The Witch Who Came From the Sea(Subversive Cinema, 12.21.2004)
Don't judge a DVD by it's cover...or title. As director Matt Cimber acknowledges on this DVD, business for The Witch Who Came from the Sea picked-up as soon as they released a bloodier, more exploitative poster -- that has also been employed by Subversive Cinema for this DVD's cover -- which features a witch-like creature with a dead man's head in her hand (Subversive wisely cropped-out the dismembered head). This image is misleading and tells you virtually nothing about the actual film, yet it's striking. It also makes it easy to dismiss this surprisingly worthwhile genre drama.
As for the title, the tendency with exploitation, drive-in fare is to come up with painfully obvious, mundane titles that explain exactly what a film is about. The Witch Who Came from the Sea would seem to qualify. However, there are no witches in this movie and nobody comes from the sea. In fact, the title is meant to be metaphorical and, in part, refers to a Boticelli painting that's discussed in the film. Of course, there's no way of knowing this until you see the movie (or read about it) and getting people to see any movie in the face of obstacles like this title and DVD cover is extremely difficult.
I could summarize the plot of The Witch Who from the Sea, but the film's most interesting quality is the way in which it slowly layers in character development and key narrative information. I don't even want to reveal the basic details of the murder mystery, as issues of guilt, motive, reality, and fantasy are deliberately misleading until a resolution slowly emerges in the film's final minutes. In any case, this is an accomplished -- if occasionally sleazy and unpleasant -- dramatic art film disguised as a low brow genre effort.
Subversive's impressive DVD release is clearly the best way to see this film in 2006. As director Matt Cimber notes, the film has been plagued by "knock-off tapes" for years and this new transfer helps "get the film across." The transfer isn't perfect (there's a persistent scratch on the left side of the screen, saturation and contrast are flawed, etc.), but the film still looks quite good in anamorphic 2.35:1. This undoubtedly has something to do with the contribution of cinematographer Dean Cundey (who went on to shoot Halloween, Back to the Future, Jurassic Park, and Apollo 13). Faced with a limited budget and schedule, Cundey did some extremely resourceful work on The Witch Who Came From the Sea (and he didn't even receive a proper credit).
The DVD includes two major features: a commentary and a 32-minute featurette, both featuring Cimber, star Millie Perkins (best known for playing Anne Frank), and Cundey. The featurette could use a little more editorial discipline -- there's plenty of filler and some awkward dissolves -- but it still contains several interesting observations and anecdotes. Although Cimber cites the influence of films like Fritz Lang's M, he also complains that his films have been ripped-off by other filmmakers, including David Lynch and Ridley Scott.
Cundey reflects the conventional Hollywood thinking that's been beaten into him over the years when he claims that, if he shot the film today, he'd take the obvious approach and shoot it in a darker, moodier style. He acknowledges that the film's visual approach -- sunny, daylight, oceanside naturalism -- intriguingly bucked convention, but I guess bucking convention doesn't pay the bills in Hollywood.
Perkins notes that her husband was sick in the '70s and, as a result, she was forced to take some questionable jobs. However, The Witch Who Came From the Sea wasn't one of these. In fact, the film was written by Perkins' sick husband, Robert Thom (writer of several low budget classics from the period, including Wild in the Streets, Death Race 2000, and Crazy Mama), a man that Perkins and Cimber agree was a genius with an encyclopedic knowledge of everything. Perkins divorced Thom shortly after shooting The Witch Who Came from the Sea and he died three years later...but this film doesn't appear to be the cause of either.
Perkins also relates a funny anecdote about a screening of Angel, Angel, Down We Go, a film that Thom directed in 1969. Apparently, film critic Rex Reed was making out with someone in the back of a screening -- which understandably incensed Thom -- and he still wrote a damning review of the film.
Although Perkins was enthusiastic about The Witch Who Came From the Sea, she also concedes that she was shocked when she finally saw the finished film. She can't even remember the reaction of her old acting classmate, Jack Nicholson -- in the '60s, they worked together on back-to-back Monte Hellman films, The Shooting and Ride in the Whirlwind -- because she was so rattled after seeing the film. Still, after all these years, she stands by The Witch Who Came from the Sea and insists that it's ten times better than The Diary of Anne Frank. Okay, I made that up.
Quite often, the widespread dismissal of exploitation movies has nothing to do with the quality of the films and everything to do with their low budgets. Of course, low budgets can be profoundly liberating, allowing filmmakers to deal with provocative ideas and techniques that studios would never go anywhere near. Unfortunately, exploitation films have always had to play dumb (particularly in their marketing), in order to attract the widest possible audience. The resulting sense of disreputability tends to turn off misinformed film snobs who resist the emotional and intellectual challenges of a film like The Witch Who Came From the Sea. Don't be one of them. -- Jonathan Doyle