There are few things in cinema as depressing as an artist reaching outside of their comfort zone and failing to connect, but here’s one: when an artist reaches outside of their comfort zone, succeeds brilliantly, and watches their work die on the vine anyway. Such is the story of George A. Romero’s Season of the Witch, now streaming on the Criterion Channel as part of their “’70s Horror” program.
It was Romero’s second follow-up to Night of the Living Dead, following the misbegotten 1971 romantic comedy There’s Always Vanilla, and it was another attempt to expand his stylistic reach. Though dealing in elements of the occult, and featuring a handful of genuinely frightening sequences, Witch is much more of a psychological drama than a horror picture. But the box Romero had already been placed in, coupled with a comically inaccurate initial release and ad campaign, rendered the film dead on arrival, and it has only recently begun its public rehabilitation.
Jan White stars as Joan Mitchell, mother of a 19-year-old daughter (Joedda McCalin) and wife of businessman Jack (Bill Thunhurst). We first meet her in a dream, a broad-daylight walk in the woods that descends into an assemblage of nightmare imagery: sharp branches cut her face, an abandoned baby cries for attention, an adult woman clad in white sits on a child’s swing, a telephone rings relentlessly. The audio is off-putting (sound effects run backwards), and Romero – who shot and edited the film himself – uses unsteady wide-angle lenses to discombobulate the viewer.
The dream ends with Jack swatting his wife with a newspaper, putting her on a leash, taking her out of the car, and leading her into a kennel (“I’ll be gone about a week”). As symbolism, this isn’t subtle, but it lays out the aims of the picture quickly and plainly. It’s a film about women’s liberation, about that key moment in the 1970s when women were asking if there was, perhaps, more to life than keeping the home and caring for the children. Some women were asking louder than others.
A critic friend recently called Season of the Witch “The Ice Storm with witches,” and I can’t think of a more accurate assessment. It’s firmly steeped in the mood and aesthetics of the domestic ‘70s: navel-gazing conversations, heavy boozing, generation-gap contemplation, and tarot card readings, all while decked out in some truly incredible patterned dresses and pantsuits.
But those are just the surfaces. Joan can’t get out of her own head, cursed as she is by visions of herself as old or dead, miserable as she is made by her dissatisfaction with herself – with her body, her marriage, her life. She visits a therapist (true to the period, he puffs thoughtfully on an ornate pipe), confessing, “I’m worried about what’s happening to me” before breaking down crying. Is it any wonder she turns to witchcraft?
The w-word first appears at one of those may-as-well-be-a-key parties, as the various “Goodfellas”-style housewives laugh and joke (an absent friend “must be out dancing at the moon”). But it plants an idea in Joan’s head, sewn by the convenient appearance of a book titled “TO BE A WITCH: A PRIMER,” which she finds in her home late one night while overhearing her daughter having enthusiastic sex with a classmate. The nightmares get worse; Joan keeps imagining herself being stalked in her home, attacked, assaulted. Her husband is unsympathetic; “What the hell are you doing??” he demands, when her clawing and screaming awakens him. So she starts reading the book, and that’s when things really get interesting.
Romero’s original conception of the picture was small and personal; he shot it with a low budget ($100,000, less than even Night of the Living Dead) as an independent production, originally running a leisurely 130 minutes. Unfortunately, the only buyer was exploitation producer Jack H. Harris, who slashed it down to 89 minutes and released it under the leering title Hungry Wives – a title it still bears on the Criterion Channel, so don’t be confused. The accompanying posters and ads were wildly inaccurate, promoting the picture as winking softcore.
So Romero was set up to fail; there’s little onscreen sex or violence, which means that viewers drawn either by the ad campaign or his hit debut film were going to be disappointed. Even the New York Times’ Vincent Canby complained that it “has the seedy look of a porn film but without any pornographic action. Everything in it, from the actors to the props, looks borrowed and badly used.”
That “badly used” quality is, of course, part of the picture’s greatness – and perhaps why it required the passage of decades for full appreciation. It feels precisely of its moment, not just for the fab ‘fits, big hair, and gaudy interior design, but because it’s grappling with gender roles and an uneasily shifting society. Joan becomes a witch primarily as a means with which to take control of her life, embracing the power of the divine feminine, and though the word “feminism” (and the ideas therein) isn’t explicitly used in Romero’s screenplay, it’s clear that he’s using witchcraft as a stand-in.
That same subtext is running through several of these ‘70s horror films, from both male and female creators, and it’s important to place those works in the proper historical context: the Equal Rights Amendment was approved by the House in 1971 and the Senate in 1972, when it began rolling out to state legislatures for approval. Sexual equality was (it seemed) about to become the law of the land, and some of these films (including this one) have the unmistakable whiff of fear, that female independence equals the end of subservience. “They all win in the end, they get it all from us, they get everything,” muses the off-screen voice at the film’s end, as the dead body lays on the yard. Romero’s original title is telling: Jack’s Wife, the person she is (and, it seems, all she is) when the story begins. By its end, she is much, much more.
“Season of the Witch” is available on Blu-ray from Arrow Video and is streaming on The Criterion Channel.