's crazy or everyone else is evil. In films like Let's Scare Jessica to Death (1971), The Sentinel (1977) and Stepford Wives (1975) it's them. And in post-Repulsion character studies like 1975's Symptoms, she was usually an isolated antisocial mess, living in perverse mortal terror of her own sexuality. But it turns out there's a third way: the woman is crazy and 'liberated' - truly a product of her moment, far outside the reaches of conventional nuclear family values, and the people around her genuinely love her and are, more or less, normal, or at any rate, pleasantly debauched, as in Matt Climber's 1976 near-cult semi-classic, The Witch who Came from the Sea. Judging by how she kills her lovers, it's not hard to guess why this film has never become a big cult classic. But now, on Prime in HD and looking good, albeit slightly faded, there's no reason not to batten down the hatches, zip up to and delve into primal Freudian/Jungian chthonic murk so thick and rich it must be good for you to get this squeamish. Would you die for love?
I'll confess: my squeamishness when it comes to females being sexually abused sometimes gets the better of me and I'll avoid a movie for decades based on the description. I was staving off seeing this for awhile due to dreading scenes of childhood sexual abuse and imagining any retribution being done by a mousy victim rather than an actual human. I've been long drawn to Witch's poster of a defenestrating Kali Venus, rising on the foam of the castrated lovers (symbolized by a severed head - one can't get too graphic on a poster), but the film I imagined based on what I read was a full screen washed-out depressing affair of joyless trauma and misguided vengeance, looking and feeling claustrophobic on a bad video dupe. Well, I finally had the nerve to see Witch who Came From The Sea last weekend after coming home from Gaspar Noe's Climax at the Alamo (for it hath emboldened me with the 'right' mood). Turns out it's way better and more complex than I envisioned. It rules!
We agree, thanks to Millie Perkins' dynamic, confident portrayal we love her as much as the staff and her nephews do. Anything she does is all right with us. She's a goddamned saint.
That's what makes it so tragic. Molly is a liberated saint, yes, but she has no grasp on reality, and it's not the social world's fault, it's the fault of the family dynamic that would let her vile father rule the roost in such a horrifying way (we never see if she has a mother). It's a mix of latent, incest trauma-induced schizophrenia, wherein she sees people on TV talking to her, and her childhood is--understandably--warped and blurred in a salty sea spray of nautical mythology, punctuated by deeply unsettling visions. She has a habit of being drawn to people on it or connected with television, only to then kill them or is she merely fantasizing. She presumes the latter but lately, who knows. If she hears someone is dead she announces she won't believe "if it's true or not until it's on television." As if TV isn't lying to her constantly, the men on it leering out at her, calling her forward. Her dichotomy seems to be a relaxed ease in the anonymous oceanic of the bar, and the bed of salty pirate Long John, a grizzled old reprobate who accepts Molly as she is, no strings. ("Molly is the captain of her own ship.") The bed seems to be in the bar itself, and as such it becomes a very weird uniquely 70s cool spot, with panelling and aquariums and mermaid and nautical bric-a-brac, including those painted mirrored wall tiles that are often associated with orange shag and faux rock walls.
|"Her father was a god; they cut off his balls and threw them into the sea."|
The ocean plays a huge part, though the film never gets out on a boat, we see the ocean outside the window, and hear it deep in the sound mix, the town where they live seems largely deserted, so shops like Jack Dracula's tattoo parlor loom with an almost Lemora-style surrealism. The flashbacks are all given a surreal, sometimes darkly comic, patina, with comically distorted or ocean sound effects as if her brain is working overtime to contextualize the most primal and odious of endured horrors in terms of oceanic myth. The sea itself becomes her father, a timeless chthonic wellspring, an ultimate signifier connecting this film to everything from Treasure Island (hence the name Long John) to Moby Dick (the local tattoo artist's long tattooed face evokes Queequeg). The soundtrack is a brilliant melange of background sound (the ocean's waves are never out of earshot) and ironic electronic counterpoint: when the melody of a sea shanty she's half-singing while going in the bathroom, the two football players tied up, is suddenly picked up and finished by the ominous soundtrack as she comes back with a razor, its the kind of darkly comic interjection that would make John Williams probably shit himself with fear ("do you shave with straight razors, or is this all going to be agonizingly slow?"). When Molly learns of Venus, born in the sea, according to one of her pursuing men, ex-movie star Billy Batt (Rick Jason - above) she says with child-like sincerity, "You're lying to me." It's a brilliant line, she could be kidding in a cocktail party way, or it could be an indication her concepts of reality, myth and TV are hopelessly blurred together. And in fact, it's both - this is the age of liberation and free-thinking - where the structure of reality is far looser than it used to be.
