March 26, 2014

Night of the Living Dead Housewife

Season of the Witch (1972) DVD cover art
Now Playing: Season of the Witch (aka Hungry Wives; 1972)

Pros: An original “indie” psychological horror film with a different spin on the discontents of suburban middle-class life; Imaginative, disturbing dream sequences
Cons: Too talky; The hip, amoral college instructor character is too contrived; Difficult to get past the dated, god-awful ‘70s clothes, make-up and slang

Spring is finally here. Time to shake off the heavy coat of ice and snow that Old Man Winter blasted at us this year. It’s the season for renewal, and for an explosion of Mother Nature’s favorite colors. It’s the season of the birds and the bees and… witches.

These days, witches are popularly associated with the dark arts, Devil worship and Halloween, but the Vernal Equinox is a very important date on their calendar for celebrating Ostara, the Goddess of Fertility and new beginnings. (And let's face it, Christianity and its Easter celebration is a johnny-come-lately to this rebirth-renewal thing -- kind of like a loud, obnoxious guest who comes late to the party, shoves all the Pagans aside, cranks up his own playlist, drinks all the good stuff, and then takes credit for saving the party.)

Francisco Goya's Witches Sabbath, 1798
"Hey, have you heard this one? A goat, a witch,
a priest and a rabbi walk into a bar..."
Darkness and evil is in the eye of the beholder. As any self-respecting witch will tell you, they’re not about casting malicious spells over bubbling cauldrons of eye of newt and bats’ wings, but rather about celebrating and tapping into the ubiquitous, renewing powers of Nature.

While the 2,000 year-old ascendent paradigm has contributed much good to the world, it has also contributed crusades, pogroms, inquisitions and burnings at the stake. In the wrong hands, it seeks to separate humanity from the bosom of nature, and pretends that Man can dominate the natural world with no consequences. And in spite of the founder’s preference for the meek, the poor and the dispossessed, modern day adherents are often hard on those groups. So it’s no wonder that the dispossessed sometimes find alternatives that give them a greater sense of control and meaning in their lives. In some areas of the world it’s Voodoo. In others, it’s Santería. In still others, including George Romero’s late 20th century suburbia of discontent, it’s witchcraft. (Yes, that George Romero -- you didn’t think he just made zombie movies did you?)

The protagonist of Romero’s Season of the Witch, Joan Mitchell (Jan White) is herself dispossessed, in spite of living the early ‘70s dream of a nice house in the suburbs complete with a hard working husband and a smart, attractive teenage daughter.

She is dispossessed of any meaningful adult existence, spending her waking hours listening to her bored housewife friends complaining about their husbands at endless bridge games and cocktail parties. At night, her subconscious lays out the bland horror of her vacuous existence in surreal dreams.

Jan White as Joan Mitchell
Joan and creepy lamp-boy listen as the dream guide runs
through the inventory of her vacuous existence.
In one sequence, her husband gets ready for a business trip by attaching a leash to the choke collar on her neck and coaxing her into a boarding cage like the family dog. In another, a dream guide in the form of a glib, leisure-suited friend takes her on a tour of her own house and her own middling, middle class life:
“[Checking his clipboard] Okay, Mitchell, Joan. Oh, you’ve been here before, but just for the record-- [gesturing around] dining room, kitchen… and through here the garage, sewing corner and books, all the latest… And televisions, 3 sets, in the den, in here and upstairs, with, uh, special programming designed to give you ideas… in case you should run out of ideas. And the ladies of course... [distorted, fish-eye closeups of her bridge friends dressed in hideous clothes and makeup] they’re available for luncheons, teas and bridge, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera…”
News of a woman in the neighborhood, Marion Hamilton (Virginia Greenwald) who is a witch and gives tarot readings piques Joan’s interest. She and friend Shirley (an older, even more disenchanted woman played by Ann Muffly) decide to get readings. In spite of (or perhaps because of) Marion’s spot-on, yet bleak assessment of her friend’s cards, “Romantic love has failed you,” Joan seems all the more intrigued.

