GEORGE ROMERO TRIBUTE: Season of the Witch (1973)

The more you get into exploitation films, the more you get used to the same movie being released under many different names. Like this film, which started as Jack’s Wife, was retitled and recast as a soft core porn movie called Hungry Wives, then became Season of the Witch after the success of Dawn of the Dead, then became a lost film for around thirty years.

This is nearly an auteur film for George Romero, acting as director, editor, cinematographer and screenwriter (with his wife producing). Inspired by the occult and feminism, two major movements of the early 70s that play nicely together, the film was shot with a small crew for $100,000 (originally budgeted for a quarter million).

The film had issues finding distribution, with several of them demanding hard core scenes. Jack H. Harris (producer of The BlobEquinoxEyes of Laura Mars and Dark Star) finally distributed it as Hungry Wives, cutting nearly 41 minutes from the films running time (the version on the Anchor Bay DVD is still missing 26 minutes, which are presumably lost forever as the original film negative and director’s cut are thought to be gone forever).

The film has the feel of pornography with none of the payoff, something noticed by critics. Others consider it a film that’s unsure of its approach — indeed, how do you follow up a film like Night of the Living Dead which totally nails it and reinvents the horror genre without doing more horror? Romero’s efforts in this period feel like avoidance — yet knowing that the grave (slumming it in the horror genre) beckons.

Joan Mitchell is Jack’s wife, introduced to us as walking through the woods that look eerily similar to the Evans City gravesite that opens Night of the Living Dead. Together, they live in the Forest Hills suburb of Pittsburgh (this movie is so yinzer that it thanks Foodland in the opening credits) with Nikki, their 19-year-old daughter. Much like many of the characters of Romero, they’re Catholic and find their faith ill equipped for the changes that the end of the 20th century brings to them.

Jack is pretty much an asshole — perhaps the man that Chris Bradley of There’s Always Vanilla would grow up to become. He’s always too busy, too demanding and too rough before leaving for weeks at a time. He keeps saying that he needs to kick someone’s ass before he chooses Joan, striking her. Even in therapy, all she can talk about is Jack and how he makes her feel.

Joan and her friends — presented in the opening introduction as “people who will help you think what you should” meet Marion Hamilton, a new neighbor who practices witchcraft and reads the tarot. It’s worth noting that the early 70s were a rebirth of occultism unseen since the period of Madame Blavatsky and spiritualism at the close of the previous century (to be followed by Crowley, Cayce and more — obviously different off-shoots but other ways that the public experienced and knew of the occult). Indeed, while there was plenty of magic and magick in the air pre and post WW II, it wouldn’t be embraced by the popular culture until Louis Pauwels and Jacques Bergier 1960 book The Morning of the Magicians. This book — translated into English in 1963 — predates the New Age and its associated concepts.

Returning home from a tarot reading, Joan and her friend Shirley meet Gregg (Raymond Laine, the star of the aforementioned Vanilla), a student teacher with whom daughter Nikki sleeps with. They have a rambling discussion of ESP and the supernatural, during which Gregg convinces Shirley that she’s smoked pot. Joan throws him out of her house, but not before he makes a pass at her. If you loved the rambling conversations of Vanilla, well…have I got a scene for you. If you ever wanted to see a total Pittsburgh mom experience weed for the first time, well, this is the movie for you. And if you’re looking for overacting, well…again, this is the movie for you, thanks to this scene.

Joan takes her friend home, returning home to the sounds of Nikki and Gregg having sex. She gets turned on (not in the drug reference sense, as the word choice was used in the previous scene) and masturbates in her room until her daughter walks in on her. This follows the conventions of pornography without any of the payoff — the only reaction is anger here. Nikki runs away and Jack leaves — Joan is all alone. More alone than she’s been in awhile.

This leads to her buying a book about witchcraft and creating a spell that makes Gregg fall for her — although we’ve already set up that he was into her. Their affair is juxtaposed with nightmares in which she is attacked by a man in a mask. She keeps learning more about witchcraft and finally breaks things off with Gregg, just in time for her daughter to come home.

The nightmares grow in frequency and fervor until one of them leads Joan to killing a man she believes has broken into her house — which ends up being her husband. She’s cleared of his death, but it’s up to the individual to decide whether or not she intended to murder him. She’s initiated into Marion’s coven — a scene which is more camp than realistic — at which point she announces that she is a witch.

As you may have gathered, the film is pretty much a mess. Supposedly half the shot footage ended up on the cutting room floor. And of all his films, it’s the one that Romero — on the 2002 commentary for The Crazies — said that he’d like to remake. That said — in spite of its budget — the film was able to get the rights to the Donovan song for which it is named. And there’s an idea in here. It’s a step back toward the horror genre without going the whole way back in. Indeed, it’s a half step between a genre film and There’s Always Vanilla, but an unsatisfying step.

Next, Romero goes back to what worked before — a rampaging crowd of creatures terrorizing small Pennsylvanian townspeople — with The Crazies. Will he find the financial and artistic success that has eluded him with his last two efforts?

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