Film history isn’t a highlight reel of universally agreed-upon classics. It’s an epic story. But some chapters of the story draw more attention than others. Secret Cinema is a column dedicated to shining a light on compelling, little-noticed, overlooked, or faded-from-memory movies from years past. Let’s talk about the films nobody’s talking about.
1997 saw the release of the Ang Lee film The Ice Storm, an adaptation of a Rick Moody novel that looked back to life in early-’70s Connecticut from the distance of a couple of decades. Both film and novel portray how some of the changes of the ’60s, a decade filled with radical breaks with tradition, evolved and adapted as they moved from campuses and big cities to the suburbs. Sexual liberation became a commonplace idea. Drug use became a part of everyday life. As self-help books, once out of style and supplanted by other trendy takes on New Age philosophies, were recycled as sale items at church fundraisers, the hippie principles they contained were recycled back into the culture as well. The new ideas proved viable, at least in the short term, even as some of those who adopted them become collateral damage. Attending a spouse-swapping key party, Ice Storm’s Joan Allen throws herself into a casual dalliance with a neighbor with the abandon seemingly demanded by the times, receiving only frustration, tears, and some of the least-erotic post-coital commentary ever put to film: “That was awful.”
Around the same time The Ice Storm hit theaters, Anchor Bay Entertainment, a company that used to be in the business of unearthing and restoring classic, half-remembered, and little-seen cult films, released the 1972 George Romero film Season Of The Witch to the home-video market. Viewed back-to-back, the movies seemed to be having a conversation about the way times change and the ways not everyone changes with them. The two are, in many respects, markedly different films. For starters, The Ice Storm features no witches, unless I’m missing something buried deep in the subtext. Furthermore, Romero’s film is much less accomplished than Lee’s, and a step down from his own work. Romero’s second horror film, made after Night Of The Living Dead, Season Of The Witch looks significantly less impressive than its predecessor. Where Night Of The Living Dead sandwiched some undistinguished, talky bits featuring actors of widely varying skill between the zombie horror, Season Of The Witch is nearly all undistinguished talky bits featuring actors of widely varying skill. Frankly, it’s kind of a slog. But it also preserves the same turning point in suburban life The Ice Storm so memorably reproduces.
If you want to know what a time and place really looked like, look to its low-budget movies. Where projects like The Ice Storm and Mad Men reproduce the past, often brilliantly, through meticulous reconstruction, films like Season Of The Witch usually have to take what they can get by shooting on locations that remain much as the filmmakers found them. (Between Witch, the crumbling Pittsburgh that serves as a backdrop for Martin, and the contrast between urban decay and shopping-mall opulence offered in Dawn Of The Dead, Romero’s movies double as a history of life in ’70s Pennsylvania.) The ’60s Haight-Ashbury of the popular imagination, for instance, is all sunny days and flowers, but the location footage of Psych-Out, a cautionary, Richard Rush-directed (and Dick Clark-produced) B-movie shot in San Francisco at the height of the Haight-Ashbury scene reveals a grungier-looking place.
They’re also invaluable for portraying what people thought and how they talked to each other about those thoughts. And if nothing else, Season Of The Witch is filled with thoughts and conversation. Released as both Jack’s Wife and Hungry Wives for various markets, it makes no attempts to hide what it’s about. Night Of The Living Dead earned praise for addressing, opaquely, the upheaval of the times. For his follow-ups, Romero got more specific. The Crazies, which followed Season Of The Witch into theaters, drew specifically on images of protest and social unrest. Season Of The Witch is Romero’s film about feminism in its Women’s Lib phase. It’s loaded with references to the occult, but owes as much to Betty Friedan as Anton LaVey.
Jan White, an East Coast soap actress and commercial model sought out by Romero for the lead role, plays an upper-middle-class homemaker named Joan. She’s defined herself almost entirely as a wife and a mother, but those definitions have started to lose their meaning. Her husband (Bill Thunhurst) is often away on business, and her college-age daughter (Joedda McClain) doesn’t pay much attention to her. Staring down middle age, Joan starts to wonder who she is, even though her dreams provide an answer she doesn’t want to hear.
