Like the malcontent MARTIN (1977) who sought answers and an alternative nightside to the dull, crushing poverty of his daylit hours, Joan Mitchell (Jan White) plunges into the world of all-the-rage witchcraft to distract from the role of compliant housewife that has been both pressed upon her and eased into without much personal pushback. (Not only is Joan’s input constantly interrupted in conversation, but the film’s alternate title in Britain, JACK’S WIFE, further classifies her as a non-entity in the possession of another.) Seeing perpetually smashed, older friend Shirley (Ann Muffly) shatter at the thought of her advanced age–an aching scene–kindles similar fears in Joan, and it’s tempting to view her black magic experimentations as the pagan inverse to the materialistic mid-life crisis of the rougher sex.
In true fashion, Joan has some casual sex with her runaway daughter’s handsome boyfriend (Raymond Laine), that ultimate shot-in-the-arm transgression for marital rigor mortis. Whether it’s guilt or buried psychosis that fuels her hotbed of electric instrumental womp-womp dreams of masked house invaders and scratching brambles edited like a quickened heartbeat we don’t know, nor can it be certain if Joan’s candle-side incantations hold sway over reality or if they just act as nice New Age window dressing for the things she’s been itching to do under her housecoats for all these years. It’s not hard to see the warty old harpies of MACBETH lurking under the flowery ascots and heroic hair bobs of the other actresses playing the Yoga-practicing homemakers who make up Joan’s social circle–the cast mainly consists of local talent with credits in the single digits who lived and died in Romero’s hometown of Pittsburgh–and Joan herself is made up in these scenes like a Mrs. Gulch drag queen in Boy George eye shadow.
What’s refreshing about SEASON OF THE WITCH is that it’s a film unimpeded by the long shadow of the subgenre Romero was soon to be forever associated with, and it shows the adventurousness and hobbled craft of a filmmaker getting his sea legs, beholden at this time only to the limits of his own imagination and budget. The film’s ending offers another in a line of Romero’s patented shocker-deaths, and it closes with a policeman echoing the fears of feminine takeover from Fritz Leiber’s CONJURE WIFE (“Goddamn women, they get it all from us in the end.”) and Joan’s initiation into the sisterhood of darkness. And like MARTIN, whether Joan’s confession to an admiring, questioning housewife is lie, delusion, or truth hardly makes any difference at all. With marriage and motherhood finally put to rest, she is exactly who she wants to be now: a witch.
Donovan’s eponymous track plays over a montage of Joan purchasing hex-spices in a basement shop that also sells organic foods, and there are some appreciated cameos put in by a set of creepy child lamps.
Viewed on Amazon Prime.