Season of the Witch (1973)

Long thought lost, this is one of the almighty George A. Romero’s earliest films after 1968’s classic Night of the Living Dead. If any film that’s actually somewhere in the public consciousness could be reasonably compared, it is absolutely his 1977 film Martin.

It bears the marks of independent film very clearly, as well as its thought-lost status. The print Anchor Bay dug up, well, it looks like they dug it up. It shouldn’t be held against them, certainly, considering no one even thought they could find it and the film would be 36 years old at this point (it was filmed in 1971). It also holds performances that are unrefined talent; they are all believable and the lines and motions are delivered believably enough, absolutely sufficiently so, but still feel like the work of early and independent film, of actors brought in with little or no experience.

However, Romero is an excellent director–and editor.

Joan Mitchell (Jan White) is a middle-aged woman in the suburbs, who is finding the housewife life boring and tiresome, our first experience being an amusing dream she has of following her husband, Jack (Bill Thunhurst, later seen in Romero’s classic film The Crazies), through the woods and effectively serving his needs, until she ends up in her home, with one of her neighbors introducing her to all of its “features” and amenities, the number of TVs, the boy who delivers groceries, the locations of rooms–and a lot of “et cetera,” in a literal sense, as he mentions this phrase repeatedly while discussing the things she can find there. Joan’s daughter Nikki is grown up and in college, and her husband is consumed by his business life, effectively ignoring her.

At a party, she hears of Marion, a new woman in town, who is referred to as a ‘witch,’ in the literal, rather than derogatory, sense. She is quietly intrigued, showing the interest clearly on her face but saying little. She has an offhand discussion with her friend Shirley (Ann Muffly, later seen in Romero’s Knightriders) about the subject, and about the moral restraints on her life as regards cheating and sex in general, especially with her Catholic background and the guilt associated, which she feels just for thinking about it. She and Shirley go and see Marion so that Shirley can get a Tarot reading. Seeing Marion’s approach to it and how it helps her live her life, Joan begins to take even more interest.

Soon she begins to have more dreams, including a recurring one about an intruder in a mask attacking her, but her regular life continues in the same banal fashion, though she has an interesting episode with a friend of Nikki’s, Gregg Williamson (Raymond Laine) who espouses the belief that magic works because the people cursed by it believe it and so psychosomatically cause things to happen to themselves, that it is a matter of willpower and belief that causes it to work–Joan extends this to external, telepathic possibilities, that if she, as a hypothetical practitioner of magic, believed strongly enough, then certainly she could cause it to happen. He then tricks the drunken Shirley into smoking a cigarette, telling her it’s actually marijuana and experimenting, as a sociology teacher, with the internal concerns and issues that Shirley has. She gets extremely stressed and Joan pushes him away.

Thereafter she begins to experiment, after her conversations with Shirley and the ideas Gregg brings up, with finding “kicks” outside of her boring domestic life, trying witchcraft for certain and looking at extramarital sex.

It’s an interesting character study, with the otherwise inexperienced (in film, at least) Jan White surprisingly quite up to the task, her eyes and voice very expressive.

The star, however, is definitely Romero, with a well-directed overall experience and a brilliantly edited group of shots making it up. He uses imagery throughout to hone points and build the tones of each scene, using somewhat creepy lamps with childlike statues as their bases to enhance a surreal and disturbing feeling in scenes of witchcraft portraying the fear Joan feels of it, and the dreams which are terrifying to her. There’s a worn bull-like statue in her bedroom, too, that is the object of much attention, often seen in flashes of lightning and being a focus for the fear she feels.

I wasn’t sure what to expect, as I’ve heard Romero wouldn’t have minded too much if these films were never seen again, but it was a pleasant surprise, I must say.

Sidenote: the film is actually named for Donovan’s song of the same name, which plays over an excellently edited montage of Joan buying supplies for and then beginining to practice the craft she has read about.

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