Romero opens the film with a nearly eight-minute dream sequence that’s strangely effective, despite trafficking in symbolism that would make the editor of a high-school literary journal call for revisions. Led by her husband, whom she sees only from behind as he reads a paper and ignores her, Joan walks along a forest path as creepy electronic music plays in the background. Her husband carelessly lets branches hit her in the face as they walk past a crying baby and toward a large home, where he hands her, now leashed, over to another man, who puts her in a kennel. From there, the dream shifts to her own home, where a man introduces her to all its features, as if trying to sell her on the life she already leads. It doesn’t work. When she looks in a mirror, she sees only a nightmare vision of the old hag she fears she’ll become.
There’s nothing subtle about it, but it works anyway, in part because nothing about it feels manipulated as it remolds ordinary people and mundane places in the service of surreal visions. In fact, it’s the way the film keeps one foot in the utterly ordinary that makes it work as well as it does.
White spends much of the film looking haggard, less like an actress than a beautiful woman who’s let herself go, because what’s the point, anyway? Therapy doesn’t help. Her daughter only makes her feel further out of touch. Then, at a party, Joan hears whispers about Mary (Charlotte Carter), a woman in the neighborhood who practices witchcraft. Something clicks. Accompanying her loud friend Shirley (Ann Muffly), she goes to Mary’s house for a tarot reading and peruses a book called To Be A Witch. Significantly, it’s not an obscure, leather-bound tome, but a mass-produced item. As Mary tells her visitors, witchcraft isn’t what it used to be:
It’s a religion, really. My mother was a witch, and my father belonged, so it was really quite simple for me. In today’s age, when anything goes, a lot of people are beginning to take it seriously. When I was a child, I was taught certain recipes and incantations, and then I was sworn to secrecy. Well, today, I could just go down to the bookstore and find a paperback primer for witches.
Joan takes the idea to heart. In one of the film’s most striking sequences, she heads to downtown Pittsburgh to the accompaniment of the Donovan song that gives the film its title. Hitting up a combination organic-foods-and-books store—a bit of ’60s culture that hadn’t made its way to the suburbs yet—she picks up hard-to-obtain items like fennel seed and camphor. At a nearby antique shop, staffed by a hippie reading How To Have A Green Thumb Without An Aching Back, she picks up a knife and chalice. Then she sets about performing witchcraft.
At this point, the film has given her more than a few reasons to take up with the occult. Her husband has struck her in the course of an argument. Her daughter has disappeared after a confrontation, embarrassed that Joan overheard her making love to an acerbic, shaggy-haired professor (Ray Laine, who looks disturbingly like a cross between Davy Jones and George “Goober” Lindsey). Then there’s that professor, who keeps casting lustful looks her way while challenging her beliefs in facile, aggressive terms straight out of the Big Book Of Countercultural Stereotypes. (“People just refuse to admit they’re piles of dust, that’s all.”)
Her dalliance with the dark side ends badly, though not so much for her. Casting a spell, she decides to act on her desire for the professor by calling him to her. When that fails, she simply calls him on the phone, and they begin an affair. Then, following a series of recurring dreams in which a masked intruder invades her home, the dream seems to come true in real life. Horrified, she shoots the intruder before she can fall victim to him. Only it’s not an intruder, just the cumbersome, abusive husband she feels is holding her back.
Did she know that when she killed him? Did her spells do anything at all? Romero plays with the ambiguity, albeit much more clumsily than in Martin, which refuses to answer the question of whether its protagonist is the vampire he imagines himself to be. The film ends with her declaring herself a witch, then zooms in on her eyes as she seems to recognize, maybe for the first time, what that means, or whether it means anything at all. Then someone else introduces her as “Jack’s wife,” as if returning to her the collar placed around her neck in the film’s first moments.
Again, it’s not a subtle film. And again, it’s not close to Romero’s best work. But it’s also a weirdly haunting document of a place thrown into confusion by an era that had decided the old rules just didn’t apply anymore. The dreary cinematography and cluttered interiors—Romero worked largely in a house he left as he found it—stir the same mood of ill-defined times and free-floating discontent recreated by The Ice Storm without seeming to try. When anything goes, you could go to church like your parents. Or you could write the Lord’s Prayer backward in a book at midnight and pray to dark spirits. And for someone like Joan, whom life has passed by, the former option hadn’t really worked out, so why not try witchcraft instead? Ultimately, Season Of The Witch doesn’t side with witchcraft any more than The Ice Storm sides with key parties, but it still has tremendous sympathy for the conditions that turn Joan into a (possibly) murderous would-be sorceress. She’s bored, ignored, and dissatisfied, and those feelings always make their way to the light somehow. They just have to wait for the surface to crack.
Next: There’s Always Tomorrow (1956)