**½/**** Image B+ Sound B Extras C
starring Millie Perkins, Lonny Chapman, Vanessa Brown, George "Buck" Flowers
screenplay by Robert Thom
directed by Matt Cimber
***/**** Image B+ Sound A Extras A
starring Willem Dafoe, Marin Kanter, Robert Gordon, J. Don Ferguson
written and directed by Kathryn Bigelow
by Walter Chaw Looking and feeling a lot like a classic 1970s Seka porno flick, Matt Cimber's seedy, disquieting The Witch Who Came from the Sea straddles an exploitation line in telling a simple tale with an unexpected degree of pretense and, if only occasionally, artistry. History suggests that most of this is due to the contribution of cinematographer Dean Cundey, working here early in his career in his preferred 'scope format and offering the sort of stunning seaside-tableaux counterweight he would employ to greater success in John Carpenter's underestimated The Fog. His landscapes dwarf the lost heroine of the picture, swallowing her whole in the ocean of her past, her obsession with television commercials, and the culture of machismo that manifests itself in 1976 Southern California as muscle beaches and professional football. Opening with Molly (Millie Perkins) telling a tale of her long lost sea captain father to her two nephews (shades, again, of The Fog), The Witch Who Came from the Sea finds its themes topical even when its presentation skews often and badly into the unfortunately-dated.
It seems that spaced-out Molly--Perkins's performance is virtually always at the level of carefully-enunciating television personality--has issues with men stemming from a long-repressed childhood trauma. She's associated images of the sea with consumption, sexual or otherwise, and as her beloved nephews reach puberty, she begins to lose contact with reality. It's worth noting that the majority of her scenes of dementia are triggered in liminal spaces: the beach, a boardwalk, a bathroom; and as most of the triggers also have something to do with sailor lore (boats, virility, tattoos), male sexual aggression, and father figures, it doesn't take a lot to divine the nature of the skeleton in her closet. She finds herself in frequent skylarks triggered by her own sexual arousal, casually perusing the packages of men around her and fantasizing about television spokesmen and sports heroes recast in the role of her dearly departed nautical father. Many of her dreams, somewhat shockingly, end with her castrating the men in orgiastic bouts of pleasure/pain--the most uncomfortable of which involves a shaving razor and a repeated motion that evokes cheese getting grated. It'll be done better in a few years and with less squeamishness by Paul Verhoeven's The Fourth Man, but in the annals of American '70s cult, B-exploitation cinema, The Witch Who Came from the Sea is in roughly the same neighbourhood as Tobe Hooper's The Texas Chain Saw Massacre, Wes Craven's Last House on the Left, Meir Zarchi's I Spit On Your Grave, and even Martin Scorsese's Boxcar Bertha.
The strengths of the piece begin with Cundey's eye and an elliptical narrative that takes a cue from Dario Argento's gialli (long-time admirer Cundey cites Argento's Suspiria as a key visual inspiration for his work on Carpenter's Halloween), i.e., their elaborate, drawn-out murder set-pieces featuring the known killer--who has, often, suffered a childhood trauma he's compelled to re-enact. A pair of detectives inserted into the mix function as mute, ironic commentary on the uselessness of masculine ratiocination in what is essentially an opera of female victimization and murderous empowerment. (It is in period and introduction a tame graft of Kenji Misumi's astonishingly visceral Lone Wolf and Cub series.) The Witch Who Came from the Sea is a rape-revenge fantasy couched self-consciously in Jungian/Freudian symbolism, going so far as to illuminate the castration mythology ancillary to Botticelli's "Birth of Venus", giving the film its name and Molly both her modus operandi and inspiration. Where the film starts to fall apart is in too close a read of the picture's clumsy subtext (it clunks along like a '50s psychodrama with splatter and tits), and too much attention is given over to Cimber's shake-and-bake style. Only Cundey asserting himself now and again (particularly in a masterful ménage a trios sequence shot in hallucinatory slow-motion) grants The Witch Who Came from the Sea its lingering cult status.
