Sunday, April 25, 2010

Ryan Watches a Motion Picture #17: The Witch Who Came From The Sea (1976)

I wasn't quite sure what I was getting into with this one, and rented it because of its evocative title and wicked cover art. The sort that should be painted on the side of a sweet van. Look:

Are you guys going to the Maiden show at the amphitheatre, by the way?

To my surprise, it was directed by Matt Cimber, the guy who directed one of my favourite 80s barbarian films (and there are lots of those if you need some of my suggestions :3). What I should have guessed from the really long opening shot of the seashore and the eerie, atmospheric theremin music I certainly determined once I heard the first bits of dialogue - this was going to be one wonderfully strange flick.

The dialogue is bizarre and great fun to listen to and see performed, and is of a style that could have very easily gone very wrong very quickly. Its grand phraseology and its archaic, perfectly elocuted language gives the film a dreamlike, mythological naivety that really highlights the psychotic state of mind the film's heroine is locked in. The heroine might be better described as an anti-heroine, since she is, in effect, also the film's villain. She's a deranged serial killer, stalking, torturing, and killing the most masculine men she can find out of revenge for the horrific sexual trauma she received as a child. The torture sequences are profoundly uncomfortable, though most of the dirty business happens off-screen. This is usually a good indication that there's some filmmaking talent being flexed. The most disturbing scene is undoubtedly the flashback revelation of the killer's own trauma, and here, the camera doesn't look away though you sincerely wish it would. The Witch Who Came From The Sea is abound with the ugliness of sexual politics, which is something that seems to be at the heart of a lot of Matt Cimber films. I love exploitation films best when they are either supremely crazy or border on the arthouse. This film pretty well does both.

It was originally conceived of and sold as an edgy arthouse film, but when it was given to theatres it was slagged by critics, nearly banned by the ratings board, physically re-cut by theatre owners, and mostly ignored by the public. When the movie poster was made less abstract and more fantastical, though, its success with the grindhouse audience exploded, and it seems to have held cult appreciation since.

So: If you can stomach the controversial bits, it's a gem of a cult film.

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