Saturday, October 22, 2011

Dawn of the Desperate Housewives: An Appreciation of George A. Romero's Season of the Witch

An Irishman named Dan Walsh is a fan of the Garfield comic strip, the one about the ravenously hungry feline title character and his owner, Jon.  But Mr. Walsh believes that “Garfield” is really about . . . Jon. 

So he has digitally removed Garfield from the strips, leaving only Jon’s straight-man responses.  Amazingly, this has been done with “Garfield” creator Jim Davis’s after-the-fact blessing.  (Reader, don’t you dare look at without coming back here right afterwards!)

Well, I’m probably as big a fan of George A. Romero’s zombie films as Dan Walsh is of Jim Davis’s Garfield.  So, I decided to rent the DVD of one of l’enfant terrible du Pittsburgh’s earliest films.

It is Romero minus zombies.

The film is called Season of the Witch (well, actually, it wasn’t called that, but I’m getting ahead of myself.)  Like most of Romero’s early films, the actors were drawn from Pennsylvania and the film was shot there.  The names Jan White, Ray Laine, Virginia Greenwald, and Ann Muffly are surely not ones to conjure with.  They’re okay performers, but no unsung Robert DeNiro or Meryl Streep will be rediscovered here.

The DVD begins (unpromisingly) with a disclaimer from the releasing company, Anchor Bay, saying that the available prints that were used to make the disc are not up to their usual standards.  And the print is indeed faded.

Unknown actors.  Bleached color print.  Low budget.  Imperfect film.

What’s to like?

A lot, actually.  For those who are fans of George Romero, it shows him working with similar tropes as in his horror films in a non-supernatural context.

(At the moment, the entire film is available for free on YouTube from Anchor Bay, on the above link.)

Plot: A 1970s housewife (Jan White) lives a bored, empty existence.  Her husband is a workaholic who seems to always be rushing out the door with his briefcase.  Her college-age daughter is spoiled and rebellious.  Whether these characters and this situation are stereotypes or archetypes depends, I guess, on your mood.

Romero (who, as I noted in a previous post is nothing if not political) heaps on the feminist allegory.  The opening dream sequence shows the wife (named “Joan Mitchell” at a time when singer Joni Mitchell was on the top of the charts!) being led around by a dog collar by her husband, then put in a kennel. 

Then it gets strange.

Actress Jan White has grave, staring eyes.  (At least in the movie.  A DVD extra shows a 2005 interview in which those eyes sparkle; when one sees the “real” her, one realizes her acting talent).  She works well here.  Housewife Joan Mitchell begins dabbling in witchcraft.  In a scene that presages the consumerist satire of Dawn of the Dead, she goes shopping for ingredients for her spells (eye of newt and the like) and then pays for it all with her, ah, “Mastercharge” card.

Romero deserves credit for fashioning a story around a few middle-aged women, and saying that their stories matter.  There are sexual dalliances, but they are done with a rare integrity; you see the inherent desperation, the attempt to do something wild and forbidden before they die (in one dream sequence, Joan sees her aged self in a mirror).

I also commend Romero for being critical of the “progressive” guy on display.  Joan, you see, has an affair with a young, long-haired college professor (Ray Laine) who teaches sociology.  But he doesn’t serve as an idealistic counterpoint to the straight-laced businessman hubby.  Greg, the hippy academic, is obnoxious, domineering, and cruel.  In one torturous scene, he gives Joan’s friend Shirley a “joint” filled with regular tobacco; as Shirley smokes it, convinced she is getting high, Joan looks on with horror, yet apparent inability to stop the mean prank, while the smirking Greg just eggs Shirley on.

Everything aesthetically awful about the 70s is on display here.  (How come Rob Zombie, Quentin Tarrantino, and Robert Rodriguez, all fascinated by the era’s sensibility, never show the utter crappiness of the era’s style?)  There are men in bowl haircuts, women in turtlenecks, thickly striped shirts with huge collars, parties where middle-aged adults read Mad Libs out loud, and dialogue such as “That’s just a cop-out!” and “That will blow her mind!” 

Perhaps it is a blessing that the colors are faded.

The film offers a real critique of magical thinking.  There is not a single thing in it that depends upon a supernatural happening.  Joan wishes to have a lover, and she wishes that her runaway daughter will come home, and she wishes to be free of her husband.  She casts spells to get all of these, and they do come to pass . . . but not only could it all be a coincidence, Romero stacks the deck in favor of it.  The night that she wants Greg to come over, she casts a spell . . . waits while the clock ticks . . . and finally calls him and asks him to come over!

Then there’s this compact little scene commenting on established religion:  The Mitchells are nominally Catholic, and Joan keeps her Wiccanism secret.  On Ash Wednesday, she quickly dabs soot from the fireplace onto her forehead (for those unfamiliar with the Catholic practice, one is supposed to go to a church and have a priest do it).  At the kitchen table, her husband yells at a business associate on the phone, slams down the receiver, growls out a general threat against his runaway daughter, and then, looking at the ash on his wife’s forehead, says, “Well, I gotta go get some ashes.  Jesus, I hope that church isn’t crowded!”  He’s entirely on automatic pilot.

In several nightmares, Joan dreams that a man in a sort of pseudo-Mayan monster mask is breaking into her home and chasing her around.  It’s interesting to see the fortress invasion (a la Night of the Living Dead and the later Dawn of the Dead) done specifically as a manifestation of psychological trauma.  It gives one a new perspective on what the zombie siege does to tease out the psyche of the characters who are so besieged.

(Incidentally, what is it with George Romero and stairwells? 
  • In Season of the Witch, Joan runs up and down stairs repeatedly.
  • In Night of the Living Dead, Ben encounters a dead body as he gets to the top of the stairs.
  • In Dawn of the Dead, National Guardsmen wrestle a zombie off of a woman and ventilate it with M16 fire, in a well-remembered scene.
Was he, like, traumatized by a fall down a flight of steps as a kid?)

Romero, a liberal, attempted to make a feminist film.  I think he succeeded.  Whether the movie itself succeeds is another matter.  I’ve mentioned its problems (and not gotten into the slow pacing and somewhat ragged continuity).  But as a fan of his body of work, I enjoyed the film partly on its own merits, and partly for how it comments on his other works.  I’m glad I gave it a chance.

By the way, a chance is what Romero’s original distributors didn’t give it.  Hoping to use sex to sell, they took the film, which was shot under the title “Jack’s Wife,” and retitled it “Hungry Wives”!!!  (And by God, Hungry Wives is what it is at  A trailer (which accompanied the DVD) shows their terrible attempt to sell it as a sin-in-the-suburbs exploitation film.  One can only imagine the raincoat crowd settling into the theater only to find that they were sitting through basically an art-house feminist allegory.  Of course, it utterly flopped because of this.

Now it’s available on DVD (and on YouTube, as mentioned above), as “Season of the Witch.” Perhaps the only big-budget item in the production was that they actually got the rights to Donovan’s original 1966 hit song of the same name:

It plays on the menu of the DVD.  Damn fine song.
Now that I’ve seen a film with Romero’s sensibility but without Romero’s zombies, it makes me want to go back and view any of the six zombie films again.  What would they be like if the walking dead were . . . digitally erased!  Say, maybe I’ll email that guy from Ireland for some hints . . .