Film Reviews

31 Days of Halloween: George Romero’s Oft-Forgotten Season of the Witch

This October, we’re challenging ourselves to watch at least one horror movie a day. Today’s theme is witchcraft.

Ever since Rebekah McKendry praised George Romero’s Season of the Witch – a film I’d never heard of before – on the Shock Waves podcast, I’ve been meaning to finally give it a look. With The CW’s Charmed reboot, Hulu’s Light as a Feather, and Netflix’s The Chilling Adventures of Sabrina suddenly putting witchcraft back into the pop culture air, now seemed like a good time to finally get around to that. After all, Season of the Witch is on Amazon Prime. It’s only 89 minutes long, and it has this killer cover photo which always reminds me of Alyson Hannigan for some reason:

I had no idea what I was in for.

The movie itself is a somewhat interesting conflation of the plot of The Graduate (just from Mrs. Robinson’s point of view) with the bourgeoning women’s lib movement of the time. A frustrated, suburban housewife named Joan (Jan White) turns to witchcraft to seduce her daughter’s brutish lover (Raymond Laine) and is given a renewed lease on life. Now, if only her new lover AND husband (Bill Thunhurst) would go away because, really, men are just the worst.

That’s all actually fairly easy to follow. Even as Romero introduces some dream sequences and hints at an increasingly blurry line between fantasy and reality, I never found Season of the Witch to be anything other than a fascinating character study substituting witchcraft for feminism and sympathetically depicting a woman who turns to the sisterhood of a coven for lack of any better options.

What I had no idea about, however, was the film’s tortured backstory. What I watched was actually the heavily butchered theatrical cut which removed nearly 40 minutes of footage and dropped Romero’s original title (Jack’s Wife) in favor of something more salacious (Hungry Wives) to dupe gullible grindhouse fans into expecting a softcore porno. (Season of the Witch first came up as a title years later to capitalize on Romero’s newfound horror success thanks to Dawn of the Dead.) While the desperate housewife turned sexually awakened lioness is a classic trope of erotic cinema, it doesn’t completely apply here. This is simply nowhere near as prurient as its original producers wanted audiences to believe.

Ahem. What about that opening scene?

Ok. Yes, Season of the Witch opens with Joan being dragged through the woods by a man leading her around via the dog leash attached to her neck, which, hey, get your kink on. However, Romero uses this dream sequence imagery to suggest Joan’s frustration and sense of inescapable subordination to the men in her life. Heck, it ends with her being placed in a dog kennel as we hear her husband telling the kennel owner, “I’ll be gone about a week. Oh, by the way, I brought her pillow.”

Turn out, the guy who made the zombies-as-racism-metaphor classic Night of the Living was again trying to sneak social commentary into a genre picture. He would, of course, make a career out of that with classics like Dawn and Day of the Dead, but Season of the Witch was only his third film, following Night and the sex comedy There’s Always Vanilla. As per his usual, it was filmed in Pittsburgh with a collection of local actors whose talents range from passable to cringe-inducingly bad. He shot it in 16MM and handled many of the crew jobs himself, beyond writing and directing. Distributors weren’t interested in the rather talky movie he’d made. So, Jack Harris, the man responsible for 1958’s The Blob, bought it and refashioned it into an exploitation picture.

Inevitably, we’re left with an undeniably messy movie in which characters enter and leave the narrative with little to no explanation and the low-budget and low-quality acting endears at first until it finally distracts. However, you can still see what Romero is trying to do here, and when it all ends on – spoiler – a Night of the Living Dead-esque case of someone being shot due to mistaken identity it rings as a delightful inverse of one of the director’s most iconic moments. Duane Jones’ Ben doesn’t deserve to die at the end of Night of the Living Dead; the men in Joan’s life in Season of the Witch, however, yeah, they’re bastards.

Season of the Witch is currently available to stream on Amazon Prime. An expanded, 104-minute cut is now available on the Arrow Video Blu-Ray.

Here’s What Else We’ve Watched So Far:

Tomorrow: Rosemary’s Baby

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