Thursday 31 May 2018

You’ve got to pick up every stitch… Season of the Witch (1973)

I must be honest and say that this is the first George A. Romero film I’ve watched – shocking I know – but it’s probably interesting just to be able to view one of his supposedly lesser films purely on its own merits. Whilst a little slow in parts Season of the Witch is an atmospheric and moody film that shows one house-wife’s American Dream to be one-long nightmare as she loses herself in the dreary stay-at-home sub-identity of being “Jack’s wife” and the increasingly-irrelevant “Nikki’s mother”.

This is a psycho-drama with very little “psycho” – the violence is – mostly - in the mind as Joan Mitchell (Jan White) struggles to find herself again from the depths of her suburban submersion.

I can understand why Romero described the film as “feminist” and it is all told from the perspective of Joan who is largely present for the whole film whilst the other characters move in and out focus. The quality of acting varies for the supporting cast but this – either directly or indirectly – only reinforces Joan’s isolation; Jan White is the only one who is acting naturalistically with fluid nuanced emotions as compared with the sullen, stunted masculinity of her husband, her hysterical, trivial friends and her daughter’s lecturer/lover who belts out his counter-cultural homilies with scant concern for context – loudhailer for Mr Laine please!

All of witch – ha! - makes this an interesting if uneven film and one that does engage: a woman on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The film begins as a Jan enjoys a dreamy walk through the woods with husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst), there’s a sense of unease, they’re just not dressed for the woods but they’re travelling together… is this how Jan dreams her everyday existence? She wakes, he barks disinterested salesman babble – they’re barely connected other than through habit, he has a big life outside and she has barely any in…

She meets with friends who chatter inanities; surface connections reinforced by social norms and the fear of exclusion. Joan seems apart even as she is clearly one of the alphas, high-seventies crimping and crimplene all set off against electric blue eyeshadow.

Jan White is very watchable, she has a casual intensity and oozes under-the-surface tensions, witchcraft represents her Joan with the chance to take control of a life submerged and whether or not it’s all self-hypnosis, her detachment leaves only the subtlest of hints as to whether any of this is “real”.

Her daughter Nikki (Joedda McClain) is now at the age when she wants to break free and is conducting a relationship with her teacher Gregg (Raymond Laine) - rebellion on her behalf and free love on his. Nikki won’t listen to her Mom and Gregg just likes the sound of his own voice; he talks over the women and makes fun of Joan’s friend Shirley (Ann Muffly) by giving her a cigarette and pretending it’s dope…  He’s just another male abuser and yet, Joan finds him interesting enough; a younger version of her husband?

Joan starts reading up on witchcraft and concocts a ritual to make Gregg come to her, although he’s already shown he’s really up for anything. All the while Joan has increasingly intense dreams of a masked intruder invading the house. Romero, who also shoots as well as scripts and directs, focuses on odd angles that make household objects look sinister: part of Joan’s psychological crisis of something else. The family cat also stalks around with intent… possibly a pussy possessed.

Joan and Gregg have a short affair… this shows her want she doesn’t really need but also what her “power” can deliver, mystical or not… Her daughter goes missing and her husband goes on a lengthy business trip. The pressure is building and the feeling that something malevolent is about to happen grows…

Dusty verdict: Season of the Witch is strange, so strange… as Donovan intones when his psych-folk classic is played, it predates the film’s release by seven years and covers some of the same ground: “… so many different people to be”. The film does feel more of that time despite the fantastic early 70s décor and fashions.

It’s a slow-moving treat though and now available on Blu-ray from Arrow – on-sale at Amazon and in all the old familiar places. Watch it to haunt yourself and to feel the demonic pressures of your possessions, your interior design and your life. Tis the season to be scary. 

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