Season of the Witch (1973)

In one of the more recent episodes of The Swampflix Podcast, Brandon, James, and I got together to virtually discuss what we categorized as “smart zombie movies.” During the recording, I mentioned that I’m not a fan of George Romero’s zombie films, such as Night of the Living Dead, Day of the Dead, Dawn of the Dead, etc. I find them to be boring, and I just really don’t care to waste time watching them. I know that is a blasphemous thing to say since he is considered to be one of greatest horror filmmakers of all time, but I’m just speaking my truth. Then, a few nights ago, I stumbled across a film called Season of the Witch. At first, I thought it was my favorite entry in the Halloween series (Halloween III: Season of the Witch), but it actually turned out to be one of Romero’s earliest films. It also happened to be considered one of his worst. Of course, I ended up enjoying it.

Season of the Witch has an interesting backstory. It was written and directed by George Romero and produced by his first wife, Nancy Romero. It was originally marketed as a softcore porn film called Hungry Wives with a poster that featured drawings of a few sultry women and the tagline, “Caviar in the kitchen, nothing in the bedroom.” The film itself is far from being anything close to a softcore porn; well, minus one quick sex scene and a few nude moments. It was the distributor who pushed Romero in the softcore direction, wanting him to incorporate pornographic sex scenes between the film’s main character and her young lover, but Romero refused. He had a different vision.

Influenced by second-wave feminism, Romero made a fantastic film about a dissatisfied housewife who dabbles in the occult, and he did it all with a budget of about $100,000 (it was originally $250,000 before his funding dropped). The main character, Joan Mitchell, is played by actress Jan White. White is somehow only credited with acting in four films (many of them from the 1970s). I was shocked to find out that her acting career was so short, because she is phenomenal in Season of the Witch. She has such a naturally entrancing, striking look that I couldn’t take my eyes off of. Something about her is so delightfully haunting. To make things even better, she wears some of the most magnificent beehive wigs and late 1960s/early 1970s fashion. There’s also tons of cobalt blue carpet throughout the film that serves as an exquisite backdrop for her fabulous looks.

Season of the Witch starts off in a very exciting way. It opens up with a long dream sequence where Jan is walking in the woods while being ignored by her husband, and encountering all sorts of other bizarre dreamlike things (spooky music included). It gives off major The Feminine Mystique vibes. Jan is a housewife with an abusive husband and young-adult daughter, so she’s at the point in her life where she’s trying to figure out what her next step is. At a neighborhood party, she discovers that one of her neighbors is a witch. This sparks an interest in her, so she decides to explore the practice of witchcraft. There’s a great scene where she goes into town to shop for witchy supplies while Donovan’s “Season of the Witch” plays in the background. The first spell she casts is a love spell that results in her having a tryst with her daughter’s lover. It’s so scandalous! As she dives deeper into the occult, she has progressively intense dreams about someone in a rubber demon mask breaking into her home. The dream later becomes infused with her reality, leading to a shocking act that I won’t spoil in this review.

Season of the Witch is not a horror movie, so don’t go into it expecting anything of the sort. It’s also not the softcore porn it was marketed as initially. It’s simply a wonderful drama that explores the internal struggles of an unhappy suburban housewife through the use of witchcraft. I was so impressed with this film, and I have a newfound appreciation for George Romero. I can’t wait to explore more of his non-zombie movies from this era. Hopefully I’ll find more hidden gems like Season of the Witch.

