Season of the Witch [DVD]
Director : George A. Romero
Screenplay : George A. Romero
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 1972
Stars : Jan White (Joan Mitchell), Ray Laine (Gregg Williamson), Ann Muffly (Shirley Randolph), Joedda McClain (Nikki Mitchell), Bill Thunhurst (Jack Mitchell), Neil Fisher (Dr. Miller), Esther Lapidus (Sylvia), Dan Mallinger (Sergeant Frazer), Daryl Montgomery (Larry), Ken Peters (John Fuller), Shirlee Strasser (Grace), Robert Trow (Detective Mills)
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.
|Season of the Witch / There’s Always Vanilla DVD|
|This double-sided DVD contains two complete features, Season of the Witch and There’s Always Vanilla.|
|Audio||English Dolby Digital 1.0 Monaural|
|Distributor||Anchor Bay Entertainment|
|Release Date||October 18, 2005|
|It’s always a bad sign when a DVD begins with a disclaimer that the elements used for the transfer are not up to the usual standards, but at least Anchor Bay should be given points for honesty (albeit honesty that is apparent only after the disc has been purchased and inserted into a DVD player). |
Both Season of the Witch and There’s Always Vanilla were clearly transferred from subpar materials, but given their difficult histories and many years out of circulation, this shouldn’t come as too much of a surprise. Both films are presented in widescreen (1.85:1), although the box incorrectly cites them as being anamorphically enhanced, which they’re not. However, in this case, the matted widescreen is a detriment because both films were clearly shot with an intended projection aspect ratio of 1.33:1, and the black bars on the top and bottom of the screen make the compositions cramped and unwieldy (note, for example, the conversation in the car between Joan and Shirley in which Shirley’s mouth is repeatedly cut from the bottom of the frame when she’s talking).
Season of the Witch is actually the worse-looking of the two films. The original source for the transfer was clearly a worn 16mm print that is replete with dirt, scratches, and a few hair lines, but the DVD transfer looks as if it were taken from a video source, rather than the actual film elements. The image is extremely soft, which cuts out all fine detail and renders many of the shots muddy and difficult to look at. Colors look washed out throughout the film. There’s Always Vanilla looks slightly better, with a sharper, cleaner image that has significantly more detail and much stronger colors. Like Season of the Witch, though, the source print is in need of repair.
|Like the image quality, the sonic quality of the monaural soundtracks on both films is definitely subpar. There’s Always Vanilla comes out a little bit better, as Season of the Witch’s soundtrack is marred by substantial ambient hiss and more than a few dropouts (some of which appear to be the result of lousy sound editing, not necessarily the transfer).|
|If the image and audio quality of the films on this disc are resolutely disappointing, the supplements are quite good. First up is “The Secret Life of Jack’s Wife,” a new interview with Season of the Witch star Jan White, who talks about her experience making the film and her subsequent acting career, or lack thereof. The Directors: George Romero is an hour-long American Film Institute documentary about Romero’s career. It is a nice overview of his major films, featuring interviews with Romero and a couple of actors with whom he’s worked (including Ed Harris, Stanley Tucci, Adrienne Barbeau, and Hal Holbrook), although Romero fans won’t learn anything new, especially about the two films included on this disc, which are completely brushed over. However, they are given their due in the featurette “Digging Up The Dead: The ‘Lost’ Films of George A. Romero,” which is an extended interview with Romero about There’s Always Vanilla (which he almost completely dismisses) and Season of the Witch (which he admires and would like to remake someday). Finally, there is a series of trailers: one for There’s Always Vanilla and two for Season of the Witch, one for the film under that title when it was released after the success of Dawn of the Dead in 1978 and one under the salacious title Hungry Wives (the latter of the two trailers is really funny in the way it tries to make the film look like soft-core porn). Also included is the original Jack’s Wife credit sequence and a biography for George A. Romero.|
Copyright ©2005 James Kendrick
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