|Submitted by Iain McLachlan |
(Dec 23, 2005)
Alternate Titles: SEASON OF THE WITCH; HUNGRY WIVES.
16mm/Color by WRS Labs
RT: 104 mins
Pro Co: The Latent Image Inc
Dir/Wr: George A. Romero;
Pro: Nancy M. Romero;
Exec Pro: Alvin Croft;
Assoc Pro: Gary Streiner.
Phot: George A. Romero; Bill Hinzman (addit phot);
Film Ed: George A. Romero; Paul McColloch;
Electronic Mus: Steve Gorn.
SFX: Rege Survinski;
Sound: Gerald Schutz; Rex Gleason.
Post Prod: Bob Rutkowski;
Pro Sup: Vincent Survinski;
Cast: Jan White, Ray Laine, Ann Muffly, Jedda McClain, Virginia Greenwald, Neil Fisher, Bill Lapidus, Dan Mallinger, Daryl Montgomery, Ken Peters, Shirley Strasser, Bill Hinzman, Bob Trow, Paul McColloch.
With his breakthrough work Night of the Living Dead (1968) building toward being a major success, thanks to a combination of excellent word of mouth, popular midnight screenings in major urban locales, and favourable reviews from influential film critics, especially in Europe, director George A. Romero was very concerned at being ghettoised within the horror genre. To this end his independent production company The Latent Image managed to secure finance for two very different ventures from that 1968 picture. One was the much-troubled comedy-drama There’s Always Vanilla (1971), which Romero has effectively disowned, while the other was the decidedly offbeat item under review here, Jack’s Wife.
A middle-aged suburban woman’s anxieties about her life, how it has turned out and what it may have been, are revealed in a series of vivid dreams involving her uncaring husband, estranged daughter and her prison-like home. Particularly disturbing are images of a handyman, and of herself grown suddenly grown very old. When she awakens from one such dream, her husband informs her that he is away on business. Her visit to a psychotherapist to discuss the message behind the dreams proves frustrating. Feelings of isolation and depression are heightened by a routine visit into town. Later, at dinner, her daughter brings up the subject of a sibling who died in infancy. Irritated by the question, the housewife asks why she wanted to know about the child. She tells her that it has to do with something that she was studying at college. The husband then appears, reminding his spouse of a social engagement that evening. At the function, the main subject of conversations amongst the women is a woman of their acquaintance who professes being a practicing witch. She also claims that her activities are considered to be part of a religion. An adlib performance by a writer appears to be connected to the housewife’s dreams. That night, the husband tells her that he has to go away on business for a week. She tries but fails to relate some of her personal concerns. The next morning, she and her daughter discuss her growing independence. Her daughter compliments her mother on looking good for her age. That night the housewife travels with her older best friend to a tarot reading given by the self-professed witch. Journeying there, the two women discuss various things including the possibility of committing adultery, and being frightened of what the tarot cards might reveal. The tarot reader makes them feel welcome and proves sympathetic to their concerns. Her friend’s reading turns out to be surprisingly accurate and the housewife takes a strong interest in her surrounding. She is fascinated by the various artefacts associated with the craft, in particular an introductory book on witchcraft which she begins perusing, before becoming totally engrossed in. The witch says that her mother was a witch and her father was involved in the religion. She bemoans the fact that what was once seen as unique belief system was now being commercialised, with artefacts and literature associated with spells and other areas of witchcraft now commonly available by mail order or in stores. Driving home, the two housewives discuss what they had just witnessed with the older woman confessing that the tarot had revealed details of a failed affair she had embarked on. Her friend believes that the religion that the witch practiced may actually have some relevance to her own life. She intends to look into it further, inspired by the book she borrowed from the reader. Arriving back home, the younger housewife is introduced to her daughter’s boyfriend. He turns out to be a figure from her recurring dreams…
Viewers familiar with George A. Romero’s genre output from the 1970s, as typified by The Crazies (1973) and Dawn of the Dead (1978), and therefore expecting a highly visceral approach to the filmmaking process, may well be somewhat surprised at the tone and content of Jack’s Wife. Apart from one brief graphic scene of violence near the end of the picture, where a character is blown apart by a shotgun blast, overt physical violence like that is in short supply in this work.