-Britnee Lombas

Zombie (1979)

In what surely drives continuity & canon-obsessed nerds mad, Italian copyright laws allow any feature film to be marketed as a direct sequel to a previous work, regardless of intellectual property licensing. This is how Lucio Fulci’s Zombi 2 came to be marketed as a direct sequel to George Romero’s Dawn of the Dead (or, more accurately, the Italian edit of Dawn overseen by Dario Argento & scored by Goblin, retitled Zombi), despite having nothing to do with that cult classic outside their shared depiction of the undead. That positioning of Zombi 2 as a direct sequel to the Romero classic is notably more of a marketing decision than a creative one, as the shopping mall modernity of Dawn of the Dead is the exact opposite approach to zombie lore than the one Fulci takes in his own work. If anything, Zombie (as it was more accurately billed in the US.), is more of a return-to-basics, traditionalist throwback to the origins of zombie cinema – most notably the 1932 Bela Lugosi relic White Zombie. On the surface, the film appears to be Lucio Fulci’s transition into making colonialist, Cannibal Holocaust-type “video nasties” after his previous run of psychedelic gialli like The Psychic & A Woman in a Lizard’s Skin. In practice, it’s more of a return to early, Voodoo-themed zombie cinema updated with more state of the art, grotesque gore effects we’re not used to seeing in that context. If Zombie has any relationship with George Romero’s work, it’s in amplifying his fixation on practical effects gore, while rolling back his influence on the zombie genre to the era that came before. Zombie isn’t a sequel to Dawn of the Dead so much as a traditionalist renunciation of that text, coated in an excess of sleaze.

The brilliance of this return-to-basics zombie filmmaking is that its dialing-back from urban modernity to the old-ways’ culture gazing at Voodoo rituals is signified in its basic plot. A disheveled boat arrives in the NYC harbor with most of its crew missing – and the remaining members turned into flesh-eating zombies. The daughter of the boat’s owner and an investigative reporter track its course back to the (fictional) Caribbean Island of Matul, which superstitious natives believe to be cursed. There, they discover an age-old plot so cliché it belongs on the lower wrung of a 1950s double bill: a white-man researcher strives to scientifically rationalize the local phenomenon of a Voodoo curse that can bring the dead “back to life” (as mindless flesh-eating copses, at least). His research is going nowhere, of course, and only invites violence as the zombie hoards surround his lab and attempt to eradicate the intruders on their island by eating them alive. It’s in this last-act zombie invasion that Zombie most resembles a George Romero picture, with a small group of cornered city-folk firing guns at a mindless hoard that surrounds & eventually engulfs them. Most of that Romero aesthetic is left behind in NYC, however, where an off-screen modernist zombie crisis Fulci doesn’t have the budget to properly stage unfolds. On Matul, the movie mostly bridges the gap between the latent racism of the Civilized Man Vs. Savages narratives of zombie cinema past and the more active racism of then-current Italian cannibal nasties like Cannibal Holocaust and Slave of the Cannibal God. Outside some questionable vocal dubbing & characterization among the (infrequently shown) native locals, however, Zombie mostly avoids the worst trappings of the colonialist cannibal genre of its grindhouse heyday: sexual assault exploitation, cultural Othering, documentation of real-life animal abuse, etc. Its likeness to that despicable subgenre is mostly in its grimy visual aesthetic; it most often plays like pastiche nostalgia for the more quietly problematic Voodoo pictures of the White Zombie tradition.

The closest Zombie comes to indulging in the typical animal abuses of the Italo-cannibal pics it superficially resembles is in its breathtaking underwater stunt in which a zombie fights a real-life shark. It’s a scene so infamous the film might as well have included The One Where the Zombie Fights a Shark among its various “official” titles. Whether the local “shark trainer” who costumed as a zombie to stage that stunt is abusing the animal is a much murkier issue than the straight-up animal slaughter included in Cannibal Holocaust-type pictures, but what’s made clear in that sequence is that Zombie’s strengths lie entirely in the grotesque beauty & unflinching audacity of its individual gags, their importance to the plot be damned. As the characters are first making their way to Matul, the boat stops dead, along with the plot, so that a free-spirit passenger can strip nude to take underwater photographs of marine life, stumbling directly into a zombie-shark fight. It’s a sleazy stunt on so many levels it’s hard to keep count (the camera’s lingering on the photographer’s oxygen tank strap across her crotch is especially slimy) and it serves little-to-no thematic purpose for the task at hand. Still, it’s so elaborately staged that you can’t deny its appeal. While Zombie’s overall narrative is a barebones, back-to-basics zombie genre throwback, its individual stunts & images are complexly crafted, grotesque wonders: an eyeball impaled on a splintered door, tendrils ripped from a victim’s neck, a zombie’s POV approximated in first-person camera work as it rises from the grave, etc. The perfect symbiosis of this thoughtfully complex imagery & traditionalist genre throwback energy is best represented in a scene set in a Spanish Conquistadors’ graveyard; muddy hands reach from beneath the ground as the dead rise, hungry for flesh. The image of a lone hand reaching from beneath a gravesite is much more typical to the zombie genre than an underwater shark fight, but it’s rarely shot with as much giallo-level stylistic detail as what you’ll find here.

