Season of the Witch (1972)
After The Night of the Living Dead George A. Romero tried to distance himself from the horror genre. Now that he had a feature film under his belt, and a successful one, his next project was a romantic comedy called There's Always Vanilla. It fared about as well as one might think a romantic comedy made by Romero would, complicated by the fact that he didn't write it. After that a bit of horror began to creep back in for his third movie, originally titled Jack's Wife and released as Hungry Wives in its original form.
Joan (Jan White) is a suburban housewife with a teenage daughter named Nikki (Joedda McClain) and a frequently absent husband named Jack (Bill Thunhurst). She is still good looking, though getting older, and is feeling trapped by her lifestyle and the obligations that go with it. It doesn't help that many of the women in her social circle, a few who are older than she is, seem to be just barely surviving day by day. She is Catholic as are many of her friends, all of whom are bound to the old ways of doing things.
Although somewhat repulsed she is also curious about her daughter and the new generation that seem free about sexuality, although their lives, including that of sociology professor Gregg (Raymond Laine), seem just as empty. When a new lady named Marion (Virginia Greenwald) does a tarot reading for a friend of hers Joan becomes interested in witchcraft, attempting to use it to manifest her desires and find some of her confidence and freedom once more. Unfortunately, she is still troubled by her dreams and her isolation despite the promise of being able to free herself with her new-found power.
Romero approaches witchcraft, and the veracity thereof, much the same way he does vampirism in Martin. It's pretty much hinted that anything she "manifests" is because she finds the confidence to finally do so rather than coming from any sort of magic or dealing with the paranormal. Still, while not a traditional horror film, Season of the Witch (as it was renamed for re-release upon the success of Dawn of the Dead) still manages a sense of dread through the frequent dream sequences and Joan's sense of isolation, not to mention the occasional abusive nature of Jack.
Although this is considered one of his "lost" films, and is certainly not as well regarded as Martin or The Crazies - the horror films released between his first two zombie films - I found it to be a well-acted and well-paced drama. Jan White is a great actress, Raymond Laine is believable as a young scoundrel exploiting the free love movement, and the ending ties everything together well. The producers tried to pressure Romero into adding pornographic scenes, which he refused, and eventually the budget was cut in half, but he still managed to produce something worth seeing. The problem is that almost everything he has made sense has been horror or action, and fans go into watching a Romero film expecting such. In this case the occult is simply a way for Joan to find freedom to be herself rather than to do anything nefarious.
A major problem for some, but not for me, is that the movie may never be seen as intended. The main version available is the 89-minute one which was the original commercial release. There is a partially restored 104-minute cut, as well as a partially reconstructed 144 minute one. The original movie, once Romero cut it down from the four hours of footage he had, was 130 minutes, and that one has been lost. Personally, I think I would have liked this a lot less if the full version still existed, since at this short of length there doesn't feel like I am missing anything. A good portion of the movie is dreams and, short of making things more muddied, at can't see where the added length would have told more story.
Despite not being a straight horror this is still recognizably a Romero film, with one of his trademarks being pulling great performances from local amateur actors. Colors are used wonderfully, the cinematography is better than most low-budget directors of the time and it manages to keep on topic with the plot. He did say that he wished at some point he could remake it with a proper budget, but as it stands it is still a solid movie with a good bit to say.
Season of the Witch (1972)
Time: 89 minutes
Starring: Jan White, Raymond Laine, Bill Thunhurst
Director: George A. Romero