Beginning tomorrow night, 92YTribeca in New York City will be running a short series of films called “House of Psychotic Women.” The series was inspired by a book of the same name by film programmer/writer Kier-La Janisse, and Janisse will be there for the series’s first night, introducing the films. I haven’t read her book, although the Amazon page tells me it’s pretty good, but I have seen the three movies: The Mafu Cage (1978), The Entity (1982), and The Witch Who Came from the Sea (1976).
Each of the films focuses on a different type of female psychosis, and when taken together, they are more than the sum of their parts. Although I was originally led to believe all three of the films would be exploitation films (a genre I’m quite fond of), I don’t think that’s true. The Entity, which was made for $9 million at the time of its release (a bit more than $21 million when adjusted for inflation), cost too much to neatly fall under the exploitation banner, a name which implies budgets well below $1 million.
The Mafu Cage certainly looks the part, but aside from some occasional violence and hints of lesbianism, it doesn’t have a whole lot that can be exploited for marketing purposes (which is where the term “exploitation” got its start).
The Witch Who Came from the Sea, on the other hand, is mid-70s exploitation through and through. It’s got sex, violence, and production values that are beyond shameful. When you imagine bad exploitation horror from the time period. You’re imagining something like The Witch Who Came from the Sea.
But enough about that. Let’s talk about psychotic women.
The Mafu Cage follows Cissy (Carol Kane), a woman who spent some years with Pygmy people, a thing which seems to have forever warped her image of life. Cissy has an obsession with “mafu”s, which are monkeys/apes of any kind. She lives with her sister, Ellen (Lee Grant), in their late father’s house. The house looks like a jungle, filled with all kinds of tribal memorabilia and giant green plants. Cissy sleeps in a hammock. Also in the house is a giant cage, inside of it is a chair and two chains. This was a cage for the apes that Cissy’s father worked with. Cissy’s godfather, Zom (Will Geer), works as an animal importer (or something), and he has been supplying Cissy with new mafus every so often, because they just keep on dying when on her watch. And by that, I mean she keeps murdering them.
Everything about Cissy screams “psychotic,” but it’s her relationship with her sister that makes the film interesting to watch. Ellen is Cissy’s caretaker, and she does everything she can to keep Cissy happy, even if it means stopping herself from getting ahead in life. It’s pretty sad, especially because Cissy is completely incapable of understanding the sacrifices being made for her. Instead, she fights every moment that things might not be going her way. After another mafu dies, Ellen refuses to get another one. Cissy locks herself in the cage, refuses to eat, and then slices her wrists. Ellen, powerless to stop her, has to relent.
This also brings up the question of hospitalization. Ellen has every reason and every right to send her sister off and let that be the end of it. I don’t think there’s an asylum in the world that wouldn’t see her and immediately put her away if given reason to do so, but that’s not the path Ellen takes. She’s too attached to her sister (in a somewhat incestuous way, actually), and so she enables Cissy’s behavior. She really has no choice.
In the moments where Cissy seems lucid, it makes sense why Ellen would want to keep her around. She seems like a legitimately caring and nice person. She’s a bit strange, sure, and not someone who can really be taken out to a social gathering, but there’s nothing inherently wrong with that. It’s just an unfortunate reality sometimes. It’s generally when the mafus become involved that things go to hell. For whatever reason, Cissy can’t be touched, and if she gets touched, that is when she breaks down and goes from sweet and odd to literally murderous. There’s no real context for this, though, which is a shame. Perhaps the mafu issues goes back to her father (as many things seem to do), or maybe there is something else entirely. Spelling out why a person has issues is never advisable, but The Mafu Cage leaves things a bit too opaque.
The Entity sits as something of an outlier, because its protagonist is not actually crazy. One night, Carla Moran (Barbara Hershey) is raped by a ghost, an event that is repeated several times throughout the film. She seeks out help, but for obvious reasons a lot of people do not believe her, at least initially. Even when bite marks, bruises, and other signals of physical abuse begin appearing on her body, her psychiatrist marks it up to Hysteria. But it’s not Hysteria. The attacks become bigger, and they begin to affect her family and friends. At that point, it becomes clear to almost everyone that Carla’s not crazy. Even so, she still wonders, which is likely why the film was picked to appear in this lineup.
Her psychiatrist, Dr. Phil Sneiderman (Ron Silver), breaks a whole lot of ethical boundaries in his attempts to get Carla the help he thinks she needs, and the other psychiatrists who work with him are all of the same mindset: she’s crazy, and she needs help. They believe that everyone else is enabling her psychosis by saying they saw what had happened or were injured in the attacks. I’m not entirely sure what their diagnosis of Carla’s supporters would be, but they nonetheless act as the film’s antagonists, and ones that honestly seem quite rational.
It’s a bit like One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest. You see that movie and you hate Nurse Ratchet because she is trying to enforce rules and keep everyone down, but look at it from her perspective. A crazy man comes in, riles up her (intensely disturbed) patients, and tries to subvert everything she has worked towards. Now, in the book the film is based on, Ratchet is an honestly terrible character, and one that would be hated from any perspective, but that’s not the case in the film. She is bad because she doesn’t like Randall P. McMurphy, who is really the bad guy in the whole story. See things from her perspective, and her actions make a whole lot more sense.