As questionable as I find the impulse of rolling back George Romero’s modernization of the zombie picture to its White Zombie roots and as much as I despise the Italo-cannibal pictures it occasionally resembles, I can’t help but appreciate Zombie for its grotesque visual majesty. Rewatching the film restored on its Blue Underground Blu-Ray release is especially illuminating, since I’m used to seeing it through the grainy haze of a VHS cassette. I don’t know that Fulci deserves the benefit of the doubt when it comes to the film’s racial politics or possible animal rights violations, but his imagery certainly deserves to be seen in crisp, Blu-ray quality detail. Most people aren’t going to seek out Zombie for its advancement of the genre or its thematic complexity (despite that being exactly what’s promised as a supposed follow-up to Dawn of the Dead). This is a film best enjoyed for its awesome brutality & the detailed beauty of its practical effects gore, two things Fulci is a master at delivering.

-Brandon Ledet

The Flesh Eaters (1964)

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fourhalfstar

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“There’s something in the water that eats flesh! I said ‘eats flesh’! People!”

The 1980s were undeniably the glory days of gore in horror cinema, but they weren’t necessarily the root of extreme on-camera violence. George Romero is often credited as being the godfather of gore, ushering in the era of special effects that paid great detail to exposing the insides of horror’s actors/victims. Romero’s seminal work, The Night of The Living Dead, was released as early as 1968, well before onscreen gore reached its Reagan-era fever pitch. Before The Night of the Living Dead hit the theaters, however, it was originally titled The Night of the Flesh Eaters and subsequently changed its moniker to avoid confusion with a film simply titled The Flesh Eaters released just four years prior. The Flesh Eaters shares no resemblance with the zombie-centric plots of Romero’s Living Dead series in even the vaguest sense, but it does beat the director to the punch somewhat in terms of onscreen gore, so it’s somewhat appropriate that they almost shared a name.

The Flesh Eaters is horrifically violent for a mid-60s creature feature, paying great attention to the special effects of its blood & guts make-up. Many credit the film as being the very first example of gore horror & it’s difficult to argue otherwise. The anachronistic-feeling intrusion of extreme violence in what otherwise feels like a standard Corman-esque B-picture is beyond striking. Although I’ve seen far worse gore in films that followed in its wake, the out-of-place quality the violence has in The Flesh Eaters makes the film feel shocking & upsetting in a transgressive way. I don’t know for sure if Romero was at all inspired by The Flesh Eaters or if he even had seen it before making The Night of the Living Dead, but his work certainly wasn’t the first gore-soaked spectacle in town, not by a long shot.

A drunk movie starlet, her overworked assistant, and a cocky airplane pilot are temporarily marooned on a small, mysterious island. It’s there that they encounter a creepy scientist fella experimenting with a microscopic, weaponized life form that greedily eats human flesh clean off the bone. At first the only evidence of these tiny mutant bastards is the washed-up skeletons that arrive picked-clean on the shore. Soon they reveal themselves as tiny spots of nuclear glow that can only be described by their potential victims in the vaguest of terms: “that shiny stuff”, “that little silver stuff”, etc. Without revealing too much, I can promise that these tiny, evil, glimmering somethings eventually snowball into a much bigger, stranger problem that a small crew of shipwrecked amateurs stand very little chance of surviving.

