For years now, I’ve been obsessed with a group of 72 movies collectively known as Video Nasties, the blanket term given to movies the British government declared—after MUCH persuasion from powerful Christian watchdog groups in the ’80s—were not suitable to be sold or rented in video stores. At the time, video tapes didn’t need to have a certification from the British Board of Film Censors. Theatrical films did, but on tape anything went, and they’d often use bombastic VHS boxes to get people to buy them.
Anyway, these 72 films were listed and about half of them were successfully prosecuted in a court of law under obscenity charges and banned in the UK. I’ve featured some of them in this column, like Eaten Alive, The Burning, and The Grim Reaper. While I don’t think any movie should be banned that doesn’t include actual violence, rape, or murder, a case—I suppose—could be made for these. This time, I’m looking at a movie that absolutely does not belong on this list. It’s not very gory, it’s not even all that shocking, but it is worth talking about: 1976’s The Witch Who Came from the Sea.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea had a pretty amazing and evocative poster (above), but it doesn’t really give you a good idea of what the movie is. It has nothing to do with a witch, it has no scene where a woman with a scythe holds up a severed head, and it has nothing to do with magic monsters or apparitions. What it does deal with is a woman going insane after suffering horrifying and deplorable childhood trauma and then finding solace in television. This is a movie about psychotic episodes, revenge fantasies, celebrity worship, and some pretty gnarly ideas about sexual politics (it was the ’70s after all).
The film was directed by Matt Cimber, who directed several skin flicks in the early ’70s made under the guise of them being “documentaries,” including Man & Wife: An Educational Film for Married Adults and Africanus Sexualis (Black Is Beautiful). He later went on to direct one of the biggest turds ever in the history of movies, 1982’s Butteryfly, which was his first film post-Witch. So, he’s not got the best track record. However (somehow), he made a rather interesting and strange character study drama that got marketed as a horror film. It was written by Robert Thom who wrote exploitation movies Bloody Mama, Crazy Mama, Alias Big Cherry, and a movie I actually love, Death Race 2000. And Witch has the distinct privilege of being shot by famed cinematographer Dean Cundey, who went on to work with the likes of John Carpenter and Steven Spielberg on some of their best films.
Okay, so what exactly is the movie about? The film stars Millie Perkins who was the wife of screenwriter Thom. He wrote the part for her but they had essentially broken up before the picture wrapped. Oy. Perkins plays Molly, a seemingly perfect goodie-two-shoes who works at a hippie bar and lives with her sister Cathy and her sister’s young sons. The sons idolize their aunt Molly, who often takes them to the beach and tells them stories about her heroic ship captain father who died after his boat sank. Only, that’s not what really happened, and Cathy often reminds her of that without saying exactly what did happen. Molly seems easily scandalized but is fixated with the handsome, “beautiful” men she sees on television, specifically a pair of football player whom she calls “television football players,” and a guy in an ad for razors.
Early in the movie, Molly has hallucinations of big, muscular men on the beach having been killed in really gruesome ways. Then we see what seems like a very long and drawn out fantasy sequence in which Molly is in bed with the two football players, and has tied them up and drugged one of them. The one who remains awake is then brutalized and castrated (off screen, mind you) by Molly. But then it seems like she wakes up or snaps out of it and everything’s fine. BUT IT ISN’T. The football players have indeed been murdered. But what’s going on? Her bar’s bartender, Long John, seems to be in love with her, but knows she goes and has affairs. It’s the ’70s, they’re all pretty free with that stuff.
Later, Molly has an affair with an aging actor of B-movies on TV and attempts to bite off his genitals and breaks his fingers, which then leads to her meeting and wanting to sleep with the guy from the razor commercial. Do you think that ends in murder also? Yes, of course it does. And really nasty murder, too. You see, it all comes from her father, who wasn’t the saintly captain she tells her nephews he was; in fact, he’s maybe the creepiest and most disgusting abusive child molester who ever graced a movie. Guh. No wonder she turned into a murderer. Eventually she has a breakdown and basically tries to commit suicide with pills before the police can arrest her.
Now, the thing with The Witch Who Came from the Sea is that, yes, it’s definitely got heavy, tough subject matter, and there are pretty graphic murder scenes, but I think where it shouldn’t be considered a Video Nasty is that it feels like the sex and violence in this movie are not meant to titillate, they’re meant to disturb and make you feel some kind of pity for Molly. The world made her the way she is and we’re slowly watching her web of sanity get more and more threadbare before she can’t take it anymore. She openly idolizes heroic men she sees on TV but once they reveal themselves to be sick degenerates, or even just regular, ignoble males, she kills them.
This is not an easy movie to watch by any stretch, and some of the low-budget aspects of the production (notably some of the performances) may have weakened the overall effectiveness, but movies like this weren’t being made from this perspective at the time. The movie was banned for decades in the UK but was released completely uncut in 2006. Of the Video Nasties I’ve seen, The Witch Who Came from the Sea is easily the least nasty. Certainly doesn’t hold a candle to SS Experiment Camp.
Images: Arrow Films
Kyle Anderson is the Weekend Editor and a film and TV critic for Nerdist.com. Follow him on Twitter!