Also, while the plot concerns itself with a housewife becoming more and more obsessed with witchcraft, learning recipes and skills and attempting to use occult power to control people and events around her, this is by no means Romero’s chief area of interest. What really concerns him is family and social relationships, the generation gap and the role of women within early 1970s American culture.
At its heart is the plight of middle-aged housewife Joan Mitchell (Jan White) who lives in a suburban community on the outskirts of Pittsburgh. Joan feels her life has lost all direction, is obsessed with growing old before her time and believes that she has never achieved anything. Added to this is continued guilt over the loss of a child, the growing estrangement between her and her daughter Nikki (Jedda McClain) and a husband called Jack (Bill Thunhurst) who is so involved with his work that he no longer takes any interest in his family.
In the dreams that she describes to her particularly unhelpful psychoanalyst (Neil Fisher), Fisher is shown walking some way behind her husband, who completely ignores her by reading a newspaper, only catching up when required to provide him with coffee and breakfast. At one point she tries to assert her independence by locking a car door only to be smacked with a rolled up newspaper by Jack for disobedience. She then finds herself locked up in a dog pound. Later on, she is being shown round her new house by a smug estate agent and has to endure a nightmare collection of social acquaintances. The agent suggests a number of mundane tasks to fill out her day, just before she comes face-to-face with a hideously aged version of herself. These anxieties, which are made solid in the dreams, are compounded by her shrink’s inability to interpret them, and her own inability to discuss anything personal with her family or friends.
Although she is so repressed that she cannot really express it, Joan apparently experiences some form of conceptual breakthrough when she witness the tarot reading for her friend Shirley (Ann Muffly), and becomes engrossed with the contents of a primer book on witchcraft. This literally seems to change her life, to the extent that her lapsed Catholicism has been replaced by an alternative belief system represented by the self-professed witch Marion Hamilton (Virginia Greenwald). Ultimately, she gets to reaffirm her faith in something that offers her possibilities about all aspects of her life. In a short time, her obsession grows to the extent that Joan considers herself proficient enough to begin staging minor rituals and casting small spells.
As his modern-day variation on the vampire legend entitled Martin (1976), George A. Romero is seen as having a somewhat sceptical view of the supernatural in a number of his works. His opinion is probably echoed most closely by Nikki’s boyfriend Gregg (Ray Laine), a psychology intern at her college. He suggests that the power of a curse or spell is only as strong as the belief of the person on the receiving end of the incantation in the system that created it. This applies to a number of situations, as evidenced by Gregg playing a cruel practical joke on Shirley, who is led to believe that she has just smoked a joint rather than the conventional type of cigarette it is in reality. The effects are quite traumatic but he considers that he has made his point.
Joan’s attempts at witchcraft have somewhat mixed results. At one point, she does apparently succeed in making a coffee pot rattle on a kitchen table, supposedly by the power of concentration alone. Unfortunately the incident is completely lost on her husband, who also fails to notice the large black mark on her forehead that his wife has placed for the purposes of the spell. Some time later she decides to use a control spell on Gregg. This does not work at all, and she has to call him to ask him to come over to her house for sex. He had actually assumed that she would call anyway since to him she seemed so desperate. Finally, Joan decides to use her powers to call up the female deity Virago. At one point it seems that the incantation has worked and the deity has adopted the avatar of a small cat to appear to the housewife. Unfortunately this comes to nothing.
A telling scene occurs in the second act of the movie. Previously Joan had criticised others for using witchcraft as a form of recreation or therapy in place of visits to therapists, and agreed with Marion that the whole movement was becoming too commercialised, however, when she visits a specialist dealer to carefully select and purchase various arcane artefacts, she pays for her purchases with her husband’s credit card. The counterculture that she seeks has now been fully absorbed into consumer culture.
