Between Night of the Living dead and Dawn of the Dead Romero had little to no look with distribution, but no film more clearly defines this problem than 1972’s Jack’s Wife (also released under the titles Hungry Wives and Season of the Witch).
Not only was it made after the failure of There’s Always Vanilla but it also had its budget cut from $250,000 to $100,000 and then was substantially re-edited and released under the title Hungry Wives.
These weren’t the only indignities the film suffered.
Pressure was put on Romero to film two sex scenes for the film, and even the explicitness of these scenes was under great scrutiny as the distributor, unable to market the film as it stood, tried to fit it into the burgeoning sex film market under the title Hungry Wives.
The result was something as dissimilar to Romero’s original vision as peas were to pomegranates.
The original running time of 130 minutes was hacked to a little over 80 and in the years since much of the original footage has been lost.
In itself this is not uncommon for Romero, much of the footage of many of his films has been lost and it is even difficult to ascertain what was actually filmed and what wasn’t. Romero himself is notoriously uncertain about such things and often is at odds with cast and crew as to what actually hit celluloid.
So the film that was finally released as Season of the Witch on DVD over thirty years later may bear little resemblance to the original directors cut of the film.
But it’s all we have.
Still short of twenty-five minutes it’s hard to say whether the uneven and clunky film is a good representation of its original intention, but it is doubtful. Whereas even There’s Always Vanilla has a definite arc and the film that followed, The Crazies, is to some degree a return to form; Season of the Witch seems more a broken vase that someone has clumsily glued back together.
We open with a dream sequence that runs through the opening credits in well into the film itself, seven minutes in all. The symbolism is obvious and deeply partisan in its approach, before the lead character has even opened her eyes we really know all there is to know about her.
Perhaps with a lighter hand this may have been a great deal more effective, perhaps all it needs is more ruthless editing to bring out the few moments that really ring true with the audience. Immediately we wonder how true this is to Romero’s vision, after all he started as an editor and this is where he arguably shows his greatest strengths.
But this is what we have, and amongst the meandering and slightly juvenile symbolism we are treated to a few moments of vintage Romero that sticks in the mind.
When she awakes we learn that Joan is much as we expect her to be, a middle aged and bored housewife with a vaguely abusive husband and an unappreciative daughter. She is slightly unkempt and lost in a world that has left her by.
Jan White plays the character of Joan rather admirably it has to be said. There isn’t a lot to work with in the script and Romero’s style of direction, still some years short of crispness of Martin, leaves quite a bit to be desired. In this Jan White manages to create a character that is both endearing and weak, an odd combination but necessary when we see what enfolds and where she goes with it.
Jan and her lovable loud friend Shirley (Ann Muffly) find themselves in a series of small adventures, mostly of the mind, where they discover that there is another world surrounding their own. It begins with a late encounter between them and Joan’s daughter (Joedda McClain), who is accompanied by her casual sometimes-boyfriend Gregg Williamson (Ray Laine).
Previously playing a very similar character in There’s Always Vanilla, Ray Laine lends a great deal of charm to the proceedings, his acerbic energy acting as a catalyst when he teases Shirley with drugs and her hidden desires.
Joan watches from the side-lines, reprimanding Gregg; but her anger is a smokescreen, one that Gregg seems to see right through.
Later at a neighbourhood party Joan and her friend learn of a local woman who dabbles with tarot cards and the occult, and what enfolds releases those inner demons and desires that Joan previously had only guessed at.
It is clear that Romero is heavily influenced by the alternative religions that became a common source of interest for the young in the late 60’s and early 70’s. The script also seems influenced by third-wave feminism that found its way into the comfortable households of the middle class during the same time.
The mix is a potent one, the liberation of exotic (and sometimes more than a little erotic) magic coupled with the emancipation many began to feel. Although Joan undergoes a dramatic and sudden change what transpires feels honest and this is a testament to Jan Whites subtle performance.
This is where the characters initial weakness comes into play. The abuse she receives from her husband is mostly that of disregard, her presence seems little more than that of a maid to him, but on the one occasion in the film he has to deal with her on an interpersonal level he lashes out at her. The physical assault is not an extreme one but the lack of consideration behind it speaks volumes; Joan means little to him beyond her servitude and in this she is lost to him.
In itself Joan is comfortable in this limbo, accompanied by her nagging sense of unfulfillment and her daughter love, but even this is taken from her when returning home to find Gregg in the younger woman’s bed; and paying a little more attention to the scene than perhaps she should.
Joan’s seduction into the world of the occult plays out naturally, as each sheet of veneer is peeled away her naked self is clearer to her and her options become clearer still.
This is not to say that Season of the Witch is a forgotten Romero classic, it is very far from that; but it is hard to decide whether this is because of weakness of direction and writing or simply because the version we are watching is so far removed from the original cut of the film.
Many of the threads in the film do not seem to gel; themes are sometimes left with only cursory connections with other aspects of the action, while some intriguing elements are left all but alone.
As Joan’s new life begins to unfold she begins to have a series of frightening and lurid dreams. In them she is repeatedly attacked by a demonically masked man who seems intent on more than relieving her of her finances.
Unfortunately these dreams never find a resolution and end up being merely a means to an end rather than something to enlighten Joan or the viewer.
There was much that could have been said with these dreams, especially when considering the opening sequence was a very different style of sequence. While the opening dream was filled with juvenile symbolism the experiences she has later become adult, frightening and oddly sexual in nature. The intruder is hunting her, and his intentions do not seem to be entirely bent on harm when he catches her.
It can be easily said that he represents her desires and the fact that she runs represents her slavish guilty adherence to social pressures.
As this viewer watched I knew who was under the mask, and any moment I expected it to be torn off to reveal the likeness of Gregg and all he represented.
But this was never to happen.
Instead the nightmares clumsily transform into waking dreams, or perhaps visions; and in one final tragic moment Joan raises her husbands gun at a shadowy figure in the doorway; and shoot her husband dead.
The final moments of the film show Joan in a neighbourhood party, some undisclosed time after the previous events, presumably cleared of deliberate murder. She looks like a different woman, self assured and well groomed, but as the frame fades to black we have to wonder quite how much “innocence” there is left in her.
Season of the Witch balances disperse and complex ideas and though it is uneven, clumsy and often obvious it still manages to be effective and surprisingly subtle at times.
Much as elements of There’s Always Vanilla can be seen in Romero’s later films, the same can also be said of Season of the Witch. The dreams, the peculiar mix of the occult and social melodrama as well as the occasional use of unseen characters dialogue to convey subtext are all used later in Martin; though to infinitely greater effect.
Both films are also preoccupied with sexual repression and the conflict between traditional and progressive thinking.
George Romero has often said that Season of the Witch is the one film of his that he would like to remake; and it’s very easy to see why. All the elements of a great film are there, any many of them are handled rather well considering it was only his third feature, perhaps the original cut was all it could be, but unfortunately we will never know.
The only remaining cut of this film was released by Anchor Bay on a double bill with There’s Always Vanilla. It ran 104 minutes, a clear twenty-five shorter than the directors cut but easily twenty minutes longer than the previously released version. It has been said that all previous version of the film have been lost, along with the original camera negatives.
Hopefully one day this will turn out to be untrue, until then the Anchor Bay edition is the closest we will see to Romero’s original vision.