Sunday, April 17, 2005

The Witch Who Came from the Sea: stoned soul spinster picnic

Unsuccessful seventies movies at least hold a lot more fascination than film failures of most other decades. The Witch Who Came from the Sea, shot in 1971, abortively released in 1976, and lost for years, is one such failure. Film historian and Video Watchdog godfather Tim Lucas contributes liner notes on Subversive Cinema's DVD reissue, trumpeting The Witch as some sort of great lost classic. To be perfectly blunt--it ain't. It is, however, a fascinating window on an era when even ostensibly exploitive movies strove for a patina of artistry.

Millie Perkins plays Molly, a spinster approaching middle age who babysits her single-parent sister's kids, waits tables at a local watering hole, and fantasizes about the sculpted musclemen who exercise on the beach near her place. Soon her fantasies about said studs take on a violent turn, with razor-induced death proving the net result. Then real jocks begin turning up in itty bitty pieces. Is it all in her head? Or is the lonely, spacy waitress actually venting her issues and hangups (rooted in childhood sexual abuse by her father) in a homicidal fashion?

Screenwriter Robert Thom's hyper-stylized and unreal dialogue suggests Tennessee Williams spending an afternoon at Malibu Beach with a bong and some seriously potent Acapulco Gold in tow. And judging from the indulgently meandering turns he's taken with the material, director Matt Cimber seems to have been partaking of some wacky tobacky himself. Perkins and two jocks hang out together naked in one scene, talking to one another in slowed and distorted voices. The intent is to convey disorientation and a descent into madness, but most viewers'll just laugh their collective asses off. Cimber eventually became a less-imaginative but more coherent filmmaker with later efforts like the Golden Globe-winning Pia Zadora vehicle Butterfly and blaxploitation programmers like Lola Falana's Lady Cocoa and The Black Six.

Perkins delivers a convincing and committed performance, giving her then-husband Thom's script way more care than it deserved. There's also some lovely beachside cinematography courtesy of a young Dean Cundey, who's since gone on to lens movies for John Carpenter and Ron Howard. But what we've got here, in the end, is Roman Polanski's Repulsion re-envisioned by Cheech and Chong, with a few scenic chats between Perkins and her nephews a la The Courtship of Eddie's Father stirred into the mix. It's too self-important and uneven to really be called good (or even fun) by most conventional yardsticks, but it ain't dull.

1 comment:

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