Regarding the visions experienced by Joan, these are viewed with some ambiguity by Romero. Although the earlier dreams accurately convey her fears and anxieties in allegorical terms, the presence of Greg in them may not be as prophetic as she believes. While she cannot remember ever having encountered him before in real life, he is convinced they have met before, probably at the college where he is an intern and her daughter studies.
Her later reveries take a far more sinister turn when she has recurring nightmares about an intruder, wearing a bird-like mask, breaking into her house and raping her. On each occasion, she makes ever more strenuous efforts to prevent the figure’s entry into the property while adopting ever more violent methods to unsuccessfully fend off the actual assaults. These visions coincide with Joan’s interest in the occult, which makes the dreams ultimately a spectacularly self-fulfilling prophecy. On the other hand, it is implied that at the same time she had also stopped taking some form of medication (possibly anti-depressants) that she had flushed down the toilet. The intruder could therefore be symptomatic of her withdrawal from the drugs. In either case, Joan’s life will change suddenly and dramatically as she is grows increasingly unable to differentiate between fantasy and reality.
Jack’s Wife displays a surprisingly rich variety of influences that helped shape the final form of the piece. Among the most obvious of these, and indeed mentioned in the dialogue a couple of times, is Roman Polanski’s Rosemary’s Baby (1968), often seen in the same light as Romero’s own Night of the Living Dead when discussing key works in genre cinema. Polanski’s influence can be seen from the outset where Joan is reliving one of her dreams. Here, like his contemporary, Romero employs hand-held cameras, fixed with wide-angle lenses, together disorientating editing tricks such as jump cuts. Even more important is the use of decidedly off-kilter sound effects from Gerald Schutz and Rex Gleason which includes echoing and overlapping dialogue along with a variety of incongruous noises like brass bands, dogs barking, laughter and a baby’s cries, as well as a variety of exaggerated domestic sounds, all combining to create a very convincing sense of weirdness. Steve Gorn’s highly discordant electronic music is an added bonus in this respect as well. Of particular significance is the presence of a ticking alarm clock that lies beside Joan’s bed, as this signifies when she has shifted from reality to dream mode, although the effect turns up in her waking moments in the picture’s latter stages.
Another possible inspiration for Romero may be Luis Bunuel’s arthouse favourite Belle de Jour (1967), whose opening fantasy sequence is echoed in the one shown here. The basic premise of a bored and discontented middle-class wife (Catherine Deneuve in Bunuel’s venture) attempting to take control of her life by adopting an alternative, much-maligned lifestyle, is shared to a certain degree by both movies. Deneuve lives out her fantasies by becoming a high-class prostitute, while Jan White adopts the persona of another kind of woman despised by society, that of a witch.
Arguably though, the biggest influence on the way Jack’s Wife finally turned out is the work of one of the heroes of American independent cinema, actor-turned-filmmaker John Cassavetes. Cassavetes made a significant impact on American cinema with this first feature Shadows (1958), where his almost documentary-like style of filmmaking and improvised dramatic sequences, involving a largely untried cast, attracted plaudits from critics and fellow directors. Throughout the 1960s and early 1970s, the filmmaker continued to make his uniquely individual and stubbornly uncommercial works with the aid of a small stock company of technicians and performers. Among the best-known titles to be made by him from this period are Faces (1968), after which he named his own distribution company, and Husbands (1970). Much of his filmography was at least partially financed by his ongoing appearances as an actor in mainstream productions like Don Siegal’s The Killers (1964), Robert Aldrich’s The Dirty Dozen (1967) and Rosemary’s Baby.
A recurring feature of Cassavetes’ output is lengthy confrontational conversation pieces, during which raw emotional nerves are exposed. This approach can be seen throughout Jack’s Wife. Among the scenes where this is best illustrated is Shirley admitting to an affair just as Joan announces her intention to adopt the lifestyle of a witch, the latter having a confrontation over her runaway daughter with Greg in a college classroom, and Shirley experiencing an emotional meltdown when Greg tricks her into believing that she has just smoked a joint.