Incantation scene
Joan rehearses for the local community theater production
of Bell, Book and Candle.

As Joan’s own life gets bleaker (her daughter runs away and hubby starts slapping her around in frustration), and her regular visits to the mild-mannered, pipe-smoking psychiatrist don’t seem to be helping, she turns to an alternate self-help book that she discovered at Marion's place, To Be a Witch: A Primer.

Being a witch is apparently just what the (witch) doctor ordered. As she practices her incantations, she seems infused with new life. She even uses her new-found powers to compel her daughter’s insouciant hipster boyfriend Gregg (Raymond Laine), an instructor at the local college, to come to her (what the heck, daughter’s run away and hubby is gone on another extended business trip!)

But there’s a price to pay. As she gets deeper into the witchy arts with the help of mentor Marion, her surreal dreams turn even more menacing. A shadowy intruder in a grotesque over-the-head mask (an entity she’s inadvertently summoned? her own subconscious in disguise?) is stalking her nightmares. In her waking life, her newfound sense of freedom and power is taking her to the edge as she continues her affair with the amoral Gregg, whom she despises yet can’t seem to get enough of.

The dream intruder
"Hey lady, that'll be $22.50 for the pizza. Lady?..."
It would seem that a quick-tempered husband, an immature college boy lover and dangerous supernatural powers are the prime ingredients in an infernal witch’s brew that’s bound to bubble over into a real mess, and sure enough, it does. Depending on your view, the denouement is either a tragedy or a moment of liberation (but one that comes at great cost). In a nice touch, Romero uses voice-overs of the investigating police as a kind of lamenting Greek chorus.

And the very last scene suggests that Joan won’t be the last suburban witch -- there are many more witches-in-the-making out there dying to break free of their stifling, middle-class suburban prisons.

Shot in and around Pittsburgh, PA with a cast of unknowns, Season of the Witch (originally released as Hungry Wives), was Romero’s third feature film. While superficially it’s a huge departure from his surprise hit Night of the Living Dead, the two films share an acerbic outlook on humanity and doses of black humor. Sadly, Season was plagued with production and money problems, and quickly sank into obscurity. According to Wikipedia, it’s the only film on his resume that he would like to remake.

Jan White and Raymond Laine
Weaselly Gregg doesn't believe in witchcraft.
Jan White as Joan goes through much of the film with almost a blank expression on her face. But then, given the dreary monotony of her life, that seems to be the point-- you’d be a robot too under the circumstances. When she’s called upon to Act with a capital A, as in the dream intruder sequences, she’s very effective.

Effectively irritating is Raymond Laine as Gregg, the weaselly college instructor who goes from romancing the teenage daughter to the mother without the slightest twinge of conscience. He’s arrogant and self-righteous, and more than a little cliched with his ‘70s hippie “do whatever feels good” philosophy. In a scene that goes on a little too long, he plays a cruel prank on Joan’s insecure friend Shirley, passing off a homemade “doobie” of regular tobacco as the the real thing.

If there’s a real star of Season, it’s Ann Muffly as Shirley Randolph. Shirley is vain, bored, anxious, depressed, and a borderline alcoholic -- in other words, a stereotypical ‘70s housewife. But Muffly brings surprising depth to what might have been a cardboard character. Her giddiness at taking a drag on what she thinks is her first joint, then her anxiety as she convinces herself she’s getting high is so authentic it’s difficult to watch. In another scene, she cries out to Joan that she’s “not done!” -- as in not done with life, no matter what her bridge friends or her slob of a husband say. In the hands of a contemporary filmmaker, Shirley would be a one-dimensional foil for the audience to laugh at. In Romero’s and Muffly’s hands, Shirley elicits a strong there-but-for-the-grace empathy.

Ann Muffly as Shirley Randolph
Shirley is a two-fisted drinker.
All this is well and good -- if you can get past the monstrously hideous early ‘70s fashions that date the film like a guy wearing horned rim glasses and a porkpie hat to a college frat party (oh wait, I forgot, the seventies are actually back in style, Earth Mother help us!) From time to time I found myself thinking, “surely people really didn’t dress like that in 1972,” ... until I remembered that I myself owned a rainbow clown shirt eerily similar to one that Gregg wears in a later scene. I had tried to forget. Oh well.

