Oct 5, 2012

Jack's Wife (1972)

Writer-Director: George A. Romero
Producer: Nancy Romero
Music: Steve Gorn
Cinematographer-Editor: George A. Romero
Latent Image; 104 min; color

Jan White (Joan Mitchell), Ray Laine (Gregg Williamson), Ann Muffly (Shirley Randolph), Joedda McClain (Nikki Mitchell), Bill Thunhurst (Jack Mitchell), Neil Fisher (Dr. Miller), Esther Lapidus (Sylvia)

George Romero followed up his breakthough picture, Night of the Living Dead, with a trio of interesting pictures that were largely overlooked due to poor distribution.  Of these, The Crazies had gradually found an audience over the years (thus prompting a remake). There's Always Vanilla, was Romero's first film after his classic zombie movie, and a rare non-horror effort-- a counterculture comedy which played a week and disappeared.  His subsequent picture, Jack's Wife, brought Romero (obliquely) back into the horror genre. Jack Harris picked the movie up, retitled it with the unfortunate title, Hungry Wives (misleading one to think it was a softcore porn), and did no business.  This film was again re-titled for re-release in 1982, with its most colloquial name, Season of the Witch. People had mistakenly thought that it was newer than Dawn of the Dead (1979), or confused it with Halloween III: The Season of the Witch, that was playing in theaters around the same time.

George Romero himself has little kind words for these films, largely because he didn't have the proper finances or control to fully realize the pictures to his vision. This is unfortunate, as despite the imperfections of these three movies, they are each special in their own way. Jack's Wife is another of Romero's many social commentaries disguised in the horror genre, yet is more radical in form than any of his work. It is a complex and disturbing look at middle class suburbia, with dream logic befitting an Ingmar Bergman film, frenetic editing evocative of an underground picture, and only subtle touches of horror conventions. I cannot imagine what people thought of this when it unspooled at drive-ins.

The opening dream sequence (where Wild Strawberries is transposed to modern life in Pittsburgh) is among the most interesting passages in all of Romero's work.  Our protagonist, Joan Mitchell, walks down a country lane and sees bizarre images in the forest, including a baby (representing her dead child), all while following her husband down the path. As he idly walks in front of her, he casually moves tree branches out of his way, which snap back and hit Joan in the face (thus beginning the film's visual motif of women being victimized). Then she is being taken out of a car by her husband (on a leash attached to a collar!), led through a stilted tour of a modern suburban home, and suddenly, Joan wakes up. It was all a dream.  Or was it? 

In truth, Joan Mitchell awakens from a dream into an ongoing waking nightmare. This middle-aged repressed housewife has an abusive lout for a husband, and a social circle of equally repressed women. When she accompanies a friend to visit a woman who practices witchcraft, Joan takes up the occult herself.  As this narrative progresses however, it becomes increasingly difficult to distinguish between reality and fantasy. There are recurrent scenes where she is pursued through the house by a strange masked figure, yet they are filmed in the same visual style as the rest of the picture (a trait shared with the work of master surrealist Luis Bunuel).

In addition to its phantasmagorical approach, Jack's Wife is a savage indictment of gender roles (and perhaps a little too calculated at that). Joan and her friends are portrayed as wounded, repressed creatures for whom any diversion is welcome, despite how dangerous it may be. Perhaps the most pivotal moment occurs when Joan hears her daughter Nikki having sex in the next room, and is actually aroused by the noise. Then when Nikki finds out that was her mother was home while she was making love, she runs away. When the police later ask Joan what kind of car was outside before she disappeared, naturally, she is unable to name the make of the vehicle. That is a man's thing.  

All of the major male characters in this film are abusive, possessive jerks.  Joan's husband beats her, and even Gregg the hippie college professor she ends up having an affair with, turns out to be a psychotic.  Early in the film, at a small gathering Gregg (who reminds me a lot of Seymour Cassel in Faces) prods one woman to smoke a joint. What at first appears to be a ploy for the woman to discover some independence, instead is revealed as a cruel joke to exploit her further. Joan consoles the woman, who in turn asks her to drive her home, because "Larry won't jump all over me if you're there." This is a startling scene, much more so than the vaguely occult moments which occur later.

Romero also injects this narrative with a sly sense of humour: Donovan's "Season of the Witch" plays in a store where she first buys occult paraphenalia; and early on, the lead females talk about the movie Rosemary's Baby (another horror film that explores the roles of women, and the occult, in modern society). This juxtaposition of supernatural activity in contemporary suburbia is gently spoofed with the visual of a book case, where "How To Be A Witch" shares shelf space with the collected works of William Shakespeare.

Joan's practice of witchcraft represents her quest for her own independence. These scenes are purely symbolic of Jan finding her own identity. The moments where she is pursued by that strange figure are indicative of how Joan attempts to escape the clutches of Man in general. Still, even this road to independence results in some surprisingly pessimistic turns. Joan uses her newly acquired power to use Gregg as a sexual plaything during one of the times her husband is away on business, yet this dalliance becomes more than she can handle. The film even ends on a shockingly downbeat tone: after Jan has vindicated herself from her abusive husband, she is still nonetheless referred to at a party as "Jack's Wife".  Even after a woman obtains an identity, she is still one man's property?!?  What a striking, (and perhaps properly) cynical way to end a dense movie about the objectification of women.

Romero's misgivings about the movie are too self-deprecating, as this is an exceptional motion picture. Despite the "horror movie" undertones, it remains one of the truly great 1970s films (alongside Diary of a Mad Housewife or The Stepford Wives) to examine the subservient roles of females in the supposedly modern world. This seemingly stream-of-conscious experience is exciting to watch; each scene makes one an uncomfortable voyeur with its handheld camera, over-the-shoulder compositions and use of foregounds. Romero is always praised for his social satire, and ability to scare us, less so for his natural instincts as an editor. His trademark quick cuts and elaborate coverage in numerous scenes, compliment the jagged visual compositions, delivering a remarkable fever dream of a movie. 

In an interview on the Anchor Bay DVD, Romero confesses that Jack's Wife is the one picture of his filmography that he would like to remake. I see what he means: the film is admittedly uneven in its execution, as some scenes are still tedious and overlong, and one does sense that he was aiming for a much broader canvas and statement than the microcosm that his tiny budget could afford. Nonetheless, this is a little marvel of a movie that I still like putting on every few years. 

At the heart of the film is an excellent performance by Jan White. She inhabits the role of Joan Mitchell, an intelligent, compassionate figure that however has little self-esteem, and tries too hard to impress. After the startling fade-out, one truly feels that we've lived with this person, and have felt her transform into a confident woman, that beneath all the superfluous eyeshadow, is still vulnerable. Prior to this appearance, the actress had been a model, and subsequently had only a handful of performances before leaving the business. In more ways than one, Joan Mitchell is the role of a lifetime.

The Anchor Bay DVD was made from Ms. White's own 16mm print, and some additional sequences that the company had found. (It is longer than the old VHS I viewed years ago.) At 104 minutes, this version is a little too long. However, this fascinating experiment has so much going on under the surface, that despite its shortcomings, I'd still be interested to see the rumoured original 130-minute cut. 

(Special thanks to David Holt of The Digital Terror for use of these images.)

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