Directed by the guy who voiced Papa Racer on the 60s Speed Racer cartoon (Jack Curtis) & partially funded by his winnings on a long-forgotten television game show, The Flesh Eaters is largely a labor of love. There are some details to what it delivers that relegates it to a camp cinema context: some nonsensical asides about Nazis, a beatnik caricature that would’ve made even the extras in Corman’s Bucket of Blood blush, some bathing suit oggling, a William Castle-style distribution gimmick in which audiences were armed with “instant blood” to feed the flesh eaters in case of attack, etc. As goofy as The Flesh Eaters can be in moments, however, what truly makes it unique is the ahead-of-its-time attention paid to its special effects. Holes are poked into film strips themselves to indicate the flesh eaters at work. Blood & gore ooze out of victims in a horrifically stark black & white. The scale of the third act mayhem far exceeds what you’d reasonably expect based on the budget. The Flesh Eaters suffered many setbacks, including years-delayed distribution & a hurricane disrupting production, but it was well worth the effort. It eventually stood as a must-see landmark of horror cinema that would in its own way predict where the genre was headed in the decades to come and it still plays remarkably fresh today because of that grotesque innovation.

-Brandon Ledet

Due occhi diabolici (aka Two Evil Eyes, 1990)

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Following Opera, Dario Argento set to work drumming up enthusiasm from his peers for a collaborative horror anthology film based upon the works of Edgar Allan Poe, despite that genre having already gone fairly quietly into the night after peaking with 1982’s Creepshow. By 1989, the only two directors still involved with the project, Argento and George A. Romero, each directed a roughly hour-long horror short, with both episodes released under the banner film title Due occhi diabolici, or Two Evil Eyes.

“The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar”

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Initially, Romero conceived of his segment as an adaptation of “The Masque of the Red Death,” reimagining it as a parable about AIDS and updating the setting to a luxurious high rise. Argento argued that this would be inconsistent with his vision of the film. With Argento’s segment capitalizing on many of Poe’s most famous pieces, Romero was forced to choose from the writer’s lesser known works, finally settling on “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar.”

The 55-minute segment opens as Jessica Valdemar (Adrienne Barbeau) makes her way to the office of Steven Pike (E.G. Marshall), the lawyer of her dying husband, Ernest (Bingo O’Malley). Jessica was once a flight attendant whom the much-older Ernest brought home after a trip, and she’s ready to get her literal and metaphorical payment for acting as his escort and trophy all these years. Pike’s suspicious protests about Ernest’s deathbed money reshuffling are overturned when he speaks with the man himself over the phone. He is, of course, unaware that Ernest is doing so under hypnosis, perpetrated by his physician, Robert Hoffman (Ramy Zada), who was Jessica’s lover many years before. Jessica and Hoffman must keep Ernest alive in order to make sure that Jessica inherits everything, but he succumbs to his disease while hypnotized. Although his body is dead, his mind is trapped between worlds, and he begins to bemoan that wherever he is, there are “Others” there who want to use his body as a gateway into the world of the living; he begs to be released from his hypnosis and embrace death.

This segment is not without its merits. Barbeau’s appearance here further connects this film to Creepshow, although this segment (and the next) lacks the dark comedy that made that anthology so memorable. When the Others finally track down Hoffman after he escapes, their spectral appearance and creepy, featureless humanoid forms are legitimately scary; film legend Tom Savini’s makeup on both the undead Ernest and the rotting corpse of Hoffman is the work of a craftsman at the top of his game. The problem is that the story feels somehow like a very small story. Watching it, you get the sense that you aren’t watching the first half of a movie as much as you’re viewing a vaguely familiar episode of Night Gallery. The mediocre “Valdemar” takes place almost entirely within a single location, but instead of inspiring feelings of claustrophobia or entrapment, it contributes to the overall perception that it was produced on a budget more suited for television than a theatrical release. If you happen to catch it on television, give it a watch; that’s where it belongs.