Don’t let the dated aspects deter you. The average contemporary horror fan will hate this -- it’s talky and murky and there’s no gore. But I know you my friend. You’re mature, intelligent and discriminating, and will appreciate this lost George Romero near-classic for what it is-- a solid film of psychological suspense, with some memorable moments of biting satire, black humor, and surprisingly good performances from unknown actors.

Where to find it:
Available online

Amazon Instant Video

"They are all hungry wives with an appetite for diversion... gambling with life and death!"

March 11, 2014

"Mummy will make it all better": Boo-boos on Mummy Movie Sets

What can you say about Tutankhamun (King Tut to friends and fans)? He became ruler of Egypt at the age of 9, married his half-sister, erected a bunch of monuments (as Pharaohs liked to do back then), reinstated the god Amun to the top of the divine hierarchy, restored friendly relations with some nearby kingdoms, and then promptly died at the ripe old age of 19. He was buried in a relatively economy-sized tomb (probably because he inconveniently kicked off before something grander was ready) and was promptly forgotten, even by the ancient Egyptians, until he was unearthed by archaeologist Howard Carter and moneyman and English Lord George Herbert in 1922.

Tutankhamun, ruled ca. 1332 BC – 1323 BC
Tutankhamun, King of the Mummies!
Given that we live in a society where the vast majority of us don't know much about history and couldn't find Egypt on a map to save our couch potato lives, it's hard to imagine that the discovery created much of a stir... but it did. It was in all the papers (thanks Egypt, for giving us papyrus!), and artifacts from Tut's tomb have pretty much been traveling around the globe ever since. For those who think about these things, Tutankhamun's spectacular mummy mask is one of the most iconic, recognizable images of ancient Egypt in the world, and will probably stay that way. Pretty good for a skinny boy-king who was the product of incest and suffered from, among other things, Marfan syndrome, Wilson-Turner X-linked mental retardation syndrome, Fröhlich syndrome (adiposogenital dystrophy), Klinefelter syndrome, androgen insensitivity syndrome, aromatase excess syndrome in conjunction with sagittal craniosynostosis syndrome, Antley–Bixler syndrome or one of its variants and temporal lobe epilepsy. (Holy cow!)

But better yet, the frail boy-king is directly responsible for the classic mummy movies that horror film mavens like you and me enjoy to this very day (and no, I'm not talking about those despicable Brendon Fraser CGI abominations). It's pretty much guaranteed that when you put a Pharaonic curse on your tomb, and thousands of years later defilers of that tomb seem to drop like flies not long after raiding it, Hollywood will jump on the story faster than jackals on fresh meat.