Abused little girls ("Daddy, he ain't done nothin' to me you ain't done a hundred times before!") becoming phallus-wielding avatars is the loam of the tragic subplot, too, in Kathryn Bigelow and Monty Montgomery's The Loveless, a beautiful ode to Monte Hellman's insanely good Two-Lane Blacktop and Kenneth Anger's provocative Scorpio Rising. But watching it is, distilled into a pure essence, watching the film debut of one of our national treasures, Willem Dafoe, in a film directed by the woman who would next helm Near Dark, and of the man who would play the Cowboy in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive and serve as producer on Lynch's "Twin Peaks" and Wild at Heart, which reunited him with Dafoe. That feeling of decay is Americana under siege and seething, bursting at its seams with malcontents in black leather (vampires or otherwise) and at war with the only marginally less appalling authority figures. The shots of Georgian diners, motels, and barn-housed garages in an airless summertime are carried off with a kind of breathless suspension haunted by Dafoe's lanky, Ziggy Stardust-androgynous biker, Vance.
In a backwater to meet-up with Davis (singer Robert Gordon, eventually inspired to turn Vance's cherry-red bike into his real-life coffee table) before heading off together to the Daytona Speedway, Vance meets up with a stripper/waitress whose stuttering striptease against a lime-green Venetian blind backdrop to the jeers of a roomful of bikers reminds of the headlight-lit, car-top gyration in Blue Velvet, and he falls for whisper of a waif Telena (Marin Kanter--a clear precursor to Jenny Wright's will-o-the-wisp in Near Dark) in her little red corvette. The compositing of the striptease with a pair of lovers making out to the cry of cicadas against a red brick wall is alight with hyper-reality and the promise of future brilliance.
Long takes of the wild ones throwing switchblades at one another, of Dafoe smoking a cigarette, and of a sex scene comprised almost entirely of televised scenes of a race riot betray the influence of the French New Wave. The film's pacing is languid, at times hypnotic, especially effective in sequences where Vance rides his bike at impossible speeds along the back-roads of the verdant yet barren South. And while most of The Loveless feels like what it is (a Columbia graduate thesis for Bigelow and a preview of coming attractions for Bigelow's and Montgomery's future work), there remains something of the deadpan all-American road flick that predicts Jim Jarmusch's own early-career take on the same. It's a minor classic of a certain attitude, twenty years or so past when it was fashionable, but honourable--if only for the awesome rockabilly soundtrack--just the same.
THE DVD - THE WITCH WHO
CAME FROM THE SEA
Subversive Cinema does yeoman's duty on The Witch Who Came from the Sea, offering it in its first DVD incarnation in a definitive transfer, at least until the standardization of HiDef DVD. Its stunning 2.35:1 anamorphic presentation, supervised by Cundey, does for this film exactly what the Cundey-approved transfer of The Fog did for that film: it resurrects it, transforming a marginal not-recommend in the case of Cimber's film into a marginal recommend based on the strength of Cundey's gorgeous cinematography. Note how the picture is bookended by shots of the ocean, the first of Molly and her charges on a threatening beach (crepuscular, somehow, in its natural lighting) and the last of Molly sailing away into a haunted, bird-infested horizon: an illustration, perhaps, of the alternative to Tippi Hedren's domesticization at the end of The Birds--of the re-assimilation of the feminine destructive energy into the long reach of a symbolic sea. It's just not the same on a cropped, smudgy VHS bootleg. By itself, the transfer merits the picture a look as a case study on how a talented DP can salvage a high-aspiring bit of, let's face it, high-minded garbage. The original mono track is offered alongside a near-identical DD stereo option, the sole substantive difference coming during the abovementioned three-way tryst/double-castration, where an adventurously distorted soundmix (parts suggest a fetal heartbeat monitor) is rendered with more clarity.
Subversive has loaded the disc with supplements, starting with a film-length yakker featuring Cundey, Cimber, and Perkins--the same trio that appears in the disc's 35-minute making-of doc, "A Maiden's Voyage". Though it sounds like it was recorded into a coffee can, it's a generally rapturous session that accords due credit to Cundey's master shots. No great surprise, I guess, as before this transfer, the last time people saw Cundey's compositions in their original aspect ratio was probably upon the film's theatrical release. Loving filmographies of the principals and extras dominates the track, sadly, with particular hagiography reserved for the late Robert Thom ("A genius," proclaim Cimber and Perkins), who, as Perkins's husband at the time, wrote the role of Molly specifically for her based on the couples' backgrounds and contemporary problems. Long on expediency and short on subtlety, The Witch Who Came from the Sea is, essentially, Perkins's and Thom's The Misfits, for what it's worth.
