A sizeable chunk George A. Romero’s all too short body of work was born between night and dawn. An overtly experimental stage -composed of four films out of fifteen and a half, that occupy the ten years that separates the 1968 release of his barnstorming debut and one of the lightning rods of modern horror cinema; Night Of The Living Dead, and 1978’s Dawn Of The Dead, his highest budgeted affair up that to point, and for many the peak of his art. Watch him work through this period and you will see the steady formulation of a filmmaker, whose formal sense and preoccupations are wet enough to produce one of his most pitted yet interesting works; Season Of The Witch (1973).
Or is it Hungry Wives? That’s the title that appears in the opening credits. Popped in there after the financiers hijacked Romero’s 120 minute original cut and chopped it down to 90 minutes in an attempt to sell it as softcore. Though it has its share of the sex starved, the title feels mighty incongruous given the film’s desolate tone. An all-encompassing malaise that bears down on the its fulcrum; Joan (Jan Mitchell), a housewife, bordering on middle-aged, who’s stymied by an uncaring husband and a dull domestic existence. She’s hungry for inspiration and eventually finds some in a mutual friend/practicing occultist whose outsider lifestyle places her on the periphery of society and so away from its restrictions. Mystified yet entranced, Joan decides to try her hand at the art of witchcraft but before she can muster any magic and escape, the film records her imprisonment. The prison, a suburbia that Romero effectively keeps contained within anonymous interiors that when they aren’t splintered by shadows, are presented in dull pastel colours and 70s kitsch. A two-dimensionality that rhymes, probably accidentally, with Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s The Merchant of Four Seasons (1971) with its flattened compositions and a shared interest in the double torment of a stultifying work and home life.
The sound design too, evokes a paper-thin world. For whenever the score runs silent, characters speak with an echo and hiss. Life, for them is a series of sound stages. Though this effect is likely, in part, unintentional given that the production was beset by budgetary constraints. A cheapness that could be used to knock the film, especially in regard to the acting. For though the cast (major and minor, but mostly major) generally acquit themselves well enough there is the occasional line that feels laboured or is delivered blankly. But within such a hollow context, what appears to be bad acting often comes across as an awkwardness symptomatic of lives spent under a repressive pall. The strongest example of this can be found in the character of Shirley (Ann Muffley), Joan’s older friend whose shrill and skin-deep personality, played to the nth degree by Muffley, gets upended during the film’s centrepiece sequence. A house party occupied by Joan, Shirley, the former’s young adult daughter, Nikki (Joedda McClain) and her boyfriend Gregg (Ray Laine). A dick swinging mop top who commanders the scene with a confidence and cynical smugness as he tells truisms or assumptions that he mistakes for the truth. They are all drunk, but Shirley is drunker, and so gets louder and loosens up. A state of being that she clearly isn’t used to and so she periodically relapses with a reactionary opinion or two. Gregg can’t stand it. He sees not the contradictory forces that are pushing and pulling her apart but a ‘hypocrisy’ that needs to be rooted with ritual humiliation. So, he pretends to spike her cigarette with grass.
What follows veers towards the silly with all Gregg’s talk about “turning her on” and everyone getting riled up about the supposedly brain busting effects of the demon weed sounding like the run up to the sort of titillation that the producers craved. Yet instead of coitus what we see is Shirley being methodically dismantled, as Gregg aggressively interrogates her about her insecurities, causing her to break down. The uncomfortable effect of which is amplified by Romero cutting the scene into a loop of the four characters in medium close-up and then, once the mood turns sours, he constricts, shifting to a relay of extreme close-ups to suffocating effect. Under the microscope, Muffley’s hamminess becomes excruciating as we see both her and her character try to act their way out of Gregg’s gaslighting. The kicker comes with the source of Shirley’s breakdown. An abusive married life that we see, near enough first hand, when Joan drops her off home. From her perspective, Shirley makes the tortuously unbalanced walk from the car to the front door and a background occupied by her husband. His features are rendered indistinct by the distance, save for his spectacles and bushy moustache which along with a stiff stillness makes him look like a mannequin sporting groucho glasses. It’s funny but unnervingly intertwined with how ominous he is, standing in a shroud of darkness patiently waiting through the silence as his wife wades to him to get her punishment.
Joan is worried, not just for her friend and because she sees in Shirley her future but worse. She knows it is also her present and it’s dominated by a masculine hegemony which Romero representsas both unchecked brute force and an aversion towards affection. First, if not foremost, in her husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst). A boorish businessman whose idea of intimacy is either lumpen, as he starts every morning by rolling over her with his meaty physique, or else he is perfunctorily antiseptic, like the first time we see them together. Joan is silent, dead-eyed and lying in bed where she looks so flat and shrunken that she seems to merge with the quilt. While Jack mindlessly canvasses the room, getting ready for work, parroting incessantly until he leans down to kiss her goodbye by puckering his lips inches above her face. That’s it. It’s purely functional. A ritual. It’s Jack’s own piece of witchcraft and so it’s dead on arrival. And not dissimilar from the tact taken by her psychiatrist. Joan goes to him to extrapolate the dream sequence that opens the film. A barrel distorted trek through the woods and her neuroses, which are represented by a conveyor belt of loaded symbols such as a broken egg, a wailing infant and her husband leading her naked by a leash to a cage. It’s a fairly comprehensible set of images that when deduced point to her fear of growing old, unfulfilled and trapped within a patriarchal household and society. Though the psychiatrist’s response is to excise her capacity for self-exploration – “the dreamer can never interpret his own dream”, and then latch on to the aging angle at expense of everything else. This approach is ubiquitous in a world moulded to a one track misogynist conception of it. Like when Nikki runs away in a fit of rebellion -the only external plot point in a narrative mapped to the contents of Joan’s ennui. Jack’s response is to strike Marian and declare that the only dependable way to fix anything is “to kick some ass”.
It stems from the same mindset that witchcraft was originally concocted. Where the inexplicable could be scapegoated and systematic misogyny exercised using superstition as an excuse and gynecide as the method. Yet in the second half, it is repurposed. As Joan starts to practice black magic not only as a way to enliven a nulled sense of self but to strive towards a sexual and intellectual empowerment under which the ‘rules’ are not only bendable, like when she tries to defy the law of physics via an attempt at coffee cup levitation, but at a remove from how the world has previously been defined. Hence why Romero drums up real-world parallels to alternative ways of thinking and living. Not just feminism (the second wave of which Romero read up on as inspiration) but the counter-cultural in general. For when Joan goes out to pick up witch gear, her shopping is scored by the title song ‘Season Of The Witch’, performed by Donovan -the Scottish psych pop singer/songwriter who publicly embraced a hippie image, and supported with a few words of approval ejected by the longhair behind the counter. Though while making this connection, what makes it, and the film, interesting is that there is doubt festering. For Gregg and his idea of free love, is just as much a product of The Summer Of Love as the clerk. And though witchcraft it may provide for Joan a way out, it also might ferment in her a new prison. Or an old one. And anxiety heightened and alive in Romero’s filmmaking. Which on this occasion can be rough, but what makes it fitting is that it treats witchcraft as an underground activity. An improvisation against the unconsciously monolithic social structures that Romero will subvert time and time again.