“The Black Cat”

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Dario Argento’s contribution to Two Evil Eyes was much more compelling, although it too suffers in comparison to the source material. Its other primary weakness is in the seemingly odd choices Argento makes about what to spend time on given the segment’s 63ish minute run time. Primarily based upon (and sharing its name with) Poe’s “The Black Cat,” Argento’s segment of the film also incorporates elements from various other Poe stories, well-known and otherwise, as the director paid homage to one of his favorite writers.

Roderick Usher (Harvey Keitel) is a photographer with a morbid streak; his amicable relationship with Detective LeGrand (John Amos) gets him into plenty of crime scenes, where he captures intimate images of the grotesquery that humans can visit upon one another. His live-in girlfriend of four years, Annabel (Madeleine Potter), is a contrasting spirit: a sensitive, meditating concert violinist who gives lessons to teenagers. Annabel adopts a stray black cat with a white spot on her chest, and Roderick takes an instant disliking to the animal. Under pressure from his editor to shoot some material with the same tone as his crime photos but a different subject matter, Usher waits until Annabel takes a couple of her students (Holter Graham and adorable widdle 17-year-old Julie Benz in her first film role) to the opera and then tortures and strangles her poor cat, photographing the whole thing.

Annabel becomes distraught and is correctly suspicious that something horrible has befallen her pet and that she did not run away, as Usher insists. He grows increasingly irritated by Annabel’s grief and, after an afternoon of drinking, he slaps her; he then falls asleep and has vivid dream about a medieval witch who looks like Annabel. She cryptically says that his fate is written in the cat’s white spot before he is brutally executed and starts awake. Annabel discovers Usher’s newest book, Metropolitan Horrors, and realizes that her earlier suspicions were true. Meanwhile, Usher is haunted by the sudden appearance of an identical cat, which he takes back to his home and attempts to kill again, but not before noticing that the cat’s white spot is in the shape of a gallows. He is interrupted by Annabel, and the true horror begins.

Although the plot structure is mostly based upon “The Black Cat,” Argento’s interpretation is also a pastiche of Poe’s other works. When we first meet Usher, who is named for the narrator in “The Fall of the House of Usher,” he is attending a crime scene where a woman was murdered via a descending blade, just as in “The Pit and the Pendulum”. Later, he takes photos of a woman whose body was dug up by her cousin (an uncredited Tom Savini) so that he could remove her teeth, as in “Berenice.” The inspiration for Annabel’s name is obvious, while the couple’s elderly neighbors (Martin Balsam and Kim Hunter) have the surname Pym in honor of the main character of The Narrative of Arthur Gordon Pym of Nantucket, Poe’s only complete novel; yet another character takes her name from the title character of “Eleonora.” There are probably even more that I missed, and, as a love letter to Poe, the number of references packed into this relatively brief outing show how much Argento deeply cares about Poe’s work.

The primary issue here is that the truncated running time of the piece works both for and against it. Argento is, for the most part, forced to keep the focus tight and thus is allowed no weird and unnecessary digressions from the plot. On the other hand, Roderick’s downslide from safety-negligent pranking to drunken domestic abuse to coldly calculated murder cover-up occurs too quickly to incur the kind of gravitas that Argento is presumably hoping to invoke, which makes Usher’s indulgently overlong medieval dream sequence seem even more out-of-place upon reflection. I suppose he could have been banking on Keitel’s general “perpetually on the verge of losing it” aura, but Usher consequently seems like a horrible person from the beginning, so it’s hard to elicit the kind of sympathy that was present in the original text. There, the unnamed narrator struggles with his alcoholism, decrying it as something akin to a curse or a hex, which possesses and controls him in a way that he despises but cannot escape. Here, it’s just Harvey Keitel knocking back tequila shots at a bar and one scene in which he becomes enraged and hits Annabel, and then it’s on to full blown murder and sealing corpses up in walls.