For skeptics, here's what happened to the "flies" who defied King Tut's curse (from Wikipedia)
  • Lord Carnarvon, financial backer of the excavation team who was present at the tomb's opening, died on 5 April 1923 after a mosquito bite became infected; he died 4 months and 7 days after the opening of the tomb.
  • George Jay Gould I, a visitor to the tomb, died in the French Riviera on 16 May 1923 after he developed a fever following his visit.
  • Prince Ali Kamel Fahmy Bey of Egypt died 10 July 1923: shot dead by his wife.
  • Colonel The Hon. Aubrey Herbert, MP, Carnarvon's half-brother, became nearly blind and died on 26 September 1923 from blood poisoning related to a dental procedure intended to restore his eyesight.
  • Sir Archibald Douglas-Reid, a radiologist who x-rayed Tutankhamun's mummy, died on 15 January 1924 from a mysterious illness.
  • Alexander King, an American promoter and exhibitor of some of the more valuable artifacts from the tomb, died on 18 October 1924 after being thrown down a flight of steps by a mysterious intruder.
  • Sir Lee Stack, Governor-General of Sudan, died on 19 November 1924: assassinated while driving through Cairo.
  • A. C. Mace, a member of Carter's excavation team, died in 1928 from arsenic poisoning
  • The Hon. Mervyn Herbert, Carnarvon's half brother and the aforementioned Aubrey Herbert's full brother, died on 26 May 1929, reportedly from "malarial pneumonia".
  • Captain The Hon. Richard Bethell, Carter's personal secretary, died on 15 November 1929: found smothered in his bed.
  • Richard Luttrell Pilkington Bethell, 3rd Baron Westbury, father of the above, died on 20 February 1930; he supposedly threw himself off his seventh floor apartment.
  • Howard Carter opened the tomb on 16 February 1923, and died well over a decade later on 2 March 1939; however, some have still attributed his death to the "curse".
Okay, so I embellished the list with a rip-off from Hammer's The Curse of the Mummy's Tomb (1964; know which one?), but it's still impressive in an avenging-bony-spectral-hand-of-death-reaches-out-from-the-tomb kind of way. As they say, truth is often stranger than fiction. Tutankhamun's curse clearly precipitated some of the more enjoyable Universal and Hammer horrors of the 20th century's mid-section. I'm not prepared to say that it's responsible for the mummy movie mishaps listed here, but are you 100% sure it's not?

"He nearly killed me! He took my breath away!"

Poster - The Mummy's Ghost (1944)
Poor Creighton Tull Chaney! The son of the Man of a Thousand faces had big shoes to fill. Born into a tumultuous and fractured show business family, he spent his boyhood years living in an assortment of homes and boarding schools until his remarried (not to mention cold and distant) father could provide a stable home life. Led to believe as a child that his mother was dead, he discovered years later that she was still alive when Lon Sr. died in 1930. Quickly typecast by Universal in monster roles and dubbed Lon Chaney Jr. to take advantage of his father's mystique, Junior rode the long Hollywood slide from celebrated character and leading roles (Of Mice and Men, The Wolf Man) to such micro-budget quickies as Face of the Screaming Werewolf (1964) and Al Adamson's execrable Dracula vs. Frankenstein (1971) at the end. His legendary drinking on the set didn't help.

If in the space of a few short years you'd traded in your dapper leading man's suit and wolf's head cane for the tattered, Fuller's earth-splattered bandages of the mute, shuffling bottom-of-the-bill Mummy, you might have been driven to drink too. And you might even have taken it out on your fellow cast members:
Still from The Mummy's Curse (1944)
"Okay Lon, you can stop now... Lon? Lon!!!"
"In shooting the scene where the Mummy strangles Prof. Norman, Chaney seized actor Frank Reicher's throat 'and squeezed so forcefully that Reicher nearly fainted,' [Director Reginald] LeBorg told us. 'Reicher was an old man and frail, and Chaney got carried away.' Reicher cried out, 'He nearly killed me! He took my breath away!' There is evidence of this in the film itself [The Mummy's Ghost, 1944]: In the few frames where Reicher's face is visible as Chaney chokes him, the pinched expression on the older actor's face looks uncomfortably real.

LeBorg told Greg Mank in Cinefantastique: 'Reicher very nearly was unconscious! He was moaning on the floor... Chaney had just become carried away-- he was putting everything he had into the monster. Luckily, Reicher didn't complain. ... We massaged his neck and gave him some water. But the next day, when I saw him again, I spied a look at Reicher's neck, and you could see he had spots there, from the strangling!'" [Tom Weaver, Michael Brunas and John Brunas, Universal Horrors: The Studio's Classic Films, 1931-1946, 2nd. Ed., McFarland, 2007]

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

"Don't worry, it won't hurt your skin..."