The same is true about The Entity. From the beginning, the audience sees that Carla isn’t crazy, and there’s no weird camera effects which would even imply that things weren’t happening the way they appeared to be. Its implausibility is immediately dismissed because the audience sees what’s going on in a way that nobody else can. But from Dr. Sneiderman’s perspective (and those of his colleagues), this is a woman who has had a clear break from reality. And it’s easy to see why. Why should anyone believe her story without actually seeing it? The marks (which Hysteria couldn’t actually cause) could have been made by another person entirely. Perhaps she was actually being raped but imagined an invisible force as opposed to a real man (a possibility none of them ever acknowledge). Delving into her past, Sneiderman finds a history of sexual abuse and enough general insight to make not-so-outrageous claims that this whole thing has come from a psychological place.
The Entity is supposedly based on events that actually occurred in 1974. Before the film’s final credits roll, text explains that the attacks against the actual woman (Doris Bither) and her family persist, even if they have subsided a bit. It’s true that Doris Bither and family believe it happened (as an interview with her son has proved), which makes the whole thing all the more interesting. That I had never heard of Doris Bither prior to watching The Entity shows that the 38 year old case isn’t the smoking gun that it could be seen as by those who believe in ghosts. Maybe Doris Bither is the psychotic one, and it’s her that this should be about, rather than the unfortunate but sane Carla Morgan.
As I said in the introduction, The Witch Who Came from the Sea is an obvious example of an exploitation film. That’s true, but I should qualify it by saying that there is probably less blood than you might expect (or want). In some ways, it could be seen as something of a character drama, and there are definitely people who claim that that is exactly what the film is. Those people are wrong, but I understand where they are coming from.
Molly (Academy Award nominee(?!?!?!?!) Millie Perkins) is a woman with a whole lot of sexual problems. Like Carla, Molly was molested by her father when she was younger. Unlike Carla, this has manifested itself in an incredibly warped view of men, sex, and basically everything. The tagline, “Molly really knows how to cut men down to size” comes across as a bizarrely humorous reference to the character’s tendency to castrate men who she finds attractive. If that isn’t psychotic, I’m not really sure what is.
Even more than its vastly inferior technical abilities, what makes The Witch Who Came from the Sea less notable than either The Mafu Cage or The Entity is the complete lack of depth that her character has. At every level of her psyche, Molly is plagued by images of her father, who she believes is a Captain who has been lost at sea for 20something years. She is sure he will come back someday, and it will be wonderful, because he is perfect and everything he did was perfect. Her sister Cathy (Vanessa Brown) knows what happened to her, but doesn’t really seem to care all that much when Molly regales her (Cathy’s) children with tales of how amazing their grandfather was. Occasionally adding “He was a bad man!” to the end of her stories doesn’t do anything to lessen the impact of Molly’s stories, and Cathy is completely aware of that. She just doesn’t seem to care very much. Throwing out one of the earlier lines that implies the sexual abuse (something to the effect of: “He was a bad man. You know that more than anyone”) means that she is nothing more than story filler, and she’s not very good at that. There’s nothing subtle about that line. The way Molly talks about her father is unnerving from the get-go, and that line simply confirms the suspicions.
That is the entirety of Molly’s character. When she yells at men about sex, or tells Cathy’s kids not to get tattoos (before getting one herself, modeled after one her father apparently had), or does anything, it’s because of what her dad did to her when she was a child. It’s an awful thing, truly awful, but that doesn’t make for an inherently sympathetic character, nor does it make for an inherently interesting character. Crazy people can be interesting, but only to a point. There’s a concept of “just crazy enough,” one that journalist/author Jon Ronson deals with in his book Them: Adventures with Extremists. It refers to the amount of insanity that people are interested in paying attention to. Just a little bit crazy is exciting. A lot bit crazy is not. Molly is a lot bit crazy, and she doesn’t have much to show for it.
That The Witch Who Came from the Sea ends with death is fitting. That it ends with a death at least partially committed by two unknowing children is even more so. The sequel to this film, following the way that murder affects the psyches of those kids, would be much more interesting to watch. That scene has more complex and interesting ramifications than anything that Molly ever had to. Hers were simple: a bad thing is happening, one that will completely destroy her life. For them, when they realize exactly what happened, it will eat away at them and make them crazy. I’m pretty sure that isn’t what director Matt Cimber or writer Robert Thom were thinking about when they finished the film, but that’s the way things go.
But they’re not women, so I’ll stop talking.
It’s an interesting trio of films to be sure. Of the three, The Entity is the only one I can recommend on its own terms. It’s a very well done film, and it has some really fascinating effects. The Mafu Cage is potentially worth seeing as well, because it definitely has some interesting things going for it, even if the overall execution is somewhat lacking. The Witch Who Came from the Sea, on the other hand, is not worth seeing ever. Ever ever ever.
I’m curious what Kier La-Janisse has to say about the films. Tomorrow night she’ll be introducing The Mafu Cage and The Entity, so I definitely think those could be worth going to (a crowd could potentially make The Mafu Cage more enjoyable, in any case). But The Witch Who Came from the Sea isn’t getting an introduction at its screening on Saturday, so I would suggest staying away from it. I’d be curious to hear the rationale, though, because it really is such an awful film.
Maybe she’s just crazy.