The Witch Who Came In From The Sea (1976):
“I’m gonna break the bones, then suck the marrow!”
This is a complicated film—definitely not for the squeamish. Here is the short version. A woman played by Millie Perkins, an actor who started her career playing Anne Frank in 1959, seeks revenge for the sexual abuse suffered at the hands of her sea captain father by castrating the hyper-masculine men she seduces. That’s the short version. But, like I said, it’s complicated.
Let’s start with what it’s not:
It is not a monotonous slasher film. If you are looking for a Friday the 13th type of experience, this is not it. The text is much too dense and cerebral.
It is not softcore porn. The sex scenes are far from gratifying.
It is not a troubled woman film such as in Repulsion (1965). The main character is far too complicated and far from hysterical. It is also better written.
The difficulty in defining the film is one of the primary reasons it has not been enjoyed by a wider audience. Hollywood can’t market what it can’t classify. You should prepare yourself for a deep dive into the psychology of a person suffering from PTSD. It’s definitely a sativa narrative—meditative and dark with moments of profound violence. It’s a hollow scream from the dark pit of the 70s. It’s probably not a good idea for survivors of sexual abuse to view this film unless they have really processed that material. It did receive a backlash at the time for the subject matter, which is saying something.
Perkins was evidently not proud of this movie. In an article by April Wolfe published in Film Comment, she notes that writer Robert Thom, who was then married to Perkins, wrote the script from a hospital bed on a morphine drip. They were desperate to pay the bills. Perkins asserted that it was only due to the supportive nature of the cast that she was able to complete the project. Her performance is memorable to say the least—oscillating between homicidal and helplessly catatonic—the settling into adrift and poetic.
I am not a big fan of comparative analogies, but here goes. This film might be thought of as a hybridization of Hal Ashby, Thomas Ligotti and Olivia Newton John. For those who do not know Ashby (Being There, Harold and Maude), he is one of the best directors of the 1970s. His films often featured damaged characters using the economic refuse and mass-mediated garbage of their time period to draw perilous connections with others. This film resembles these narratives in that it is imbricated within the commercial shaving culture of the 1970s. You might think of it as one of the earlier meditations on what some people today call “toxic masculinity.” How close do you want to be to the woman in your life? Don’t bruise the lady. For those unfamiliar with Thomas Ligotti, he is probably the best horror writer of his generation. His stories are not about vampires or werewolves coming to get you, but the externalization of a damaged central nervous system. Imagine your most nauseating depression. Imagine it as a physical place from which you can never escape. His work is like a fever dream where the characters try to break out of a sick, repetitive universe, but ultimately fail. The Witch has a similar vibe with is tiki bars and dark wood paneling. This is a world where no one elevates above their circumstances because the laws of physics will not allow it. And, as for Olivia Newton John… Remember the video to that song Physical? You know, the most popular song of the decade. Yep… Lots of speedos with bulging genitals—ripe for the picking. I did mention the castration, right?
I have to admit, I almost turned this one off, but I am glad I stayed. Perkins is surrounded by a group of acolytes who have become implicated in her life—like some type of collective codependency cult. You know the way certain charismatic, but psychologically damaged people can collect a following? They supply her with shelter from the authorities, emotional support and drugs. If you stick with the meditative flow of the film, it rewards you with a series of beautiful soliloquies tumbling from her lips. As she narrates her own psychosis, her familiars stand in mute witness to her contemplations of self-doubt and defiance. I think this is the reason the film was made. It’s some damn good writing.
There are a host of other reasons to watch this film if you have the stomach for it. The way she subverts the affection of her two nephews from her seamstress sister is disturbing to say the least. Also, you have to love the hairy, tanned 70s guy standing nude in a hot tub, cocktail in hand, along with two women. All this occurs while a couple of cynical, world-weary police detectives interview him. It reminds one that the aesthetics of one era often look sad and despairing when viewed through the lens of another. Once again, this is not a film for those still processing PTSD suffered from sexual abuse. It also contains coarse language regarding human sexuality that modern film and television avoids. So, this one has a select audience. But if you meet the film at its own level, it’s definitely worth your time.
Rating: 4 Hits/3 Shots