Poster - The Mummy's Curse (1944)
Does the name Virginia Christine mean anything to you? (Virginia who?) Well, I'm a big fan, because Virginia represents two of my very favorite things -- mummy movies and coffee. She not only had the privilege of being in one of the creepiest scenes in all of classic horror, but she became the patron saint of coffee drinkers everywhere during her 21 year stint as the kindly Mrs. Olson in Folgers commercials. She was a newly minted starlet in 1944 when she played the revivified Princess Ananka in The Mummy's Curse. And what a way to come back from the dead-- deep in the muck of the Louisiana bayous! I hope there was lots of coffee and other amenities on the set, because few actresses would have put up with what she had to go through:
"We shot the film, and then came the last day of shooting when I change from a mummy to a lovely Egyptian princess. All through the picture, [makeup artist] Jack [Pierce] kept coming on the set, saying, 'I'm using something new on you, Virginia. It's going to be terrific! Don't worry, it won't hurt your skin.' I was very young and 'It won't hurt your skin' began to ring in my ears. I was a basket case the night before shooting. ... I was there at four or five in the morning, and sat in the makeup chair for five-and-one-half hours. He started with pieces of cotton dipped in witch hazel to fill in all the youthful lines. Then, he lined it with an orange stick to make the wrinkles. That had to be dried. And then came the Denver mudpack, and that had to be dried. He worked a little patch at a time. Unfortunately, we made a mistake in wardrobe because we left the arms bare, which meant that the arms had to be done, too, and the hands... every place the skin was exposed. It was a tedious, long process. And, of course the natural thing happened... I had to go to the bathroom.  ...  I couldn't smile, I couldn't laugh. I couldn't talk. And I got the giggles in the john. It was so ridiculous! ...
Virgina Christine as Ananka in The Mummy's Curse (1944)
After 3000 years, Princess Ananka is done with her
mudpack and is ready for a stone massage.
After the full session, they put me in a cart and took me out to the back lot. Very carefully, they dug a hole, my height, right in the dirt. For any big star, they would have sifted the sand and done it on the stage, and had it cleaned. They laid me down in the thing and covered me with burnt cork which photographs like dirt. They turned the hose on so the dried cork got wet and looked like the earth around it. I laid there with this much of me exposed and thought, 'Oh God, how many creepy, crawly things are in this with me?'" [Ibid.]

Where to find it:
Available on DVD

And he never played the Mummy again.

Poster - The Mummy (1959)
If you're a regular reader of this blog (and I hope you are), then you know that Christopher Lee's resume extends far beyond his work in The Lord of the Rings trilogy. In fact, ol' Chris' film resume is very, very lengthy, extending all the way back to the late 1940s. This man does not know the meaning of the word 'retirement.' Discriminating film buffs are OK with that LOTR CGI-fest stuff, but really appreciate Lee's contributions as the greatest technicolor Dracula of all-time. Like Lon Chaney Jr., who played the Wolf Man, Frankenstein's monster, the Mummy and Dracula for Universal, Lee was the go-to guy and master of monsters for Hammer's Universal horror reboots, playing the Frankenstein monster and the Mummy for Hammer as well as the immortal Count. Unlike poor Lon Jr., he only played the Mummy once, and that was enough, thank you very much:
Still - Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing in The Mummy, 1959
Getting impaled was the least of Christopher Lee's
worries on the set of The Mummy (1959).
"In one sequence, Lee, in Mummy garb, smashes through a door which the production crew had mistakenly locked and bolted. Lee broke through the almost unforgiving door, but the impact dislocated his shoulder. This was not the end of his discomfort. Lee later broke through a window with real glass substituted for the commonly used, and relatively safe, sugar glass. The glass slivers from the collision pierced through his mummy bandages like needles. Lee also had some problems in a scene in which he carried actress Yvonne Furneaux over 80 yards at night. In a Scarlet Street (#8) interview, Lee described the incident.

'That was one of the toughest things, physically, I think I've ever had to do. I did things in that film that Mr. Schwarzenegger might have found difficult to do. I wouldn't have believed that I could literally bend down and lift somebody off the ground, but I did it when somebody said, action! Of course, I pulled all the muscles in my neck and shoulders...' " [John 'J.J.' Johnson, Cheap Tricks and Class Acts: Special Effects, Makeup and Stunts from the Films of the Fantastic Fifties, McFarland, 1996]

Where to find it:
Available on DVD