The world of horror is vast. With so many films across the spectrum of budget, studio involvement, quality, availability, and, above all else, pure scare-the-living-shit-out-of-you-ness, it helps to have trained professionals parse through some of the older and/or lesser-known offerings. That's where Team Fangrrls comes in with Deep Cuts, our series dedicated to bringing the hidden gems of horror out of the vault and into your nightmares. Today, we're examining George Romero's occult horror drama Season of the Witch.
Night of the Living Dead is now considered by many to be the greatest horror film of all time, but when it was released in 1968 the world had never seen anything like it. The sheer violence of the movie, implied or otherwise, shocked audiences, leading to a critic at Variety dubbing it an “unrelieved orgy of sadism.” Bizarrely, Romero's next move was to create what might qualify as one of the most genuinely bad romantic comedies ever made: There's Always Vanilla. His next film after that, initially titled Jack's Wife, was widely considered a failure due to behind-the-scenes issues, and never properly released.
Having researched witchcraft for another film and learned of the women's liberation movement while working in television earlier in the '60s, George Romero penned the pseudo-feminist Jack's Wife to represent a combination of the two themes, basing the story around an unhappy housewife named Joan. Initially given a $250,000 budget, producers later cut that sum to $100,000. The studio requested that Romero make the sex scenes more pornographic, but Romero refused, insisting that to do so would miss the point of the film and therefore change the intended genre and audience. The end result was a film that was cut into little bits in the editing room and re-released as Hungry Wives! in 1973.
Marketed as softcore porn while the film in truth held zero pornographic content, the movie failed—and wasn't released until years later, after the success of Romero's work of the late '70s, featuring a completely different cut titled Season of the Witch. Tragically, both Hungry Wives! and Romero's original cut have since been lost. Among Romero's many scripts, he always cited Jack's Wife as his favorite, and, late into his life, spoke of a possible remake. Although that remake never came to be, the themes of alienation and a certain suburban brand of horror continued on in other films of his such as Martin, about a young man convinced he is a vampire.
Fans of Romero's Night of the Living Dead will recall the opening of that movie, in which characters tread down an otherwise deserted, lightly forested road. Season of the Witch begins in a similar manner, with Joan, a dissatisfied housewife from the suburbs, wandering a deserted road while having an extended dream sequence full of metaphors about her life. She gets caught in some branches, her husband puts a collar on her and pushes her into a cage, and she looks in the mirror and sees herself aged by several decades. The strange editing on this film is immediately apparent as we cut, with very little warning, to a party for married couples that Joan and her friend Shirley are attending. In no time at all, another frightening, symbolic dream sequence occurs in which we discover some of Joan's anxieties about her daughter, Nikki, who is both beautiful and intelligent, while she herself is aging and feeling increasingly obsolete.
Later, Shirley takes Joan to a tarot reading with a self-described witch named Marion they had been speaking about at the party before. Marion gives Shirley her tarot reading, then they all sit in her living room drinking tea as she explains her art. Joan initially seems disinterested, but her eyes gravitate towards the symbolic artifacts scattered about the room.
Joan continues to be tormented by her dreams, and the aimlessness of her life, but becomes ever more adept with magic after purchasing a book about witchcraft and using it to conjure a spell to make Nikki's boyfriend Gregg fall in love with her. Her uneven emotional state and angst from her nightmares eventually come to a boiling point when her husband strikes her. Joan's response is equally violent, and she fires a gun at Jack. Whether her actions are purposeful or accidental, either way she's eventually acquitted of her husband's murder. Later on, Joan is initiated into a witch coven, but the world around her still fails to recognize the power within her, so it's a bit of a mixed bag.
The eye makeup in general is all the colors of the rainbow, and grows increasingly brighter throughout the movie. Meanwhile, the entire wardrobe is pretty on point, dressing middle-aged women of the '70s to an absolute T. If anything stands out, though, it's the blue-gold-orange-silver-red-black-gray color scheme around each character's eyes.
With the character of Gregg, Romero really nails the trope of men that used the hippie movement and knowledge of trends of the time to influence women into sleeping with them. He is cringeworthy from beginning to end, from the detail that he's a professor that picks up his students to his unending monologue about sexual liberation. As has been pointed out in many texts, sexual liberation for women usually involved a great deal more social responsibility than it demanded from men. Gregg is insufferable, but he does get his comeuppance in the fact that an empowered Joan views him as more or less disposable. While the movie had way too much Gregg in it for my tastes, I do wish it had given more screen time to Joan's friend Shirley. Once her usefulness to Joan is finished, she exits the film, and we see nothing more of her. The overall driving point that women are oppressed doesn't come off better by leaving the most subjugated woman in the film in limbo.
This movie, despite being highly enjoyable, is definitely rooted in a male's vision of feminism, and there are some problems. Even reviews of this cut of the film often assert that the final scene, with people continuing to refer to Joan as “Jack's wife” rather than by her own name, shows a certain futility in trying to escape one's suburban hell. On the other hand, Joan not only escaped her husband but also put Gregg in his place and found something to believe in along the way. The film only passes the Bechdel Test by a hair, and her female relationships are mostly unresolved. Still, Joan does have her sexual reawakening, and she does ultimately find a sense of community among a particularly stylish witch's coven, so this movie has a relatively happy ending.