|Sometimes it’s not a good thing to hit a home run your first time at bat, a painful lesson writer/director George A. Romero learned after the unexpected midnight movie success of his directorial debut Night of the Living Dead (1968), which is now regularly referenced as one of the three or four most important American horror films ever made. Not wanting to be typecast as a “horror” director, he followed Night of the Living Dead with a pretentious counterculture drama called There’s Always Vanilla (1971), the production of which was rife with creative differences and a struggle for control between Romero and writer Rudolph J. Ricci.|
After that film tanked at the box office, Romero returned to the horror genre (at least tangentially) with Season of the Witch, which was shot under the working title Jack’s Wife, but was ultimately released by distributor Jack Harris with the salacious title Hungry Wives. Like Night of the Living Dead, Season of the Witch was a horror parable that struck resonant chords with the tumultuous culture of the times, except with even more blunt directness. For Romero, Season of the Witch was a feminist thriller in which the supernatural acts as a metaphor for the situation in which women currently found themselves, with the promises of second wave feminism slowly dissolving into the narcissism and shallow thrills of the ’70s.
The film’s heroine is Joan Mitchell (Jan White), a suburban housewife with a successful business executive husband (Bill Thunhurst) and an almost-grown daughter (Joedda McClain). Romero sets the stage in the film’s opening moments, in which he uses an effectively surreal dream sequence (clearly modeled on European art films) to depict Joan’s current place in life. Using simple imagery such as Joan following behind her husband through spindly tree branches that he pushes aside and allows to slap back on her or Joan being literally led on a leash and put into a dog cage, Romero establishes both the film’s political stakes and Joan’s state of mind.
As an escape from the increasing doldrums of her life, Joan becomes interested in witchcraft, which she learns a woman in her neighborhood practices. Unlike her boozy friend Shirley (Ann Muffly), Joan is not intrigued by witchcraft as another passing fad handed down to suburbia via the counterculture, but rather as a genuine religious experience, something into which she can invest her energy and emotions because both her husband and her daughter have become empty voids. It promises release, but also a sense of power and control over her life.
As the film progresses, we see Joan’s dreams shifting into fully nightmarish territory, in which she is pursed in her own home by a threatening man in a gruesomely monstrous mask. The relentlessness of these dreams and their direct threats of sexual and bodily harm suggest that Joan is not only feeling repressed and controlled (as the opening sequence dream showed), but also terrorized.
The key to Season of the Witch is that Romero never makes it completely clear whether Joan’s dabbling in witchcraft has genuine supernatural effects or whether it is all in her head (a theme he would return to in his superior 1978 film Martin). This dichotomy is laid out (a little to obviously) in a central sequence involving a cocksure young sociology professor named Gregg (Ray Laine) who tricks Shirley into thinking she’s getting high off an ordinary cigarette. It’s a cruel trick to play, but one that Gregg argues is essential to proving how the mind can convince the body of just about anything. Despite Joan’s animosity toward Gregg and his callow chauvinism (which is thinly veiled by a self-serving mantra of free love), she ends up having an affair with him, which becomes a test for her stabs at freedom and control via witchcraft.
On the level of ideas, Season of the Witch is a deeply intriguing film, one that cemented Romero’s tendency to mix ideology with horror, which gives his genre films their depth. Yet, in many ways, the film is a mess, partially because more than half of the funding was pulled out from beneath Romero after he began shooting. The film’s low budget frequently hinders it, resulting in some seedy imagery, shoddy editing, and bad dubbing that jerks the viewer out of otherwise powerful scenes. The acting is uneven throughout, with Ann Muffly’s drunken Shirley being the only fully convincing character in the film.
Yet, despite its shortcomings, Season of the Witch is an effective thriller, one that intrigues and leaves one thinking after the final reel. Romero’s visual gifts are frequently evident despite the meager budget, especially in the dream sequences; the scenes of Joan being chased through the house by the masked assailant are among his most suspenseful work. By keeping the film’s supernatural overtones ambiguous, Romero allows the story to work on multiple levels, even as his message about group conformity comes across with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer (it is not accidental that Joan is led around by a leash during her witch induction ceremony, essentially replaying the opening dream sequence). So, even though Season of the Witch is not entirely successful, it arguably ranks among Romero’s most intriguing works and functions as a useful primer for his later films.
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
Thoughts? E-mail James Kendrick
All images copyright © Anchor Bay Home Entertainment
Overall Rating: (2.5)
James Kendrick offers, exclusively on Qnetwork, over 2,500 reviews on a wide range of films. All films have a star rating and you can search in a variety of ways for the type of movie you want. If you're just looking for a good movie, then feel free to browse our library of Movie Reviews.
© 1998 - 2023 Qnetwork.com - All logos and trademarks in this site are the property of their respective owner.