Cundey's observations are the pithiest while Perkins reveals herself as unappealingly prim in her golden years. "I can't believe I made this!"--and, in the documentary, "I didn't do any drugs in that time because I had children, thank you." You're welcome. And when did we return to Victorian England? More, it's a rather startling proclamation following fast as it does the revelation on the doc that she rather enjoyed being topless on film. Eager to show his clear-eyed wisdom through rhapsodic reveries on how evil the world is, Cimber tells his favourite story here and in the docu of how the MPAA didn't like the incest and pedophilia stuff in the flick, as though he were imparting a nugget of incalculable anecdotal value. I hate it when guys like Cimber (looking and sounding like Garry Marshall) say, "Remember a great film called M?" Way to dig deep into the archives, sport. Best bits of a packed commentary go to Perkins, however, revealing the parts of the flick (more than comfortable) that are actually autobiographical for either Perkins or Thom.
For as much as I admire Subversive's laudable dedication to unearthing grindhouse gems, the direction and editing (by Eric Gersh) on the documentary itself is abominable. Distracting for one, it borders on glib and disrespectful for another, dissolving the interview spots forward along to other points so as to render opinions half-delivered and sometimes without context. If you've purchased this disc, watched the film, and remain hungry for information on the making of The Witch Who Came from the Sea, then it's more than possible that unexpurgated interview pieces would be welcomed with open arms, at the least more so than Gersh's decision on which bits to keep and in what order. Compounding the problem are the slow push-ins and pull-outs and willy-nilly insertions of scenes from the film that sometimes complement the pullquotes but at other times (as in an early insert of the "surprise" flashback over Perkins's difficult admission that her ex-husband's stepfather used to hide in closets to scare him) minimizes Thom's abuse and exposes the relative silliness of the film at the same time.
Later, after Cimber calls Perkins "an actress of some standing in Hollywood" and the star of "one of the biggest films of the decade" (probably in reference to her turn in The Diary of Anne Frank), Gersh segues into a clip where Molly says, "It was on television! You know how I love television!" Consider that the picture is in many ways an attack on the all-invasive venality of television and then think hard about how this juxtaposition speaks of the actress, the value of the director's opinion of the actress, and, fast-following, of how we take Cundey's remembrance of Perkins as the star of movies that he studied in film school. I don't know if it's supposed to be funny, but if it is, it's humour at the expense of the interviewees. A trio of okay filmographies for Cundey, Cimber, and Perkins plus trailers for this film and other Subversive titles (Living Hell, Battlefield Baseball, and Gemini) round out the disc. VIDEO WATCHDOG's Tim Lucas provides liner notes.
THE DVD - THE LOVELESS
Blue Underground (another company that, like Subversive, was formed by émigrés from niche gold standard Anchor Bay) gives The Loveless a 1.85:1 anamorphic video transfer every bit the equal in terms of revelatory power of The Witch Who Came from the Sea's. Bigelow's and Montgomery's hands are apparent in every frame of the picture, from the long, God's-eye interiors to the long-lonesome exteriors, and, in particular, in the use of primary colours and filtered-lighting that would mark their later output. The often-stilted dialogue (Montgomery bemoans in the commentary that he wishes they'd, he and Bigelow, spent more time on the screenplay) and amateurish biker-boy performances blown out of the water by Dafoe's oily naturalism are reproduced in three audio mixes: DD 2.0 mono, DD 2.0 stereo, and the preferred DD 5.1, the latter of which does a remarkable job of distributing information across the soundstage. Note an introductory scene of a stranded motorist waiting for Vance's guardian fallen angel rumbling up from behind-into-the LFE channel. Nice work.
Dafoe and Bigelow join forces for a feature-length yakker that's interspliced with comments from Montgomery (moderated by Blue Underground's David Gregory). Alive with reminiscences of the background and peculiarities of the rushed, low-budget shoot, the track contains realistic appraisals of the successes and failures of the piece largely courtesy the folksy Montgomery, although Dafoe does offer the wonderful observation that as he's watching The Loveless now, some twenty-odd years after the fact, all he can see are the circumstances surrounding the shoot. He marvels that he can remember every word of his first introduction to the silver screen. Of minor interest is Bigelow's memory of early festival screenings and the perhaps unsurprising embrace of The Loveless by the Yank-o-phile Japanese. A fascinating theatrical trailer that plays like a hygiene reel directed by Lynch and a literally exhaustive still gallery split into nine segments (posters, black & white stills, colour stills, wardrobe test stills, behind-the-scenes, pressbooks, storyboards, video, and credits) round out the handsome, essential platter. Originally published: March 3, 2005.