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!"

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