Sunday, November 19, 2017

Recommendations :: Arrow Video's George A. Romero's Between Night and Dawn Boxset: I Am Woman, Hear Me Cackle in Season of the Witch (1972)

Our latest cinematic adventure begins with a couple walking alone along a wooded path. Dried-out leaves crunch beneath their feet as the man powers ahead, noticeably leaving the woman in his wake several feet behind. Then, the soundtrack kinda goes out of kilter, cluing us in we are no longer on this plane of reality as the couple keeps moving; the man’s nose now buried in a newspaper; not realizing or not caring that the branches he is pushing through whiplash back into the trailing woman’s face, drawing blood. They pass a crying baby, then an older girl on a swing. But while the woman sees these things, the man notices nothing but his paper and keeps moving forward.

Cut to a car; the man is driving; the woman is in the passenger seat. When they stop and get out, we notice the woman is now wearing a dog collar, which the man immediately attaches a leash to after he pops her on the nose a few times with the now rolled up paper, who then leads her to a kennel, drags her inside, and then locks it shut as he informs to stay put and he’ll be back in a week.

Suddenly, the woman seemingly snaps out of this funk as a real estate agent tours her through a large suburban house. But things are still a bit off-kilter, so we’re still not sure if any of this is real or a dream embedded within a dream. We get our answer quick enough when the realtor reveals this home comes complete with a preset gaggle of women to play bridge with. It also comes with a hunky handyman, who’ll do anything -- in a *ahem* ‘biblical sense’. But! The salesman checks his notes and sees this woman opted out on this upgrade, to her seeming regret as she looks into a mirror and is shocked to see an old and grizzled reflection looking back at her.

Here, the woman, Joan Mitchell (White), finally wakes up from this recurring and layered nightmare (-- I think, and more on this in a sec), when her husband’s alarm clock sounds off, meaning it’s time for him to go to work while she stays home again, just like yesterday and the day before that etc. Obviously, Joan has no other life outside of her husband and family and is feeling unfulfilled -- at least that’s what her shrink says after they do a little dream interpretation. Seems her husband is a very successful businessman, and their only daughter, Nikki, is off at college, meaning Joan is now more isolated than ever, she confesses. The doctor agrees with this self-diagnosis, saying she feels uninvolved and trapped in her marriage. And while she blames her mundane existence for wearing her down, he proclaims the only person trapping Joan Mitchell in that personal quagmire is Joan Mitchell. (And “That’ll be $200.”)

Later, Jack drags Joan to a neighborhood party of fellow suburbanites (-- hosted by the realtor from Joan’s dream). And while Joan swarms with her usual nest of hens, the conversation quickly turns to newcomer, Marion Hamilton (Greenwald), who, rumor has it, is an honest to goodness, bell, book and candle, all-out bona fide witch. Jolted out of her doldrums, Joan is instantly infatuated with Marion and sets up a tarot reading later with her friend, the gossipy Shirley Randolph (Muffly), while Joan’s husband is away on business.

On the day of, her daughter compliments her mother on her improved appearance before Nikki (McClain) heads off on her own date. And Joan agrees with this assessment so much she skips her daily dose of Prozac. (And I do believe her quack of shrink would call this a ‘breakthrough’.) On the ride over to Marion’s house, Shirley grills Joan over whether she has or ever would screw around on Jack but doesn’t really get an answer either way. Marion welcomes them into her home and is pleased by Joan’s eager and genuine interest in the art and accoutrements of her craft, which she claims to have learned from passed down family secrets. And while Marion breaks out the deck and reads Shirley’s fortune, Joan cracks open an old tome and starts to read the book of spells, which will eventually lead her down a path of self-discovery and fulfillment at least on some level or lead the woman to her doom...

