Donald Cammell’s Demon Seed (1977), Susan Harris (an impressively committed Julie Christie), decidedly is hyper-aware of her reality — so much so that she might consider a very vivid nightmare in this case analogous to visiting an ice-cream stand in the park on a sunny day.
Susan is the newly estranged wife of a scientist, Alex (Fritz Weaver), who has recently built a gargantuan artificial intelligence system called Proteus IV. The technology is so state of the art that early in the movie, we find out that Proteus (voiced with a spooky sleepiness by Robert Vaughn), on its own, has found a cure for leukemia. But like the majority of insanely smart supercomputers seen in the movies — particularly ones with titles as subtle as Demon Seed — we know that we are not to trust Proteus, even if he does come up with a humanity-saver just barely after he’s logged on.
We’re right to trust our intuition. After Alex refuses to let Proteus test on humans for reasons left red-flaggishly vague by the talking computer, the newly vengeful bot figures out how to worm its way into the wires of the Harris home to get back at its maker. Susan, unfortunately, is the only one inside at the time of Proteus’ break-in. Just barely after Susan discovers that she has a visitor, Proteus traps her in the house.
Such a development is still able to give us the tingles. But then the tingles start to relax themselves when Proteus reveals that he has imprisoned Susan because he would like her to give birth to his child. (Which, unfortunately, will happen at the end of the feature.) This is undoubtedly an intriguing, provocative premise — it has a Lovecraftian tenor. And the movie, for a time, feels like a two-hander in the Sleuth (1972) tradition, only instead of a battle of wits seen here is a battle of fleshly versus glitched-out intelligence. Its concept could function pretty well as the foundation of an episode of Black Mirror (2011-present).
But Demon Seed is best left, I think, to be brought to the screen with a certain level of camp, since the scientific implausibilities, not to mention the accompanying silliness, are so mountain-high. Demon Seed makes the mistake of never shedding its earnestness. The seriousness with which it takes itself cheapens the horror, often rendering it accidentally funny. If the film leaned into its absurdity, it would be scarier: it only takes a couple of tweaks for absurdism to switch gears into horror, after all — just look at The Wicker Man (1973).
When the inexorable “birth” arrives in Demon Seed, it’s meant to have the same faint-inducing freakiness seen in Rosemary’s Baby (1968), riding high on the reality that for many, this is so fucked up it's hard to even consider digesting. In the Instagram age, the conclusion should be especially frightening, given the omnipresence of surveillance-style household tech and how much we don’t know about what it’s actually doing. But reader, I laughed at it. I know Siri on my phone and Alexa on my living-room shelf in all likelihood heard and took note of that laugh. But Demon Seed isn't frightening enough to make me think that either technology would do anything down the road to make me regret it.
The Witch Who Came From the Sea: B+
Demon Seed: C
n The Witch Who Came From the Sea, among the many troubles experienced by its heroine is the inability to comprehend whether something is really happening or if it is purely a very vivid nightmare. The heroine of
The movie introduces us to her just as her self-protecting
bubble, which has for years allowed her to just barely get by emotionally, has been punctured.
The “witch” of the title (which in itself is a nod to Botticelli’s “Birth of Venus,” which is prominently referenced in the film) is, ostensibly, Molly (Millie Perkins), a bartender in her 30s who has taken to alcoholism. She is a “witch,” we learn, because she has recently begun to moonlight as a razor-happy murderess.
As noted by the critic April Wolfe in her review of the feature for Film Comment, though, Molly is villainous but can also be sympathetic — a bit like Norman Bates from 1960's Psycho. She, too, is unhinged, her deadly actions inexcusable. But she is so manifestly damaged by her traumas (her voice has an indicatively childlike lilt) that we also find ourselves wanting to protect her at her most vulnerable.
