Released in 1973 under the title Hungry Wives, George Romero's third film did poorly in theatres and was "lost" for many years, until it was finally re-released by Anchor Bay Entertainment in 2005 as Season of the Witch. The working title of the film was actually Jack's Wife, but the title was changed post-production in the interest of shock value. I reckon even fewer asses would have hit seats if the audience knew what Romero really had in store with this picture: a gripping-at-times melodrama that serves as a poignant metaphor for the life of a typical, middle-aged woman in the early 1970s.
The film opens with a bizarre dream sequence shot at impersonal angles through a fish eye lens. A weary-looking woman follows a man in business clothes through an oudoor scene. A baby lies unattended in a small clearing, alarm clocks sound, and the woman eventually finds herself being led by her husband with a leash he has fastened on a collar around her neck. She is led inside to a lovely home which is equipped with everything she needs, including "all the nowest clothes." Her daughter is there, and everything is as it should be, except for the fact that when she glances at her reflection in the mirror, the woman she sees looking back at her is a much older hag.
Joan Mitchell (Jan White) is in therapy. Her husband Jack (Bill Thurnhurst) is unattentive, and is often away on business trips. Her daughter Nikki (Joedda McClain) is shamelessly riding the wave of the sexual revolution. Joan feels trapped in a life she no longer feels connected to, and she has been plagued by nightmares. In her psychiatrist's view, "the only person imprisoning Joanie is Joan."
Jack and his wife attend a party where a guy in a leisure suit is collecting submissions for a Mad Lib he is working on (yes, that kind of party). Over martinis, Joan's girlfriend Shirley (Ann Muffley*) mentions a woman she knows who is into tarot cards and witchcraft. While the group of aging wives laugh it off at the party, Joan is intrigued. The next day, she goes with Shirley to see this woman for a reading. Meeting the witch, Sylvia (Esther Lapidus) only intensifies Joan's interest, and she begins to give the subject some serious consideration. Ah, the occult: a powerful drug indeed for those of us looking to fill a void.
As Joan drives home with Shirley, she is unaware of how her life is about to change. Once back at her house, she meets Greg Williamson (Ray Laine), a strapping, young friend of her daughters. He cajoles them into heated conversation, envigorating the women, and encourages them to expand their minds. The sexual tension between Joan and Greg erupts when she scolds him for playing a mean, drug-related prank on her square friend.
When Joan's daughter runs away from home, and Jack leaves on yet another of his business trips, Joan uses her time alone to explore both witchcraft, and the young Professor Williamson. Her nightmares have also taken a turn for the worse, now depicting her being raped by a masked intruder. This time, instead of glowering in her therapists office, she decides to venture out for some "supplies."
To the tune of Donovan's "Season of the Witch," which inspired the film's 2005 re-release title, Joan picks up the implements she will need, along with her primer on witchcraft, to conduct her first rituals. She conjures spirits, praying that they "obsess and torment the body, spirit, soul, and five senses of the mortal named Gregory Williamson... That he come to me tonight, and that he accomplish my will."
While frequently focused-upon, demonic-looking bull statue looks on in approval, Joan and Professor Williamson make mad love on the living room floor (Jan White did not get naked in this picture, however, so the viewer is left to assume that it was mad based solely upon her vocalizations). After a frank discussion of the boundaries of their relationship, Greg leaves Joan alone in the house once again. In her sleep, she returns again to her nightmare world. She begins to suspect that her conjurations have brought more into her life than just casual sex.
She summons the young professor once again, imploring him to sit with her while she summons the spirit of the god Virago so that she may break the spell, as she fears the whole thing has gone beyond her control. Greg isn't exactly buying what she has to sell him. "Jesus Christ, you'll really go off the deep end looking for a cop-out, won't you? Look, you had a little sex on the side, woman. You got that? It's something you've always wanted, something you finally got, but you can't buy that, can you?"
He powers her to the floor. In the next scene, he is naked and lying on the floor while Joan prepares her ritual. He awakens, and the two go at it once more. Afterward, Joan tells Greg that she does not wish to see him again, thus ending their affair.
Joan ritually ends her communications with Virago, but suffers the awful nightmare again. Unable to discern her dream from reality, she fires two shotgun shells out the window, believing that she is defending herself against the masked marauder. A man falls to the ground on the other side of the shattered glass: her husband, Jack.
Images of the moments following Jack's fatal wounding are interwoven with images of Joan participating in her induction rites. Some policemen are overheard talking on the crime scene: "whether she's lyin' or not, she'll get away with it... Goddamn women, they get it all in the end. They get it all from us, they end up with everything. Poor bastard."
No longer defined solely as Jack's wife, Joan returns to her old social circle with a renewed sense of purpose and vitality. In the final moments of the film, Jan White delivers a powerful line in which she admits to one of the ladies at the party, "I am a witch." The camera hovers over White's sublime expression as she glares distantly outward, as though pondering some secret amusement.
Ms. White provides an extensive interview within the bonus features of the DVD, which serves as a great viewing companion for the film. Not only did White give a memorable performance in the role of Joan, but it is clear (based upon her comments in the interview) that she truly believed in the project she was involved with. Unfortunately, Ms. White essentially fell (back) into obscurity after this picture was unceremoniously released; she appeared in only one other film, Touch Me Not, in 1974.
Most of the buzz about this "lost" Romero film is that the movie is lousy, but I disagree. While it was far from a fast-paced action and special effects thrill-ride, I thoroughly enjoyed the other kind of tension that this film evokes. People don't have to eat other people all the time. For an even more uncharacteristic Romero picture, the flip-side of the disc features the non-horror movie There's Always Vanilla, which was filmed around the same time as Jack's Wife, and also features Ray Laine. For the record, I have yet to watch this one the whole way through without falling asleep.
* Insert comment about her excellent surname here.
3/5 Kitty Skulls = Wait for this movie to hit the Bargain Bin.
Virago is the Latin Bible's word for "woman." It was the name given by Adam to the first woman when she was created out of his rib. (The name was later changed to "Eve.") - Wikipedia