After the phenomenal and most deserving success of the independently produced classic, Night of the Living Dead (1968), filmmaker George Romero, who directed, shot, and edited that seminal horror film, kinda floundered a bit with his next two follow-up features before finding his footing, somewhat, with the release of The Crazies (1973). Not wanting to be pigeonholed as horror creators, Romero and the rest of the crew at The Latent Image wanted to try to make another Night of the Living Dead per se only in another genre. Thus, their immediate follow-up, There’s Always Vanilla (1971), was a comical yet sudsy melodrama about a wandering drifter finally returning home several years after his discharge from the army, who rejects any notion of joining the family business, and shacks up with a woman instead; an actress who works mainly in commercials. From there, he sort of leeches off her both emotionally and financially, which lasts until the novelty wears off and she becomes pregnant with his baby, which threatens to permanently derail their romance for good.

Now, turns out there’s a reason you’ve probably never heard of or seen There’s Always Vanilla beyond the fact that it was initially distributed by porn producer trying to go legit, who released it as The Affair (1971). This production seemed doomed from the start. Seems Rudi Ricci, also a veteran of Night of the Living Dead, was the credited screenwriter and, apparently, the script wasn’t finished when filming began and it never did get finished as the author kinda lost interest and moved on, which left it to Romero to just make a lot of it up as they went. And the film wound up being shot so ad hoc over the course of nearly a year, by the end, everyone else also seemingly lost interest. The result? Well, it took me three efforts to finally get through the whole film, and by my estimation that was probably two times too many.

And then there’s Season of the Witch (1972); a film that would also suffer through a troubled production history. Apparently, Romero got the idea for the film while he was working for Pittsburgh’s PBS affiliate (-- filming episodes of Mr. Roger’s Neighborhood), researching a book on witchcraft for another occult movie idea but then had the notion to mix the arcane with the growing feminist movement, which was the culture-clash zeitgeist at the time and a seemingly perfect vehicle for Romero’s brand of social commentary -- kind of a Bewitched meets Altman’s Images (1972) or Joe Sarno’s Moonlighting Wives (1966).

Once again, Romero would serve as writer, director, editor and cinematographer on the film. Shot under the working title, Jack’s Wife, it was shot in and around Pittsburgh and Forest Hills by Romero and a very small crew. But originally budgeted at $250,000, they could only raise less than half of that amount, which caused some adjustments, meaning the film would be more talk than show. And when it was finished, Romero once again had trouble finding a distributor because they all found it to be too wordy and confusing, which is all true. I mean, imagine a feature length version of that scene between Tom and Judy, right before they make their doomed attempt for the gas pump, from Night of the Living Dead and you might have an inkling of what watching Season of the Witch is like.

And so, after a lengthy section of plot-dumping exposition to set up the second and third acts, we see Joan, after some initial trepidation, embracing the notion of becoming a witch herself. Here lies my favorite part of the film, which echoes some of Marion’s complaints about how anyone can become a witch these days through mail order catalogues, discount holistic stores, and volumes of books no better than Witchcraft for Dummies. And while Joan fears this may be another passing fad for the WASP set, she breaks out her charge cards and starts stocking up on some eyes of newt, bat-wings, and lizard legs.

Meanwhile, her current sexual frustration finally boils over when she becomes infatuated with Nikki’s boyfriend, Greg Williamson (Laine), who just so happens to be her sociology professor (-- and who just so happens to be the handyman from her dream), who becomes equally fascinated by her current pursuits. And while he does believe the mind can be open to suggestion and self-fulfilling prophecies -- if you believe you're cursed, then you’re cursed, he sees no real use for 'witchcraft' and feels it’s just the new “in” thing for the yuppie crowd. Also, Nikki can see her mother’s growing love/hate fascination with her boyfriend, and there’s a pretty great scene later where Joan comes home to hear them doing the horizontal bop, and then kinda joins in by masturbating along to the sounds of their lovemaking only to get too loud herself and gets caught in the, uh, act. Joan confesses all of this to her shrink, and informs her daughter has run away from home in disgust, her husband beat her over this development, and admits she’s more worried about herself than her daughter. This, the doctor also considers a breakthrough. (And that’ll be another $200.)

