Thinking about the exploitation film genre of the 1970s, it is quite a mindblower when one realizes that there were thousands of low-budget flicks produced for the grindhouses and drive-ins all over the world in that short ten-year period. For every 50, there were maybe four or five truly great productions which stand head-and-shoulders above the rest in terms of quality, production value and talent. The films of Jack Hill and Russ Meyer, THE CANDY SNATCHERS, ALICE SWEET ALICE, MASSACRE AT CENTRAL HIGH, TOYS ARE NOT FOR CHILDREN and many others are lumped into the generic "cult" category when they are really much more. But one of these which is rarely ever mentioned is Matt Cimber's THE WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA. Whether it be Cimber's questionable talent as a director, a bland nonsensical title or its distribution problems, WITCH has never been that easy to see, even in its 1976 theatrical run. Finally, someone has stepped up to the plate and released a lovingly remastered uncut disc of this unsung psychological horror gem.
DIANE FRANK herself Millie Perkins stars in a career-breaking performance as Molly, a barmaid who spends her days babysitting her nephews and her nights slinging drinks at a local seaside bar. As Molly is introduced, she sits on the beach gazing at muscular studs working out on outdoor equipment...her fantasies becoming nastily violent as they become bloody corpses! Her overactive imagination also provokes a bizarre dream-like sequence where she has sex with two popular football players (both actors from Cimber's CANDY TANGERINE MAN), ties them up, then castrates them as blood sprays over her naked body!! But was it a fantasy? When their naked bodies are found the next morning, Molly begins to wonder if her frenzied visions are reality. And if they are, where does her hatred of men stem from?
WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA began as a script written by the late Robert Thom (WILD IN THE STREETS, ANGEL ANGEL DOWN WE GO) specifically with his wife, Millie Perkins, in mind for the lead role (Millie appeared in WILD in a supporting role). It was a dramatic challenge, to say the least, and director Matt Cimber became involved when he was intrigued by the screenplay. Instead of the standard exploitation fare Cimber was used to by this time in his career, he instead creates a superb, slow-paced character study of a troubled victim with an incestuous past. Those expecting a blood-and-guts horror shocker with liberal doses of nudity and sex will be sorely disappointed with WITCH. It is a psychological drama first and a horror film second. But the horror scenes are really over-the-top and gutwrenching when they do show up! The castration of the football hero with only his agonized muffled screaming is a scene to remember for years, as well as the steamy shower scene turned razor-slicing murder scene which seems to have influenced DePalma's DRESSED TO KILL (1980).
The film is incredibly well-acted, with fantastic supporting turns by familiar character actor Lonny Chapman as Long John, Molly's blustery boss; comedienne Peggy Feury as the grizzled waitress Dora (who provides great comic relief but becomes a warmhearted accomplice); and Vanessa Brown as Cathy, Molly's put-upon sister living on welfare. But the star of the film is without a doubt Millie Perkins. She turns in an incredible performance, allowing Molly to reveal her sensitive love for her nephews Tad and Tripoli, playfully display her affection for blustery boss Long John, then become an unhinged madwoman ranting at her sister and matter-of-factly slicing and dicing her way through the men in her insatiable path. Look fast for Roberta Collins in an interesting role as a giggling actress in a Marilyn wig accompanying the TV actor Molly falls for (she has a hilarious gun-wielding breakup scene!); the dear departed George "Buck" Flower and exploitation character actor Richard Kennedy as investigating policemen; and drive-in lass Lynne Guthrie (NIGHT CALL NURSES, THE WORKING GIRLS) as a topless girl in a cowboy actor's pool. And fans of the weird will adore the bonkers Jack Dracula, the tattoo artist who gives Molly her "mermaid transformation"; he's played by Stan Ross, who should be recognizable from BEYOND THE VALLEY OF THE DOLLS as the goofy elderly hippy.
A recent review for the Mobius Home Video Forum by Kit Gavin sparked renewed interest in the film and its acquisition by Norm Hill of Subversive Cinema. Film historian Walter Olsen and his brother Bill were able to locate the original negative to the film, ensuring that this DVD would be the ultimate version of WITCH WHO CAME FROM THE SEA. Finally shown in its original scope aspect ratio of 2.35:1 and taken from the original negative, it's safe to ditch your old Unicorn tape and its ugly fullscreen abomination of a transfer. The color palette of the film was always rather bland and grey, but the image is clean and crisp, with brief lines appearing but not distracting at all. Dark scenes are bright and sharp, with the cinematography really shining with use of shadows and light. Plus the 16x9 transfer was overseen by cinematographer Dean Cundey, with his seal of approval! The mono audio is acceptable, but is too quiet during some of the dialogue scenes. The screams and music come across splendidly!
In an interesting move, before the DVD menu cues up, Subversive includes the opening beach shot from the VHS tape segueing into the digitally remastered shot for the DVD, with the titles "from this.....to this!" Matt Cimber then provides praise for the transfer. A nice addition...until the compliment cuts to the splattery Subversive Cinema logo, which doesn't contrast well with the loving tribute to the film prefacing it.
Subversive has seen fit to include a nice helping of extras to appreciate the film and its history. First and foremost is the feature-length audio commentary by director Matt Cimber, actress Millie Perkins and director of photography Dean Cundey. Unfortunately the audio quality of the track sounds like it was recorded in an echo chamber or an abandoned warehouse, making it hard to understand some of the anecdotes heard. But once the viewer gets used to the subpar audio, this is a pretty great little track. Millie reveals the script was written while she and writer Robert Thom were going through divorce proceedings, and that many of the character names (the sister Cathy and the sea captain father, for example) were taken from Millie's real life! Cimber discusses the film's run-in with the MPAA and how he approached the film after his roots in exploitation. Lots of interesting anecdotes are related about Robert Thom and the various cast members like Peggy Feury and Stan Ross. Cundey stays quiet most of the time, but does take time to explain how he came to the project, his excitement at working with a professional actress like Millie and approaching the nudity and violence in the film. Note: there's an odd moment at 15:35 when someone's cell phone/message machine goes on and then makes noise as it goes off again a few seconds later?! It's too bad they all blank when it comes to identifying Roberta Collins; they're all left stumped! There are too many moments of silence after the 30-minute mark, so a moderator would have been a nice addition to keep the ball rolling, but this is still a worthwhile listen.
A 36-minute documentary, "A Maiden's Voyage," interviews Perkins, Cimber and Cundey. Even though a lot of the meaty stuff was included in the commentary, there are still lots of great nuggets of info exclusive to this featurette, so it's still highly recommended. Plus seeing Millie as she is today is worth it, and seeing her also discuss shooting LADY COCOA and her horrified reaction to the film when it played in theaters is priceless! Bios of the three cap off the supplements.
The film's box copy is a nice set of liner notes by Tim Lucas, who unfortunately makes the mistake of naming this film as Dean Cundey's first job as cinematographer. He had been a cinematographer for two years by the time he became involved with WITCH, working with director Greydon Clark for several films. Subversive will be unleashing several more of Cimber's films through the coming year, including CANDY TANGERINE MAN, THE BLACK SIX and LADY COCOA. While the latter two are readily available on grey-market versions, TANGERINE is an anxiously-awaited release for this writer. Unfortunately, the only trailers included on the disc other than that of WITCH are for the upcoming Asian films GEMINI, BATTLEFIELD BASEBALL and the previously released disc of LIVING HELL. (Casey Scott)
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