Thursday, 15 October 2020

Season of the Witch (George A. Romero, 1972) Blu-Ray Review...

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“I thought you were intrigued by it when you were so afraid. Being afraid is necessary to believing.” While it came as a commercial disappointment, the second in as many years for George A. Romero (following on from 1971's There's Always Vanilla), his 1972 film Season of the Witch proves to be an intriguing companion piece to its predecessor. Amidst the fervour of social change that was sweeping America at the time (particularly the campaign for the Equal Rights Amendment), Season of the Witch peeks behind the white picket fences of suburbia to witness one housewife's attempt to escape her mid-life malaise – through Witchcraft...

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“Oh, you've never wanted the etcetera. Well, maybe this time. You've really got to get on with it, Mrs Mitchell – it's later than you think and all that.” While There's Always Vanilla – Romero's attempt at, ostensibly, a romcom – placed the audience in the point of view of America's youth, it did show a glimpse of the generational divide between Lynn Harris (Judith Ridley) and her embittered mother, worn down by her lost prime and lack of autonomy. With Season of the Witch, however, Romero pivoted to put the audience in the POV of America's middle-aged and middle class housewives. Opening in the midst of a surreal dream – populated by spring flowers blooming underneath barren trees, a lone baby crawling in the dirt, and the haunting sound of a ticking clock – we find Joan Mitchell (Jan White) trailing, almost in a trance, in the wake of her oblivious husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst) who marches forth reading a newspaper while allowing the tree branches to snap back and cut his wife's face. The dream appears to climax with Jan being leashed and caged by Jack – like a dog being left behind by its holidaying owners – before moving into a more normal scene, until it becomes evident that we're still trapped in the surreal landscape of Jan's unconscious mind.

A real estate agent guides Jan through her own home and life – replete with grown daughter Nikki (Joedda McClain), gaggle of card-playing friends and fellow housewives, and a vision of her own grey and wrinkled decay – before, finally, we wake into reality. But what kind of reality is that? It's the traditional husband who is always absent due to work, the carefree daughter entering adulthood and newly unearthed opportunities, and Jan – the silent wife trapped within the walls of suburbia, who only utters something vaguely nearing the truth with her (male and coldly analytical) therapist. For Joan, whose days consist of fulfilling lists of household chores, there is no life in her life – and, in the words of her therapist, which ultimately may be more accurate than his disconnected tone suggests – the only one imprisoning Joan is Joan.

“Good God, Joanie – you're a Catholic, sweetie. Isn't academic thought just as bad as doing it for you people?” That is until Joan begins to experience a re-awakening. The first glimmer comes when her own daughter remarks, with some surprise, that Joan is still a beautiful woman. The casual comment from Nikki later inspires Joan to strip in front of the bedroom mirror and indulge in 'academic thoughts' about having an affair. However, her journey of self-discovery really begins to unfold once she and BFF Shirley visit a practising witch who gives them a Tarot card reading. For Shirley – several years Joan's senior – it's a bit of a lark, a 'kick', the 'in' thing for the WASP set, but for Joan it represents a door to a fascinating new world, despite her continued struggle to really address what is driving her current woes.

They wind up getting drunk with Joan's daughter Nikki, and Gregg (Raymond Laine), a professor at the local college, whose confrontational topics of conversation (and square-rattling language) prove challenging to Joan. On the one hand Gregg is a bit of a prick, preferring to poke and prod people than relate to them politely, but on the other hand Joan's back-and-forth with him helps facilitate her broadening ideas of what she needs and what she wants. When Gregg cons Shirley into believing a regular cigarette is grass (back when smoking weed was a political act of cultural transgression), her resultant freak-out unveils a buried and heartbreaking truth. Shirley, pushed to confess, cries out “I'm not finished yet!” before weeping. For Gregg it's an academic experiment gone awry, but for Joan it's a bombshell. Humiliated by the ordeal, Shirley is driven home by Joan who witnesses the sad sight of her friend unhappily trudging up the garden path to a disappointed husband. She may be older than Joan, but Shirley's life – one of grief over her long lost prime, over the now distant chances of a romantic love affair, over anything that could erase her present circumstances – is what's waiting for Joan if she doesn't do something drastic.

“I honestly think that everyone underneath their prejudices knows that there's something out there that we haven't got the power to define.” In the permissive times of the 1970s, when seemingly anything and everything was being tried and tested in the search for mind expansion and personal growth, Witchcraft was no longer some arcane obscurity – it was accessible by mail order and could be paid for with a Mastercard (a hint at Romero's barbed view of commercialism). But does Joan know what she's letting herself in for? Are there nefarious forces at work looking to tear apart her family unit? Is it real? Is it all in her head? Whatever is happening, change is certainly afoot in the Mitchell household and Joan is going to grasp onto it with both hands.

