Saturday, 10 October 2015

No.72 - George Romero - Part II: SEASON OF THE WITCH (1973)


(Anchor Bay DVD special edition)

After the huge success of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, George Romero was keen to show he wasn’t just a writer/director of gory horror films. His follow-on, the ‘romantic comedy’ THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA sank without trace, disparaged by Romero due to problems with undercommitted funding by wayward backers and distributors. Together with his wife Nancy as producer, he then made a film that dealt with witchcraft in modern-day suburbia and and also, unusually for this genre,  placed great emphasis and sympathy with female characters and the fuflfillment of their needs. In fact, it was pointedly Romero’s take on women’s liberation, very much a new hot topic in the zeitgeist then. This was to be a double-edged sword -  yielding artistic satisfaction but frustratingly to no avail at the box office.

Joan ‘Joanie’ Mitchell (no relation to the singer) played with commitment by Jan White is a bored suburban housewife who finds herself plagued with disturbing dreams filled with hallucinatory symbolic images: her domineering husband Jack abusing her, a lone baby in a field (a reference to her deceased child, unexplained in the script) and others more inexplicable. She goes to see a therapist who muses while sucking his Meerschaum pipe that “The least qualified to understand a dream…is the dreamer”.

Clearly, that was why she was seeing him but since he isn’t going to make himself useful, Joan must seek solace elsewhere. She is intrigued to discover there is a witch, Marion,  living in the neighbourhood so she and her friend Shirley go over and receive a Tarot reading. Later they return to Joan’s house and she meets Greg, a student teacher who is sleeping with Nikki, Joan’s daughter. Gregg has a dark secretive air about him which initially repels Joan. This is heightened when he cruelly tries an experiment on Shirley to trick her into believing he has given her pot instead of a regular cigarette. This is an interesting and vaguely unsettling scene as Shirley appears to veer from blissed-out to freaked-out, all entirely from auto-suggestion of what she images such forbidden  psychoactoive substances to do to her. Joan rids the house of Gregg, but after taking the hugely embarrassed Shirley home, she returns to hear Gregg and Nikki having sex. This awakens Joan’s own sexual frustration and she touches herself alone in her room.

After Jack goes off on a business trip, Joan’s loneliness compels her to activate her interest in witchcraft. She goes to a shop to buy herbs, books and other spell tools and creates a spell that attracts Gregg to her so they begin an affair.”You’re not bad in the sack” he tells her. Fortunately his physicality seems to console her more than his verbalisms. Her daughter Nikki goes missing but is then reportedly found by the police. She cuts off her affair with Gregg.

Gradually, Joan’s increasing absorption into the occult manifests nightmares involving a masked intruder in black who attacks her at home, dredging up her vulnerabilities to the fore. The night Jack returns, in a shock scene reminiscent of the ending of NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD, Joan blasts him to death with a shotgun. It seems accidental as he is not clearly seen, but this motivation is clouded as she willingly joins her friend’s coven in a ritual after she is acquitted of blame and at a later party she states simply and enigmatically to a friend that she is a witch.  She smiles with inner contentment for the first time as the film ends…

SEASON OF THE WITCH is certainly a worthy exploration within the field of a welcome, rare female-centric plot. The women not only outnumber the men, but their issues of role fulfillment and relationships with self-centred men are the main focus instead of merely being passive victims or flamboyant monsters. What it lacks for me is the payoff of what appears to be the promise of sex mixed with the occult. There is the tasteful suggestion of both but little that is graphic enough to hold continual interest, so what we’re left with is neither a domestic drama exactly nor a horror movie but something falling and failing between the two.

The circumstances of the making and release seem to have been largely responsible for the uncertainty of the film’s tone. The original script, called JACK’S WIFE, was off-putting to Jan White when she was first offered it. “ There were all these nude scenes in it. I really don’t wanna do a porno.” She told the Romeros. George assured her that it was only written so explicitly to gain the funding. He and Nancy were so keen on White, a local ex-soap opera actress, that they agreed to get her a body-double on the days requiring nudity. As it turned out, she became so comfortable during the actual shoot that she said she would have done the scenes herself but didn’t feel brave enough to voice changing her mind on-set. 

White also mentioned some spooky phenomena during the shoot which she attributed to the occult nature of the film, despite unusual events always being a possibility by law of averages in a creative environment of many people over time. The most interesting one concerns the scene in which she writes the Lord’s Prayer backwards. This had to be shot multiple times as the first two or three versions were sent to the lab for processing and each time failed to show up on the print.

The 30th anniversary reissue by Anchor Bay on DVD is a print that is slightly grainy yet the colour scheme really pops, distracting so much that at times it almost looks like a black and white film that’s been slightly tackily colourised. The attention deficit caused by the lack of driving action caused me to be inadvertently side-tracked by the lurid blue and red couch, not to mention the oddly jarring blues, greens and purples of the women’s clothes. To be fair, the period seems not to have been a high-point for such things; the ladies at times visually resemble the trashy 1970s’ mistresses satirised by Scorcese in GOODFELLAS.

The taint of ‘adult porn entertainment’ lasted through the planned original release  as the title was swapped from JACK’S WIFE to the more misleadingly exploitative HUNGRY WIVES on its first run. Eventually it became SEASON OF THE WITCH which also referred to the titular groovy Donovan song used in the film. Producer Jack Harris also turned a deaf ear to Jan White’s plea to put Romero’s name above the title to capitalise on his international reputation in horror earned by NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD. Sadly, this meant that the new film’s attempt at mature progressive themes within the genre never earned an audience. This is not to denigrate or patronise the risk that Romero willingly took as a maverick operating outside the system. He later felt that like THERE’S ALWAYS VANILLA, he was severely hampered before the release of this film by money men jumping ship part-way through the process. However, he would be on surer tonal ground wth his next pure horror movie – THE CRAZIES….

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