Even though this early-'70s dud from George A. Romero contains no zombies, it still managed to eat Judge Joel Pearce's brain.
Unseen for over 30 years.
George Romero's scathing social commentaries have always set his horror movies apart. Season of the Witch answers the question of what Romero's social commentary would look like sans most of the horror. I certainly don't think it was worth a 30-year wait to see again. Most likely, it will quickly disappear back into obscurity.
Facts of the Case
Joan (Jan White) is a bored housewife in the early 1970s, feeling trapped by patriarchal bonds and looking for something more. As her teenage daughter experiments with sex and her friends discuss their flings, Joan finds her attention veering towards a wild younger man and the witchcraft that some women in her circle have started to experiment in. She soon finds herself in well over her head, and must decide whether to return to her old life or to embrace this adventurous new set of experiences and accept the consequences that go along with them.
Studios just don't know how to market some movies. Season of the Witch was filmed as Jack's Wife, and interesting title for this little jumble of a film. It captures the overall tone, as well hinting at the social structures by which Joan feels so trapped. It was (sort of) released under the title Hungry Wives, which doesn't make much sense. Clearly, the studio didn't know what to make of Season, and was trying to cash in on Romero's image as a horror director.
After thirty years, Anchor Bay clearly still isn't sure how to market this film. They have stuck with the video title, and announced proudly that the film was directed by "master of horror George A. Romero." He is a master of horror, true, but this is not one of his horror films. But even Romero doesn't seem to have known for certain what genre he was working in. The film is punctuated by a series of horror dream sequences, but for most of the running time, they are the only hints of Romero's horror sensibilities. What's more, they don't play as especially scary. After all, once we learn that they are only dream sequences and have no consequence in the real world of the film, they immediately lose their power.
The rest of the film is startlingly dull and dated. While strong feminist statements in film were important in the early '70s, we have long since ditched this culture of cocktail parties, traditional housewives, and pop-occult dabbling. The endless dialogue feels tacky and old, and the issues are handled in a quite heavy-handed way. The characters talk about psychoanalysis, dream study, mind-altering drugs, and sexual affairs with an almost textbook distance and passivity. After an hour, I was begging for a zombie to come bursting through the door. Then, once Joan finally enters into her dangerous experimentation and the story starts moving, the film descends into overly symbolic sex and violence. The end is unsatisfying because it doesn't carry the ideas through, nor does it offer the ghoulish thrills of Romero's other films.
Season of the Witch is more like The Ice Storm than anything else, except with less accomplished acting and a generic perspective. It will never be more than a footnote in Romero's illustrious career, and rightly so.
The transfer on this disc is an utter disaster. The disc opens with an apology from Anchor Bay, promising that this is, indeed, from the best possible available source. The video is presented in 1.85:1, though it is not anamorphic as promised on the case. The picture is soft and muddy, with all the usual flaws associated with tape-based transfers. The black levels are lousy, there are bleeding colors, and a severe lack of detail. The sound is even worse. It is presented in two-channel mono, and it's horribly fuzzy. I'm sure Anchor Bay cleaned it up a bit, but it doesn't seem like it at times.
The main extra on the disc is another feature, There's Always Vanilla. It is Romero's second film, and his attempt at breaking away from the horror genre completely. Apparently it is the result of a very troubled production, and it shows. Parts of it work as a quirky love story between free-spirited Chris Bradley (Ray Laine, Season of the Witch) and commercial actress Lynn Harris (Judith Ridley, Night of the Living Dead). It was designed to be a candid look at the swinging early '70s, but it fails to come together. It feels even more dated than Season of the Witch, and the quirkiness of the characters never meshes with the trite and generic plot. Even when it was first released, There's Always Vanilla could only be considered a failed curiosity piece. Thirty years later, it wouldn't even be a curiosity but for Romero's name. Like Season of the Witch, the transfer is old and ugly, and presented in non-anamorphic widescreen. The cropped credit sequence suggests that the film wasn't even intended to be shown in widescreen in the first place, but I'm not sure it matters that much.
Considering the quality of the two films, there are a surprising number of extras. The first side of the disc contains two featurettes, one retrospective on Season of the Witch and an episode of The Directors, featuring George Romero. Ironically, the two films on the disc are barely a footnote in the show. The most interesting extra is "Digging up the Dead," an extended interview with Romero that explores the place of these two films in his career. He virtually disowns There's Always Vanilla (a wise choice), and speaks about how he would like to have a chance to remake Season of the Witch with a better budget. I would be interested to see what the film would be like if he re-jigged it for the new millennium, and I imagine it would work out better than the film included here.
This DVD set begs an important question: if you get two bad movies for the price of one, is it a better deal or a worse one? I realize that nothing I say will prevent Romero's rabid fan base from buying Season of the Witch. Some of you may even find some value in it. You must be warned, though, that neither film is stylistically connected to the rest of Romero's work.
Season of the Witch is hereby sentenced to another 30 years of solitary confinement. Romero is free to continue making great films.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Anchor Bay
• The Directors: John Romero
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