“Truth is something very difficult to live with and because of this we spend a great deal of our time covering it – but truth will out, and we dream.” Season of the Witch is as much about mid-life crises as it is about a woman's place in the 1970s – both things of prominent concern to Joan, who is performed with layers of deceptively subtle complexity by Jan White. The film was directed, written, shot, and edited by Romero (whose then-wife Nancy produced, and had input on the screenplay), and he explores some ideas which are all the more intriguing given the director's own Catholic background (something which echoed throughout his other work, particularly in films like Martin). Joan's surreal dreams eventually transform into a recurring nightmare about a home invasion, which demonstrates Romero's proficiency with clearly crafted shots and fast-paced editing, while glimpses of acerbic humour elsewhere – more so in the 104 minute extended cut – reveal a sardonic seam in Romero's satirical world view. There are numerous sequences which draw the viewer in with subtle layers, too, such as when Joan is forced to sneak up to her bedroom (like a teen coming home after curfew) while her daughter enjoys free love with Gregg. Another particularly well-crafted sequence shows Joan practising Witchcraft in secret, performing a ritual under the moonlight amidst the illuminated windows of suburban houses, before scurrying indoors to hide away her new life before smudging fireplace soot on her forehead because it's Ash Wednesday. It's a sly and delicious dig at the rituals of established religion, while Romero's opinion of Witchcraft – especially in the well-moisturised hands of America's middle class – remains ambivalent. He shows it as both a channel of liberation as well as pre-packaged hokum for a woman who, finally, is daring to make her own choices. To what degree are supernatural forces answerable for Joan's rediscovery of self? Is it actually all down to her simply having the courage to choose? Is her growing fear of Witchcraft's power actually looming anxiety over personal freedom? And, considering the mixed fortunes of the final few scenes of the film, how successful has it all been and who – or what – is ultimately responsible for what has transpired?

“Do I detect a note of middle class morality?” As previously mentioned, Season of the Witch builds upon There's Always Vanilla in examining the generational schism between the women of the 1970s: the young women entering adulthood on one side of the divide, and their mothers, who were born early enough to witness major change but too late to really benefit from it, on the other side. The film suffered from a botched release, which saw the original (and more fitting) shooting title of Jack's Wife replaced with Hungry Wives (the campaign mis-sold the film as a softcore porno) before it was re-titled once again, after the release of 1978's Dawn of the Dead, as Season of the Witch. It's a real shame the release was mishandled, because Romero's third film had its finger right on the pulse of the times. Originally released in 1972, this coincided with the push for the Equal Rights Amendment to the United States Constitution. It had existed in one form or another since the 1920s, but in the early 1970s – and riding the momentum of the previous decade's Civil Rights movements – the ERA was on course for implementation. Until, that is, Phyllis Schafly turned up with her anti-ERA campaign group, raised various concerns (including alimony rights, and the threat of female conscription into the military after several nightmarish years in Vietnam), and seized upon generations of housewives who felt 'left behind' by some of the cosmopolitan women driving the ERA movement. Rightly or wrongly, some of the housewives who followed in Schafly's wake felt like the new generation of women were dismissing them as lesser beings - indeed, a hint of this can be glimpsed in the subtext of this film. Incredibly, the ERA failed to pass the Senate, and despite continued campaigning over the last five decades, it still has yet to pass into law.

Against this backdrop, Joan's emergence from her claustrophobic and limited existence into a world of self-determination, as well as personal and sexual emancipation, makes Season of the Witch one of Romero's most contemporary films. Still today there are some correlations to be made, but now it best serves – like There's Always Vanilla – as a time capsule, a reminder, of how things once were many moons ago (and, perhaps, where they could revert to without proper care). It stands as a glimpse into the past as well as a barometer by which to measure decades of progress and changing socio-political attitudes. Aside from the political undertones of the film, however, Season of the Witch also demonstrates Romero's developing skills, broader ideas, and general outlook as an independent filmmaker during the New Hollywood era (albeit far away in Pennsylvania). When I originally saw it as a teenager, consumed with my adoration for Romero's best-known film Dawn of the Dead, I didn't much care for Season of the Witch, but all these years later I've found an awful lot to like about it.

“I feel it – someone's Voodooing me.” Arrow Video's 2017 Blu-Ray presents the film in two versions – the 90 minute theatrical cut (remastered from the original camera negative), and the 104 minute extended cut (the additional footage could only be imported from a scruffier standard definition source). Not everything in those extra 14 minutes are strictly necessary, but there are numerous scene extensions which do add a little extra depth, or even some satirical side swipes that are quite pleasing. Extras wise, there's a commentary by Travis Crawford, an hour long chat between Romero and fellow film-maker Guillermo del Toro, as well as an archive interview with Jan White, alternative opening credits, trailers, and image galleries.

N.B. Screenshots were captured from the DVD copy of the film.

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