Saturday, 15 March 2008

The Witch Who Came from the Sea

Director: Matt Cimber
Writer: Robert Thom
USA 1976

From rape to castration on the ever-cheerful videonastyproject blog! As well as the aforementioned emasculation, group sex, paedophilia and laughably small quantities of Class C drugs abound in this low-budget 1976 indie, but it is by no means the trash the censors apparently thought.

The title is from Botticelli’s "The Birth of Venus", a witch born in the sea of the water-borne sperm of a castrated god. A reproduction of the painting adorns the wall of one of the sleazy men the heroine, Molly, castrates throughout the film as she moves through the poisoned idyll of California beach life.

"The Witch Who Came from the Sea" is a blunt, direct, overtly feminist film. The exploitation genre’s usual disregard for acting and character development in this case works in the film’s favour, with Molly as a cipher for an entire sex’s revenge on the latent need for dominance in male sexuality. The supposedly liberal sexual mores of the time are exposed as a male-centric confidence trick, as any sexual aggression on the promiscuous Molly’s part is answered with snarled exclamations of “bitch”, “cocksucker” and most regularly and memorably, “cunt” – but Molly is no victim, and everyone gets their comeuppance.

It’s interesting that Molly’s sexual conquests never cross the line into rape – instead, their sexism is in the context of love play, their grinning faces oblivious to the offence they are causing. It isn’t one-dimensional either, tenderness often preceding and following outbursts of misogyny. In a refreshing role-reversal, it’s the men who are the lost, fucked-up, delicate little flowers in this horror movie. Molly turns on the men in what is presented as a Jackal and Hyde transformation, which we learn from flashbacks is a consequence of sexual abuse she suffered as a child. This underdeveloped idea is used to drive the film's plot, but has the side effect of presenting male violence as an ongoing constant in Molly's life, and by implication the female experience.

Like pretty much every other film that will feature on this blog, the good bits are interspersed with sections of plodding dialogue, and its rich ideas are underpinned with clich├ęd, tedious plotting. But no matter. The Witch Who Came from the Sea is an unusual and powerful piece of work. Although there are a couple of disturbing scenes, it is remarkably gore-free and intelligent. That the BBFC banned a film so obviously attempting – and succeeding – to question the liberal sexual mores of its time is a damning example of the conservative, reactionary institution it once was.

On the other hand, without the allure of the banned label this film could well have sunk into obscurity like many other low-budget grindhouse films of the nineteen-seventies. The Video Nasty label gives The Witch Who Came From the Sea a notoriety it doesn’t deserve, but may well end up giving it the audience it does.

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