Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Director's Report Card: George A. Romero (1972-1973)

3. Season of the Witch
First off, “Season of the Witch” is not really a horror movie. Besides the general theme of witchcraft and a reoccurring nightmare sequence, there aren’t any horror elements. Instead, the film is a talky character study, a peak into the life of bored suburban housewife. Her husband is negligent and occasionally abusive and her daughter is grown up, experimenting with drugs and sex, and no longer needs her. Looking for some sort of meaning in her life, our lead character turns to witchcraft. In a theme later continued in “Martin,” Romero continues to show that there is no such thing as magic. The only power beliefs hold are those ascribed to them by people. Everything that happens can very easily be explained without factoring in the supernatural.
The movie is slow, especially in the beginning. There are a couple of sequence of people just sitting around and talking that, while mildly interesting, really drags down the pace. Eventually, Jan White’s strong lead performance drawls you into the character’s world and things start to pick up. But there are still some long stretches. The supporting cast is pretty unremarkable, but Ray Laine is solid, if seedy, and watch for Bill Heinzman’s masked face in a bit part.
There are several really effective moments. The movie opens with a symbolism heavy dream sequence that lays out all the themes in a pretty obvious manner. Still, it sets up the off-center tone of the movie and is the most interesting thing about the first half. There is some nice editing in the later half, like when Joan really commits to witchcraft by stocking up on occult supplies (set to Donovan’s “Season of the Witch,” of course) and another part where the summoning up of a devil is intercut with a cat sneaking into the house. I also liked the big initiation ceremony of the climax.
The best bit is the scene were Joan walks into the house and overhears her daughter having sex. It’s a very real scene and Jan White’s facial expressions convey all the different emotions a mother must feel in a situation like that. If the whole movie was filled with powerful, subtle bits like that, it would have been great.

As it is, “Season of the Witch” (also know by Romero’s preferred title “Jack’s Wife” and the original release title “Hungry Wives”) will be overlooked by drama fans because of its horror connections and will probably bore most horror fans. Still, a good lead performance, several affecting moments, and a handful of potent themes make it worth a look.
[Grade: B-]

4. The Crazies
“The Crazies” feels like an amped-up version of “Night of the Living Dead.” Instead of society collapsing because of the dead rising, it’s due to a leaked military virus that causes violent insanity. It shows the director’s continuing interest in the concept of society and sanity falling apart under the weight of infectious disease, mass hysteria, and the abuse of power. It’s an important transitional film in Romero’s career, which makes it a shame that it’s not better.

What sinks “The Crazies” is the decision to split the story into two. There are two separate plot lines that never interact. The A story revolves around David, the ex-Green Beret, and his pregnant nurse girlfriend Judy trying to survive in the chaos that has erupted in their small town. The second story involves the militaries bid to control the virus, the movement spearhead by the practical but cynical Col. Peckam and frustrated scientist Dr. Watts (who would later shout “Dummies!” in “Dawn of the Dead”). The movie cuts back and forth between the two subplots, preventing either from building up any momentum. The military plot is further divided by cutting away to scenes of political officials haranguing over what to do and outburst of violence as the military force tries, and fails, to contain the infected populace.
Those short scenes of chaos provide the film with its strongest moments. The movie has a strong opening, were we first see the affects of the virus on a domestic level. The image of a father suddenly gone mad and violently attacking his family is a powerful one. Later on, as the police force marches into town, each one clad in a deindividualizing white bio-hazard suits, Romero gets a number of jabs in. The soldiers force peaceful families out of their homes, in the middle of the night. One soldier steals a fishing rod from a home when no one’s looking. The soldiers stomp over a child’s little green army men. It’s not subtle, but it’s memorable. “The Crazies” is as much a movie about faceless military forces run amok as it is about biological weapons gone awry. (Considering how these themes resonate even more today, it’s no wonder this movie was recently remade.) Countless soldiers wearing those inhuman, depersonalized white suits is the movie’s most iconic sight.

Despite their apparent power, the military is harmless to stop the actual virus. The best scene in the film involves a rampaging group quickly overwhelming a phalanx of soldiers. A woman, mindlessly swiping with a broom, follows behind the mad group. Earlier, an old woman stabs a solider to death with a knitting needle and then returns to her chair, as if nothing happens. The movie needed more of this inspired madness. We see plenty of Tom Savini’s bright red blood spurting from squibs, and it needed more of that too.
Instead, George focuses on the people. Wide-eyed Lynn Lowry is good as the teenage girl Kathy, constantly watched over by her overprotective father Artie. Those overprotective tendencies take a disturbing turn as the virus takes hold, in perhaps the film’s most shocking moment. Later, a touching moment comes when Judy finally subsides to the madness.

The film ends on an inconclusive note. It’s not so much a conclusion as the movie simply ending. (While a sappy love song plays over the end credits, no less.) “The Crazies” is wildly uneven. While it shines a handful of times, it’s mostly a display for ideas that would be developed far more in Romero’s later films.
[Grade: C+]


Kernunrex said...

Both There's Always Vanilla and Season of the Witch are difficult to sit through. They're both kind of relics of their era, examining a society 40 years gone. It's a miracle George was able to continue directing after these two, but I suspect the massive success of Night was easy to ride on back then.

I liked The Crazies a bit better than you and just randomly watched it back in March. I think cutting between two stories was necessary to show the reactions of both the groups. We can watch the officials -- the scientists/military/government -- bungle and get stuck in their own bureaucracy, and the townsfolk as the discover what happens to their cozy town when society begins to break down. Either side you're on, it's clear you're f'd.

Bonehead XL said...

In an alternate universe, Romero probably went on to make only chatty, slow-paced character studies.