Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Cult Oddities: Season of the Witch (1972)

...or "Desperate Pagan Housewives"

Season of the Witch (aka Hungry Wives) is like George A. Romero's cinematic stepdaughter. She's not the prettiest in the bunch, she's gone largely ignored, and her father has barely a kind word to say about her. Certainly her zombie brothers have stolen the thunder in Romero's long genre career, but that's not entirely surprising after watching this hard-to-find early effort. It's stilted, stylistically awkward, and oftentimes distancing. That said, some of this seems very much intentional, and it does remind us of what was so brilliant about seventies horror. Even when they were at a questionable level of quality or content, there was always something substantial brewing beneath the surface.

The plot here concerns a housewife, Joan Mitchell, who tires of mundane social connections, her wayward daughter and dismissive husband. What does she have to turn to other than alcoholism or the dark arts? Her suburban malaise morphs into magic and murder, but then Joan's never been very good at baking or the PTA.

Romero's films are always tinged with social commentary, and in keeping, Season of the Witch marks his first foray into post-feminism mixed with his usual stabs at middle-America. Many of these digs come about in the disorienting dreams of Joan -- the film's best cinematic highlight. Joan's fantasies begin to meld with disturbing reoccurring nightmares of a home invasion, in which a masked man traps Joan inside and violates her. Joan seems pathetically lustful for sexual encounters, even working herself into a frenzy during her daughter's forays in the next bedroom. But these particular dreams seem at odds with that -- she genuinely fears them. It's no coincidence then that soon the terrifying invader crosses with the reality of Joan's husband returning home. Joan's nightmare IS her reality.

The way that witchcraft involves itself is what makes the film unique, and also what makes it a bit of a mess. It's exactly that supernatural angle with which the film struggles. Not the least of which is a humorous montage set to Donovan's title-track "Season of the Witch," which seems to be invoking Joan's escape from suburban hell via an urban occult shopping spree. Her dabbling in the craft becomes almost a secondhand joke, but perhaps even that's intentional. She takes it up like someone would take up knitting. Joan doesn't know what she's doing but becomes completely invested in it -- too much so. It ultimately just magnifies her desperation. Clearly the woman's in need of something when THIS guy causes her radical sexual awakening...

Romero's said before that Season of the Witch is the one film of his he would consider remaking, and given the flat performances and sometimes dodgy direction, it wouldn't be the worst idea. It's time to reunite with your stepdaughter, George. The devil knows there's a wealth of wit hidden under that patchouli haze.


Pax Romano said...

I love this movie, warts and all.

While much of it is a mess, it has so much good going for it (including the fabulous early 70's fashions!!!).

No, seriously, I loved the somewhat convoluted plot and the fact that someone known for horror films would want to tackle a story that is so anti-male.

Adam said...

It's totally valuable in its own right. A worthwhile mess, certainly. I was drawn in by the bizarre dreams and thesis, as well as the sheer blandness of the acting. I can totally see loving it. It's questionable bits lend themselves to the charm.