There are plenty of 1970s women-on-the-verge psych thrillers out there where shit-heel men drive the women under their thumb to total madness. And we’ve covered plenty of them here on this very website: A Woman Under the Influence, Puzzle of a Downfall Child, 3 Women, Images, Sisters, etc. All those Driven Mad by the Patriarchy thrillers are varying shades of great, but few are as committed to their psychosexual terror or bloody revenge as The Witch Who Came from the Sea. It’s the cheapest and least technically competent film of the bunch, struggling to convey a hallucinatory mental breakdown in its dive-bar drunken stupor. Still, it’s incredibly potent, angry stuff, fearlessly staring down sexual terrors most movies would shy away from depicting and slicing into men’s flesh to avenge them. The Witch Who Came from the Sea might not carry the same 70s auteur prestige as other examples of its genre, which tended to be helmed by names like Altman, De Palma, and Cassavetes. It’s a true Misandrist Horror classic, though, compensating for its budgetary & stylistic limitations with an overriding sense of righteous anger.
Our heroine in distress is the alcoholic barmaiden Molly, who spends her days babysitting her adoring nephews on the beach and her nights serving well liquor for meager tips. At least, that’s the part of her nights that she remembers. Between Molly’s excessive booze guzzling and the half-remembered sexual assaults she suffered under her father as a child, there are large gaps of lost time woven into her nightly routine – often involving casual sex with strange men she meets at the bar. And murder. Molly has a spiraling habit of coaxing the beefcakiest men in her vicinity (often famous, square-jawed football players & television actors) into bed, where she initiates kinky sex and then mutilates their genitals with shaving razors. It’s initially unclear whether Molly’s bisexual threeways & beachside mansion rendezvous are sinister wet dreams. However, once her nightly murder spree starts making national news, the audience gets some solid footing in establishing that her unraveling psyche has a physical bodycount. Poor Molly never gets that same real-world footing, though. She’s lost inside her own head, and it’s terrifying in there.
Molly doesn’t despise all men, at least not when she’s awake & lucid. She thinks the world of her nephews Tadd & Tripoli—names she repeats to herself as an absent-minded mantra—and the closest thing she has to a healthy relationship in her life is a semi-open romance with her bar-owner employer. She even speaks softly & fondly of the muscle brutes she murders in her drunken fugue state, championing their value as macho role models for, you guessed it, Tadd & Tripoli. She also rhapsodically praises the memory of her abusive father, though, whom she sees as a heroic sea captain who was valiantly lost at sea, not a deranged drunk who sexually abused his own children. Molly’s sweet, swooning musings about men—especially men that remind her of her father—do not jive at all with the dick-slicing violence that emerges when she lets her guard down. This isn’t so much a rape revenge film as it is a violent character study of a woman who doesn’t have the vocabulary to express—even to herself—how men have traumatized her throughout her entire life. So, that expression instead comes through as a very close shave, after ill-advised nightcaps & hookups.
The Witch Who Came from the Sea is just as tense & unnervingly bizarre as similar women-on-the-verge classics from the likes of Cassavetes & Altman; its aesthetic & production values just lean more towards tasteless genre payoffs than subtle psychedelic dilemmas. The first sign we get that Molly is unwell is when she lustfully gawks at muscle men working out on the beach; her searing stares at the absurdly veiny bulges in their Speedos quickly turns hyperviolent, and she imagines their corpses hanging from the public gym equipment. Her romantic remembrances of her piece-of-shit father conjure seafaring images of Sirens, mermaids, ancient tattoos, and once-in-a-life-time storms. Her actual memories of his sexual assaults are scored by screeching seagulls and slurred grunts. It’s all deeply strange in an unrestrained, sloppy-drunk fashion that calls into question how much tonal control director Matt Cimber was commanding behind the camera (with the help of a young, uncredited Dean Cundey as cinematographer).
No matter where you land on that question, Molly’s bottomless anger towards the manly men of the world cuts through the seaside fog like a scythe. When she threatens to “break your bones then suck the marrow,” you better listen; otherwise, you’ll soon be ejaculating spurts of blood onto her hand-embroidered bellbottoms. It’s that pointed, visceral anger that makes The Witch Who Came from the Sea stand out among similar women-on-the-verge thrillers of the 1970s, and my only disappointment is that Molly’s anger wasn’t enough to save her from the same tragic fate this archetype always suffers in the end.