Despite being based upon Poe’s narratives, there is Argento to spare here as well. The director’s giallo trademark of a character struggling to cognitively and consciously understand a clue that was passively observed is given a slight twist, in that the clue comes in a dream rather than the waking world. Instead of observing other characters talking and later discern what was said, the main character watches the Pyms and one of Annabel’s students discuss the possibility that he is a murderer, reading their lips in the moment. Still, there’s something quintessentially American about Poe’s work that shines through in this, the oddly culturally cryptic first film Argento made in the states. (I’ve heard conflicting stories about whether or not any part of Inferno was actually filmed stateside, with the primary point of contention being whether or not the scene at Central Park Lake was shot in NYC or Italy; most sources say NYC, but an interview with Inferno‘s SFX director on that film’s DVD seems to suggest otherwise.) The place where this is most notable however, is in the presence of people of color. Argento’s films are usually awash in white faces, even in crowd scenes. Part of that may largely be the result of ethnic homogeneity in the Italy of the era in which Argento was doing his primary work, but this film is a refreshing exception. John Amos’s character is very likable, as is the pastor with whom Annabel is friends. Even many of the extras are black, causing “Cat” to stand out among Argento’s other work. Overall, it’s definitely worth watching, despite its problems with pacing and tempo.

-Mark “Boomer” Redmond

Tales from the Dark Side: The Movie (1990)

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threehalfstar

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Bridging the gap between the George A. Romero-produced television series of the same name & the start of Tales from the Crypt‘s television run, Tales from the Dark Side: The Movie is a delicious little slice of early 90s horror anthology. Besides the occasional shocks of gruesome practical effects & general Creepshow vibe, Tales from the Dark Side also features great performances from some always-welcome faces in all their 90s glory: Christian Slater in full Heathers mode, a handsomely young Steve Buscemi, Julianne Moore in dated aerobics gear & the makeup of the undead (not at the same time, unfortunately), Deborah Harry as a killer housewife preparing to cook & serve a child for a dinner party, etc. Much like the look of its recognizable cast, it’s a very dated film in terms of visual & cultural aesthetics, but it’s enjoyably dated, as horror anthologies typically tend to be.

The aforementioned Deborah-Harry-preparing-to-cook-a-child story is the tie-in or “wraparound” segment that provides the framework for the film’s three short tales of terror. Adopting an Arabian Nights structure, Harry’s would-be victim tyke prolongs his precious little life by telling his captor scary stories while she prepares to cook him. At first he recounts the tale of a revenge plot that involves a mummy rising from the dead to mummify the living. Then he tells the story of a murderous cat squaring off with a mafia hitman. Finally, he concludes his stay of execution with a romantic tale that revolves around an artist & a winged demon that looks like some kind of cross between a gargoyle & a gremlin.

As with Creepshow, Tales from the Crypt, and the Tales from the Dark Side television show, these stories have no significant connections outside of the wraparound segments, but rather function as individual short stories with their own narrative ups & downs. The opening mummy segment front-loads the movie with the recognizable talent & the most complex storytelling of the film. After that story concludes, it may initially feel like diminishing returns in the much sillier killer cat tale & the lackluster romance of the gargoyle yarn, but both sections actually pack a much stronger punch than they first imply. The narratives may become a little weaker as the films progress, but the intense body horror in their individual conclusions become increasingly intense. The cat’s final kill & the gargoyle’s transformation are both practical effects spectacles that rank among the best I’ve ever seen. Much like dated aesthetics & very loosely connected narratives, sitting through a couple underwhelming (and thankfully brief) stories to get to some prime gore also comes with the horror anthology territory. Tales from the Darkside might not be the most significant example of its genre, but it’s definitely worth a look for fans of the horror anthology in general, especially for that gruesome killer cat scene. That’s one for the ages.

-Brandon Ledet