By Scott Dorward
The Witch Who Came From the Sea (USA, 1976)
“My poppy used to say, ‘Come with me and we’ll get lost at sea, Molly my lass.’ And we got lost at sea so many, many times.”
Well, I think I’ve just watched the weirdest film I’m going to see this year. This is going to be a hard review to write. I genuinely don’t know what to make of The Witch Who Came From the Sea. It’s barely a horror film but it is repellently horrific. Almost everything about it feels cheap and amateurish but it is compelling viewing. And while the story is simple and makes perfect sense, I am having a great deal of trouble processing it. Maybe writing this review will help me unpick it all.
Molly’s life revolves around looking after her sister’s two young sons, working in a bar, drinking herself into blackouts, and killing men. These last two activities stem from unresolved trauma, following her repeated sexual abuse by her father when she was a child. While her sister Cathy remembers their childhood only too well, Molly has blocked it out, creating a heroic mythology about her father being a sea captain who went down with his ship.
The men Molly is attracted to are ones she has seen on TV — sports stars and actors. Television is the lens through which she sees the world. When Molly kills, she does so ritualistically and brutally, castrating her victims. At the same time, she seems capable of maintaining loving-if-strained relationships with the men and women in her life. Alcohol simply gives her licence to let out the sea witch within her.
We watch Molly bounce through a series of relationships and assignations. Some end in violence; all lead to heartache. She is a tragic figure, caught up in delusion and impulses she cannot control. At the same time, she is undoubtedly a monster.
Of course, everything comes crashing down on Molly as horrible truths come to light. This was never going to be a film with a happy ending. The final scene is especially hard to watch, as we imagine the lifelong impact it is going to have on her two young nephews.
I didn’t realise until I looked it up afterwards that The Witch Who Came From the Sea was one of the original video nasties. In 1983, this was one of the dozens of films caught up in the tabloid furore about the corrupting influence of horror videos. While its prosecution for obscenity fell apart, it remained unavailable in the UK until 2006.
The aspects that seem shocking to a modern audience may not be the same ones as led to its vilification in the 1980s. While the tortures Molly inflicts on her victims are repellent, their depiction seems tame now. There is plenty of blood but the budget clearly didn’t run to prosthetic wounds. When someone is cut with a razor, for example, the area is slathered with cheap stage blood but appears otherwise undamaged. The effect is not quite laughable but it is unconvincing.
On the other hand, there is a scene towards the end of the film in which Molly’s father rapes her. While not explicit, it is a lengthy shot of a large middle-aged man simulating sexual assault on a girl in her early teens. It’s hard to imagine how this scene could have been shot without it being deeply uncomfortable for the young actress. Watching it is one of those experiences where thinking about what is happening behind the camera is at least as disturbing as what we see on screen. Either way, I can imagine this being a hard watch for a lot of viewers.
Everything about The Witch Who Came From the Sea feels wrong. I almost gave up in the first few minutes because it was so grating. The poor audio dubbing, grainy film, stilted acting and artificial dialogue made it feel like a bad student film. And yet…
The Witch Who Came From the Sea desperately wants to be Repulsion. The amateurishness of the production makes it into something far weirder, however. Counterintuitively, this may be its strongest feature. Like the cumulative effect of all the strange angles in The Cabinet of Dr Caligari, the sheer oddness of every aspect of this film transforms it into something unique and disturbing. Whether or not this makes it a good film is highly debatable.
I really don’t know who I would recommend The Witch Who Came From the Sea to. It’s certainly not a film I regret watching, unlike, say, Cannibal Holocaust, but it wasn’t fun in any way. If you like cinematic oddities such as the early films of John Waters or some of the nastier exploitation films of the ’70s, you may appreciate the aesthetic. And even if you end up disliking it, at least this won’t be because it’s generic or forgettable. This is a film that doesn’t care if you hate it.
The October Horror Movie Challenge
Please do join in and share your own thoughts with us about this or any other films as the month goes on. You can usually find us on Twitter, Facebook, Reddit, Discord, or lurking in the dark corners of your home.
If you would like to play along at home, my provisional selections are:
- 1 – Baskin (2015)
- 2 – The Bar (2017)
- 3 – The Editor (2014)
- 4 – The Beach House (2019)
- 5 – The Mummy (1959)
- 6 – The Wind (2020)
- 7 – Tigers are Not Afraid (2018)
- 8 – Voices From Beyond (1991)
- 9 – Dearest Sister (2016)
- 10 – Patrick (1978)
- 11 – The Transfiguration (2016)
- 12 – The House at the End of Time (2013)
- 13 – The Cabinet of Dr Caligari (1920)
- 14 – The Hallow (2015)
- 15 – Night of the Demons (1988)
- 16 – Deep Dark (2015)
- 17 – The Witch Who Came From the Sea (1976)
- 18 – Black Sheep (2006)
- 19 – The Battery (2012)
- 20 – Eaten Alive (1976)
- 21 – Satan’s Slaves (2017)
- 22 – Evolution (2015)
- 23 – Malatesta’s Carnival of Blood (1973)
- 24 – The Dead Center (2018)
- 25 – Your Vice is a Locked Room and I Have the Only Key (1972)
- 26 – The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears (2013)
- 27 – Here Comes the Devil (2012)
- 28 – Gretel & Hansel (2020)
- 29 – Two Thousand Maniacs (1964)
- 30 – The Stepfather (1987)
- 31 – In Fabric (2018)
Be warned that I may alter this list according to availability, what I feel like watching at the time, and sheer capriciousness.
A Final Note
If you have been enticed here by these posts, please do look around at some of our other film reviews. We also have a podcast, called The Good Friends of Jackson Elias, which occasionally covers horror films. If this appeals, you might want to check out some of the following episodes.
- The Fly
- A Dark Song
- The Thing
- The Ritual
- The Wicker Man
- The Stone Tape
- Event Horizon
- The Witch
- INLAND EMPIRE
- Nightbreed and Lord of Illusions
- Maléfique and The Ninth Gate
- Re-Animator and From Beyond
- Repulsion and The Babdook
- Man Bites Dog, Behind the Mask: The Rise of Leslie Vernon and S&man
- A selection of weird films
- David Cronenberg
- The films that scared us most
If you dig through the archives, you will also find episodes about a wide variety of horror stories and games. Happy nightmares!