Romero also adopts Cassavetes’ practice of obtaining highly naturalistic performances from his cast, most of them first timers, which seems to border on the improvised. In fact, apart from the occasional diversion into outright fantasy, a sense of detachment is conveyed by the entire production, with the impression that the director is merely observing events rather than orchestrating them.
Originally released at 130 minutes long, Romero’s picture was withdrawn and re-edited, firstly to 104 minutes for its European bookings (the version under review here), and then to 89 minutes for subsequent Stateside screenings. At one point, independent producer/distributor Jack H. Harris tried to market it as a sexploitation vehicle under the highly misleading moniker Hungry Wives with that truncated running time. This version is probably best known today under the name Season of the Witch (the title of a song by British folk singer Donovan featured on the soundtrack) which appears to be the most commonly version available in the US.
It is difficult to gauge exactly what exactly has been excised from the print seen by this writer, but it seems likely that a good deal of dialogue has hit the cutting room floor, along with material featuring Ann Muffly as Joan’s older friend who disappears completely from the movie during the second act. The absence of this footage could explain why the narrative structure and flow of the picture are such a mess. Plotting is very haphazard with many scenes appearing to exist in isolation rather than forming a cohesive whole. However, the semi-improvisational style adopted in the direction of the piece may well have extended to the writing, meaning that the insertion of the lost material may not actually have had any significant impact on the completed work. In its current form the fragmented narrative will prove exasperating for many viewers.
The approach adopted by George A. Romero in telling his story may well be considered a bold one by some reviewers, especially when Jack’s Wife is ostensibly a genre item. However, it also tends to rob many scenes of their dramatic and emotional impact. Examples of where this occurs includes Joan being tortured by the sound of her daughter’s lovemaking with Greg in the adjoining room, her daughter’s realisation that her mother has been listening, causing her to flee the family home, and, in what should have been a shocking moment, the normally detached husband suddenly beating his wife. Also, the climax where Joan cannot differentiate between fantasy and reality and mistakes her spouse for an intruder, resulting in her shooting him dead, is completely thrown away. This is all very frustrating.
Matters are not helped by the very low-key performances from most of the cast. Ultimately, the viewer doesn’t actually really care about any of the characters that appear on-screen, with the exception of Ann Muffly as Shirley, her presence actually being quite affecting. Former advertising model Jan White begins the picture as an ice queen and remains so throughout the film, severely limiting any audience involvement in her evolution as a character.
Supporters of the film have noted that unlike many films of this type, it is not afraid to discuss matters that are not usually associated with the genre. This is true to a certain extent with much dialogue devoted to subjects like how women are perceived in a male-dominated society, sexual liberation, alternative philosophies and revolutionary politics. Unfortunately, while these are addressed, they are not developed to any degree and the script entirely fails to come to any conclusion about them, and how they relate to the characters.
The film also suffers from poor technical quality, particularly very grainy cinematography and muddy sound quality. This is not due to any shortcoming on the filmmakers’ part but rather due to a variety of production setbacks that affected the venture, including the budget and other resources being constantly cut back (it actually cost significantly less to make than Night of the Living Dead from four years previously).
Romero’s productions tend to feature heavily ironic twists and this work is no exception, especially the final scene at a party where Joan is finally rid of her husband, has taken on the persona of a witch (adopting a suitably arcane pseudonym for herself) and looks suitably content. Unfortunately everyone else refers to her as “Jack’s wife”.
Overall, Jack’s Wife is a motion picture that is to be admired for its subject matter, along with its desire to bend the rules of the horror genre, rather than actually being enjoyed as a piece of entertainment.
While George A. Romero is reportedly unhappy with the way that his film turned out, he believes that the theme of conflict between suburban conservatism and “new age” philosophies is as relevant now as it was in 1971, and probably even more so. As a result, this is the only one of his own films he would ever consider remaking.
Bizarrely, the concept of a sexually repressed woman being haunted by visions of a man wearing a bird mask also turns up in Roger Vadim’s 1980 erotic thriller Night Games, with Cindy Pickett in the lead role. Any connection with the Romero work appears nonexistent.
©Iain McLachlan 2005