Sunday, June 8, 2008

George A. Romero Month, Film 5

Here at Honors Zombie's in depth look at the influence of director George A. Romero, an important part of this retrospective is looking at the director's other work. With the exception of the few industrial films he made for his Pittsburgh based production house and the odd television spot, he only ever made one non-horror movie in his life. This isn't a unique choice (Wes Craven & John Carpenter share the trait) but it is unfortunate that the one film Romero chose to go straight with has been universally forgotten. That film, There's Always Vanilla, sounds dreadfully boring and is out of print. The film following that, the subject of today's installment of Romero and his films, was his not-so-triumphant return to horror after a four year break.

Season of the Witch
by George A. Romero

A bored housewife named Joan who hates herself, her husband, daughter, and her banal suburban existence. She suffers from nightly visions of being raped by a man in a skin-tight black costume (these scenes are eerily reminiscent of the far superior hallucinations of Roman Polanski's Repulsion), which her therapist is unable to satisfactorily explain to her. At a party one night, her 'friends' and neighbors clue her in on the talk of their circle of catty old women: the newest addition to the neighborhood, Sylvia, the witch. Joan meets Sylvia a few nights later and while her truly sheltered friend Shirley grills Sylvia about her lifestyle, Joan flips through the pages of the very sillily titled books on witchcraft lying around. She's so intrigued that she goes out and buys a few of these books herself. It's about this time that her battle with her daughter comes to a head. Joan hates her daughter's boyfriend Gregg and the two have fought many arguments over the young girl's life. One night, Joan comes home and finds her daughter and Gregg having sex; her daughter is understandably upset to learn that her mother sat in the room right next to the one she was fornicating in, and runs away from home. Joan's husband gets violent about her behavior, namely that she didn't punish their daughter for her actions, Gregg decides that Joan is just as attractive as her daughter and begins trying to seduce her, and she decides to take a more proactive stance on witchcraft in an effort to reclaim her life.

It's only natural that after making what is essentially a perfect movie that a director might not repeat his success. Night of the Living Dead is about as close to the best horror film of the 20th century as you might come and it seemed to have happened essentially by accident. That his next few films would pale in comparison should have been expected, but that the first two after Night are so very languorous and bizarre is disappointing to say the least. If the plot seems like it rambles, that's because it does. The problem is it also moves like a tortoise; though there is a good deal of shifting from plot point to plot point the film never moves, in fact there are long stretches where it just sits down and takes a breather. It gets old pretty fast. The themes he covered in There's Always Vanilla make an appearance (dependence, marital discord, suburban living) in Season of the Witch, but in a cockeyed fashion. Romero was trying to make more out of one of them (horror or the domestic drama) but couldn't decide which he was more interested in. We spend much more time watching Joan tramp through her menial housewife existence than we do her exacting a supernatural revenge on the six or seven people she feels deserve it (not that anyone but her husband actually suffers). The real problem with the movie is the muddy nature of the plot. Joan's dreams are never really explained with regard to her real life and what exactly she has planned for herself after the death of her husband is left ambiguous. Sylvia's last appearance where she congratulates Joan on her choosing to pursue witchcraft is truly puzzling. She tells her protege not to misuse the magic she's stumbled on or it might destroy her, but Sylvia's life seems no better for her having used witchcraft and at the end Joan seems just slightly less bored than when we first met her. The subplot involving Gregg and Joan's affair really needed some more closure than it got, which is to say, any at all. She breaks it off with him, he leaves, then her daughter is cited at a truck stop. Gregg leaves, her daughter never re-enters the picture and no one is punished or changed. Gregg never comes back into the story and so we never know whether Joan was ok with the outcome of the affair. Also, it seems the only reason she needed to use witchcraft was to seduce the sleaze bag in the first place. She just wanted it to seem like her idea, rather than simply submitting to the lame advances of a pudgy substitute teacher with a growing libido. The sequence of events seems to be: "Your daughter's gone so I need someone to have sex with and I find you attractive, if you want to have sex, I'm willing to do that." "Not like that. If we're doing this, I want to be in control of everything." Greed all around. Gregg is just an unrepentant, flabby dickweed and why Joan would want any part of that is the biggest mystery in this film.

Considering that Romero only saw fit to show us old women chattering like magpies for much of this film it's fitting that at the end of it, I don't feel like I walked away with much. The dream sequences are effective given their budget but don't amount to anything. In fact this whole film doesn't amount to a damn thing as I didn't care iota 1 about anyone or anything that happens. The most interesting thought I had during this movie was whether or not Donavan wrote the song for use in a terrible little movie from a no one in Pennsylvania, or whether he was simply passed out on mushrooms when he landed on the contract and someone took it as a yes. The song is even used inappropriately. Dawn of the Dead was calling, but Romero was buried too deep in Pittsburgh to hear it. Thank god he got these films out of his system, because I don't know how much more mid-life crisis I could have taken. He was however, on the upswing. His next films would just get better until he reached his peak, then things would once again take a down-turn.

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