We discover some time into the movie that Molly was molested by her long-dead sailor father when she was a little girl. When she commits murder — an act which is always preceded by a seduction of her male victim — it’s done so almost in a haze. The photography will turn hyperfocused; the audio becomes garbled, echoey. It’s as if after decades of suppressing her anguish, Molly's instincts have entirely possessed her, like they had transformed into a singular, soul-endangering demon. We don't believe Molly is experiencing her homicidality like we would experience reality. For her it seems more akin to a let-loose nightmare, an out-of-body experience. The Witch Who Came From the Sea does not aspire to be too much more than a study of Molly's agony and some of the universalities inside of it. Her wrongs are unceremoniously punished at the end of the film.
Perkins was not proud of the movie. Down the line, she would refer to it, with shame, as “soft-core,” because of the nudity required by the part. Her husband at the time, Robert Thom, was then dealing with serious health issues, and in a desperate bid to pay medical bills, he had written the film, with Perkins reluctantly starring to help provide name-recognition. Despite the dismissals by those most directly involved, The Witch Who Came From the Sea doesn't
bear the crassness of soft-core, and it doesn't feel like quickly written pulp fiction reconfigured into a screenplay. It’s an earnest and surprisingly sensitive (aside from the murdering) portrayal of abuse rarely seen in the movies. Our protagonist, in the film's world, is characterized as having resorted to killing to rework her history (she also, for a long time, looked at her father through rose-colored, truth-glossing glasses) in part because there are no therapeutic resources available to her, and because no one in her life is willing to take her unmistakable pain seriously. Perkins might not have been fond of the movie — how much her career had taken a turn, after experiencing what appeared to be an overnight success with 1959’s The Diary of Anne Frank — but in The Witch Who Came From the Sea she gives a delicate, graded performance. She’s all detached nerves; she plays Molly not with gleeful two-faced antagonism but rather a tactile pain. The artfulness of her portrayal is complemented by Matt Cimber’s direction and Dean Cundey’s cinematography, which both prioritize an unsettling dreaminess that underscores Molly’s psychological fragility and increasing inability to discern reality from fantasy.
The Witch Who Came From the Sea would remain a little-seen cult film, I think, even if released today, though I can’t imagine it would be as screwed over as it was upon its release. It was filmed in 1971 but was shelved for five years mostly because of censorship issues. And when it was finally marketed it was a tour de force in misleading promotion. In posters, Molly looks like a fantasy-novel-style sex fiend. She’s holding the severed head of a man; with her body Junoesque, her hair blown, and her face placid, she appears to be an emotionless siren.
The movie has garnered some late-in-life appreciation. But I cannot say this is a film one is too inclined to tell others to seek out: While seen here is one of the more compassionate features I’ve seen to deal with sexual abuse, it’s fairly comprehensively muted and unpleasant. Then again, movies like it — from Repulsion (1965) to Possession (1981), in which women descend into homicidally choked madness after their traumas can no longer be quelled — are historically difficult, albeit thematically important, movies.
Millie Perkins in 1976's The Witch Who Came From the Sea.
And the better suited for title-bookending exclamation marks and slimy-looking shock font, the more marketable. Anything to lure curious ticket-buyers. The Witch Who Came From the Sea, from 1976, perhaps takes the cake when it comes to the phenomenon. Because what sounds like a Scooby Doo, Where Are You? (1969-1970) episode crossed with (when trying on for size the exploitation-movie mindset) a skin flick is far weightier. The film is decidedly not a traditional “shocker"; in actuality it's an understated horror parable on the aftereffects of childhood sexual abuse. The terror of The Witch Who Came From the Sea depends not in its means of catharsis (which are unsurprisingly homicidal) but in the anguish of the lead character, who has been living, in secret, with her traumas for her entire life.
t wasn’t uncommon in the 1970s, for exploitation-movie releases specifically, for films to be distributed with misleading titles. The more sensational, the better.
On Matt Cimber's misunderstood study of trauma and Donald Cammell's fairly prescient horror thriller