And all the while, Joan’s phantasmagorical dreams continue -- but now with a new twist. As she sleeps, she’s startled awake by a noise downstairs. Then, panic ensues as she realizes this is an intruder (Hinzman) trying to break in and quickly safety chains the door. She tries to call the police, but the wire is cut, just as the assailant -- dressed in black and wearing a large fright mask, breaks inside and wrests away the knife she tries to defend herself with and chases her to the front door, which refuses to open because he belted it shut from the outside, trapping Joan inside. This chase continues up the stairs, and into the bedroom, where the attacker pounces and Joan fights for her life but, again, this turns out to be just another dream. A nightmare Jack offers no solace or comfort for, just a curt order to go back to sleep.

Meantime, Joan starts casting a few spells but always manages to hide her paraphernalia before her dick of a husband comes home. And soon enough, Joan is tired of her regular friends and is losing interest in her old routine. And so, she conjures up a spell and directs it at Williamson that will make him succumb to her will and come to her -- at least in theory. She then dresses up, pours herself a drink and waits, then pours herself another drink and waits, and then pours herself yet another drink and waits some more … As a viewer, you’re never really quite sure if Joan’s spells are working or not. And in the case of Williamson’s love spell, she needn’t have even bothered as he’s been waiting for her to reach out so he can come a’running with his pants around his ankles -- if you know what I mean and I think you do. (I get the sense this isn’t the first lonely housewife he’s tried to nail.) And so, when she finally does break down and call him, Joan claims to have him under a love spell, while he thinks she finally got drunk enough to call him.

Thus, Joan’s use of witchcraft is just a metaphoric (maybe) means to end for breaking out of her repressed shell. And after her first extramarital sexcapade, she attacks her daily routine with a renewed vigor only to find out this was also just another dream within a dream. And this is one of the major beefs I have with this film as Romero constantly keeps us off-balance because we’re never sure what is a dream, and if it is, when it began, or where it ends, making Joan a very unreliable narrator. The dream sequences themselves are well-executed, filled with interpretive imagery and innuendo, with each one getting more intense or more mundane, depending on where we are in the film. To me, it seems the more independent Joan becomes the more difficult it becomes for her to escape from the killer. (The belt on the door turns into a chain, and so she must come up with new and more clever ways to escape.) Is this her mundane existence fighting for its life? Magic 8-Ball says, Answer unclear. Try again later.

Anyhoo, this all comes to a head when Joan asks Marion if she can join her coven. Told it’s not a path to be taken lightly, for it’s not a question of believing but the knowledge you gain and resisting the temptation to abuse it for personal gain. Here, Joan wakes up with a start again, AGAIN, because the intruder is back and they play their game until Joan wakes up screaming again, again, AGAIN. And so, she decides to cast another spell to banish this demon attacker from her dreams. She invites Williamson over to watch, who thinks she’s finally gone off the deep end, saying the devil didn’t make her sleep with him and she wanted to. Joan relents and they have sex in front of her altar. And while he sleeps, she performs the spell anyway.

And this seems to work, as Joan finally seems at happy and at peace with the world. She calls Williamson and officially breaks off their affair because Nikki has been found and is returning home tomorrow. She then takes a load of laundry to the basement where she is suddenly attacked by the masked killer but manages to get away and gets her hands on a shotgun but can’t get it loaded in time as the killer is upon her until -- you guessed it, Joan wakes up screaming again, again, again, AGAIN. (I swear to god one could make the argument that everything from this point back to the beginning of the film has all been a dream. And, seriously, movie, STOP DOING THAT.)

Outside, it’s raining hard, and Jack has returned home a day early. He fumbles with his keys and is extremely annoyed to find his front door chained shut. He tries to call for his wife to let him in but is answered with a shotgun blast to the face and chest. Joan drops the gun and slumps at the top of the staircase petrified. Only this time she doesn’t wake up. (Thank you, movie.) And as the coroner looks over the body, we hear several policemen milling in the background, complaining how the wife will probably “get away with this” because she thought it was a prowler.

Cut ahead several days, and we find ourselves in the middle of a ceremony where Joan is stripped nude and then initiated into the local coven and pledges her unbridled allegiance to this new lifestyle. More time passes and we find ourselves at another neighborhood cocktail party. Joan is there, hobnobbing with old friends. Then, a tepid, tired looking housewife approaches her. Seeing she is just the way she used to be, Joan anticipates her question and preemptively answers that, yes, she is a witch indeed.