And as in any ocean, there are storms: when all other boundaries fail her, her oceanic visions become terrifying pictures of being tied to the mast of a free-floating raft, surrounded by dismembered male bodies, as if remembering some primal prehistoric siren past (only without a hypnotist Chester Morris pulling the strings). The split between her castrating angel of death, turned on by sadism and dismemberment, both as projection revenge against her father and tricks maybe taught by him (we never really know - or hear his voice), and her sweet aunt / fun carefree cool barmaid type is as vivid as the difference between TV and reality. "Let's get lost at sea, Molly m'lass" is what we learn her father used to say, "and we got lost at sea so many... many times." The ocean surge mirroring the rise and fall of the bedsprings - its base horror itself part Greek myth (Elektra) and part Sumerian or druid sacrificial cult, the young boy castrated and his loins thrown into the sea to ensure a good harvest of fish (or wheat if on the fields).
Long John seems somehow to be spared, to share a bed. Maybe due to his easygoing attitude, age, that he's not on TV, and his ability to be contextualized into her nautical miasma (he's a "pirate"). He certainly never reigns in her sexual adventurousness or belittles or infantilizes her. He says he's too old and experienced to get jealous, he says, and we believe him. But you know he loves her, and is willing to take her at face value, as much as he can. He's no fool though, and when he asks her when she lost her virginity and she can't remember that far back, starts stalling and getting a headache he realizes immediately and to some horror the truth; the script and film don't need to underline the moment. He gets it, and his whole demeanor changes, and so we get it too, without ever needing it heard aloud. It's a brilliantly modulated bit of acting by them both. These are smart, interesting people, with unique bonds.
THE MYSTIC ORACLE:
One thing that most horror movies, or any movies, lack is the presence of TVs. They're hard to film due to streaking, so often they're just left off, but it really spells the difference between a believable reality and this kind of utopia where people just sit around in empty kitchens waiting for their cue. Here, though we can clearly see the TV image is superimposed to avoid telltale streaking, that actually works to give the images an extra eerie frisson. TV is a constant extrasensory, imposed presence: in her childhood memories a very creepy black-and-white clown makes all sorts of weird swimming gestures towards her, beckoning to her/us in a way that's genuinely unsettling. Watching, I had the distinct feeling some terrifying being from my own childhood dreams had found me and was beckoning me from across time and media. Other genius moments tap into LSD experiences (every hippy's schizophrenic sampler), as figures talking to the camera on TV seem to be addressing us/Molly directly. No sooner has she seduced Alexander McPeak (Stafford Morgan) after seeing him in a shaving commercial ("Don't bruise the lady,") she's receiving bizarre directives directly from his TV commercials, telling her where and how to take that razor across his jugular vein.
|"he's stark naked, everywhere, looking at me."|
Trying to find out how this amazing film could be made, could emerge so fully formed from the frothy foam of independent horror cinema, we need to look at the credits, for both Thom and director Climber have unique outlooks on feminine strength indicated by their other films. Thom's body of work shows a latent queer eye for strong young beautiful men, and his films often feature a strong, domineering mother figure (as in his scripts for New World: Bloody Mama and Wild in the Streets, Angel Angel Down We Go) He's the exploitation market's Tennessee Williams, tapping into the same vein of Apollonian beauty reaching like Icarus, for the sun, swallowed up by the maternal chthonic of the devouring mother. In fact, Witch's conspicuous absence of a mother figure (I can't remember if one is even mentioned), aside from the sea makes the Venus myth have extra resonance. The devouring mother is the sea itself, its tide like a thousand beaks and claws. Witch who Came from the Sea would make a great mythopoetic subtextual gender/death-swapped double bill with Suddenly Last Summer, with Molly's sister as the Mercedes McCambridge (there's even a bit of the same speaking pattern), Molly's dead father as the Kate Hepburn matriarch, and Molly herself as the dead Sebastian. Promise me you'll think about it?
Director Matt Climber is the other major force, on his best behavior here and his love of strong female characters very much in evidence. Basically the real-life inspiration for Marc Maron's character in GLOW (on Netflix) and the original TV show's founding director (there's even a passing resemblance between GLOW star Alison Brie and Perkins). Between that and his 1983 Conan-ish film Hundra, it's clear he's got a unique appreciation for very strong, assertive, capable women. It's clear Climber loves Molly as much as Thom, Perkins making the film, and the nephews and Long John in the film, do. I love her too, and I love this film and love the way Molly and Long John seem to sleep in the bar, that it converts to a bedroom downstairs, one with a cigarette machine by the stairs. I love the way all the scenes have that strange 70s mirror tiling and gorgeous deep wood decor. It's the best film since Antonioni's Red Desert (1964) to make these lines between commercial and private space so blurred. And if you've a soft spot for seaside drama and 70s decor, this is a film to cherish even as it gets you mighty mighty squeamish. I've already visited its shores three times since March began! Aye, don't be scared. it may not put you in that tropical island mood but it will give you that old-time religion. Older than Aphrodite, older than Innana, Ishtar, Asherah and Astarte! Old enough to sail the sea without a rudder, safe--at last-- in your mother's foamy talons.