Martin and Season of the Witch are two of the most interesting films legendary horror director George Romero ever made. Of course, Romero will go down in fright flick history for his "Of the Dead" series, the In Search of Lost Time of zombie cinema. Romero's soon to be five pic cycle (six films if you count the remake he made of his own Night of the Living Dead) pretty much defined the modern zombie flick by replacing the tropical voodoo trappings with the massed mindless flesh eating hordes that have dominated horror cinema for the past six or so years. And this fame is justly deserved. Though Romero's latest outings have bogged down under increasingly obvious semi-subversive political content, taken as a whole the films are perhaps the most sustained, relentless, and insightful critique of late capitalist Americanism yet produced in the genre. Still, Romero's strangest, most inventive writing and visuals appear not in his monumental zombie epic, but in these two one-gems.
The first, Martin, is a radical revision of the vampire film. Tossing the Romantic Gothic trappings, Romero centered his tale around a disturbed young man who obtains blood by drugging victims and extracting it through small slits made with a razor blade. He can't turn into a bat or compel the actions of nubile victims with his captivating gaze. Is he just some sick nut case? Or does he suffer from an ancient curse? Your humble horror host reviewed said flick earlier.
The second, Season of the Witch, is similarly open-ended. Originally entitled Hungry Wives by a distributor who hoped confused skin-flick fans would attend mistaking it for a porno, Season was filmed after Night of the Living Dead and before Dawn of the Dead. The film is a character study of Joan Mitchell, a stifled housewife who begins exploring witchcraft in the hopes of discovering the passionate self her dead-end domesticity has all but completely buried.
In my review of Martin I mentioned how weirdly non-stylish Romero's style was. In his zombie flicks and in Martin Romero seems confident to simply set up the camera and meticulously capture the details of life passing before his lens. Season of the Witch shows a remarkably different visual aesthetic at work. The film begins with a blatantly allegorical dream sequence, a surreal combo of dead-pan Monty Pythonism and the overtly meaningful stuff of "art house" cinema. Jump cuts and stutter editing borrowed from French New Wave cinema make the already curious scene and even stranger exception to Romero's typical filmmaking approach. Though the film will calm down a bit as the narrative starts to spool out, Romero never fully packs away the tricks he has on full display in these first few minutes. Visually, Season is his most daring film.
Once the plot gets underway, we follow Joan through the tedium of her loveless family life. Her husband is mentally abusive in a sort of low-grade, dismissive way. Her daughter, a "switched on" fully realized product of the early '70s, is similarly dismissive of her square mom. Eventually, in search for some kicks to help yet another pointless night pass as quickly as possible, Joan and a friend visit a tarot card reader that professes to be a real life witch. Joan becomes obsessed. Plagued by nightmarish visions, Joan begins to dabble in witchcraft, following the steps in a sore-bought primer called To Be a Witch. It I in these scenes, a Joan begins to dabble in witchcraft, that Romero's usual attention to the minute details of mundane existence best meshes with the experimental style of the flick. Joan, like any other housewife-turned-witch, must gather materials at antique shops and specialty gourmet stores in order to collect the tools of witchcraft. Where does one get eye of snake in suburban Pittsburg? Eventually Joan uses her newfound powers to seduce the sometime boyfriend of her daughter. Convinced that she has frivolously tapped into dark forces or trivia purposes and that she'll be punished, Joan starts to spiral into a more and more pit of dangerous paranoia . . . Dum da dum!
Like Martin, Joan's not your typical cinematic witch. She stumbles through her conjuring as she sits on the floor of her extremely '70s living room, a sacrificial blade in one hand and her copy of Witchcraft for Dummies in the other. At turns sexy and tired, dangerous and wounded, sympathetic and frustratingly dense, Joan is possibly Romero's most realistic character. And Romero goes even further in Season in leaving the question of whether Joan's going nuts or whether her witchcraft is genuine than he did in leaving Martin's vampirism unresolved. Unlike Martin, however, which is Romero's least political film, Season is Romero's The Feminine Mystique, a film essay in unfulfilling domestication.
As an aside, the film benefits from the wonderful job Jan White does playing the unhappy, haunted Joan. I've read somewhere that folks are planning a remake of the film. I can't imagine who could be a better Joan. This isn't because White is such a magnificent actress. She does a great job, sure; but this isn’t Oscar grade stuff. What she has that I can't imagine the remake producers looking for is authenticity. She looked like the kinda hot housewife next door. The kind of uptight, quiet woman who, under the right light, sudden looks like a passionate, hungry woman. Some box office drawl would be simply too obvious, too movie-ish to be the convincing witch next door.
Season of the Witch isn't for everybody. There's almost no gore and it is paced like a drama and not a horror flick. Still, for fans of Romero, this is an essential display of a range you wouldn't guess he has based solely on the zombie flicks.