OK. This film is a hot mess. But, Season of the Witch is a hard movie to judge because the film has been butchered in editing not once, but twice, leaving audiences to sort through the taped together leavings with no real way to see the filmmaker’s original intent. Again, Romero had trouble finding a distributor for the finished film until Jack H. Harris got on board, who demanded some changes, including making the two sex scenes between Joan and Williamson more graphic. Romero refused to do this. Harris, in return, cut the 130-minute Jack’s Wife down to 89-minutes, released the film as Hungry Wives, and promoted it as softcore pornography. And as critic Vincent Canby wrote, the film "has the seedy look of a porn film but without any pornographic action. Everything in it, from the actors to the props, looks borrowed and badly used." And so it was no surprise the film failed to find an audience. And to add insult to injury, with the release of Dawn of the Dead (1978), Harris re-cut it again and released it as George A. Romero's Season of the Witch in 1979 to cash in on the director’s notoriety. And to add even more insult to the film's premise, all the promotional materials for that released featured the younger, and barely present in the film, daughter instead of Joan.

Thus, Jack’s Wife, Hungry Wives, nor Season of the Witch ever really did find an audience. And while Romero’s original version appears to be lost forever, some footage was found over the years, bringing the running time back up to 104-minutes. Again, I’m not sure if another twenty minutes is what this film needs. Romero has kept us off balance for the majority of the film because we are never sure if Joan is dreaming or not. And while this may be considered brilliant on some artistic level, as a viewer it quickly goes from frustrating to full blown annoyance. What is real. What isn’t? Who knows. And in the end, do we really care?

Seriously, movie. Stop that! 

To me, Romero’s greatest strength has always been his editing technique with the rapid cuts and nonsensical cutaways to transition between shots. And on that front, he is really on his game in Season of the Witch -- especially during the dream sequences and montages. It's raw but you can definitely see what was coming later. But at the same time, it also exposes his weakness of plotting beyond his metaphor and social commentary. The film works best in establishing the mundaneness of Joan’s life. And Jan White's performance nearly elevates the film past its myriad shortcomings. She has everything and yet feels nothing. Thus, she is essentially a walking dead person. And when you look at how Romero brings the arcane and the macabre into the suburbs, one could argue that both of those notions would be expanded on later in Dawn of the Dead and, especially, Martin (1978), as everything Romero tries in Season of the Witch he pulls off much better in the blurred reality of his follow-up faux vampire / serial killer film.

I will admit to liking Season of the Witch better the second time through (-- I dozed off the first time), courtesy of Arrow Videos latest release: the George A. Romero Between Night and Dawn boxset, which also includes There’s Always Vanilla and The Crazies, which I go into more detail here. As always, Arrow overloads this package with plenty of extras, including commentaries for all three, extensive write-ups, and some exclusive featurettes and making of docs. And the Season of the Witch disc contains an interview between Guillermo del Toro and Romero that is worth the price of the boxset alone. Trust me. It also contains both the 90-minute and extended version of the film.

According to legend, when lead actress Mitchell said the final line, "I'm a witch", during filming, the overhead ceiling cracked right above her. In one of the interviews on the discs, Romero attributed this to heat from the lights but said some people on set were a little spooked by it. And a more perfect metaphor for the film I cannot think of. Is witchcraft real? Did the devil influence Joan to kill her husband? Has Joan shed one life of rigidity for another with an even more strict code of conduct? Personally, I think Joan comes to that realization in the end, to her horror, as she stares blankly into the camera after telling the repressed woman what she is now. Maybe. Who knows. And while the story is a bit of a muddle and an unreliable slog to navigate through, you still have the Romero visuals to guide you through it and that, to me, is always worth your time. 

Buy George A. Romero Between Night and Dawn at Amazon.

Season of the Witch (1972) The Latent Image :: Jack H. Harris Enterprises / EP: Alvin Croft / P: Nancy Romero, Gary Streiner / D: George A. Romero / W: George A. Romero / C: George A. Romero / E: George A. Romero / M: Steve Gorn / S: Jan White, Raymond Laine, Ann Muffly, Joedda McClain, Bill Thunhurst, Bill Hinzeman

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