Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Jack's Wife

There are three titles for the third movie directed by George Romero. It was filmed as Jack's Wife, re-titled as Hungry Wives when it came out in 1972, and renamed yet again to Season of the Witch when it received a re-release in the early 80s to cash in on Romero's success with Dawn of the Dead and Creepshow. Personally, I prefer Jack's Wife; Hungry Wives sounds like a porno while Season of the Witch promises much more horror than the film intends on delivering.

Jack's Wife shares a kinship with two other Romero movies: Martin and Bruiser. Martin is the story of a young man who may or may not be a vampire. Bruiser is the story of a man whose face may or may not have been replaced by a featureless white mask. Jack's Wife is the story of a woman who may or may not be a witch. All three of these films are about individual identity and the social forces that shape a person's reality. In the case of Jack's Wife, those themes center on middle class suburbia and the then-burgeoning feminist movement.

Joan Mitchell (Jan White) is a bored, unhappy suburban housewife. Her husband Jack (Bill Thunhurst) pretty much ignores her since he's always away on business trips, her daughter Nikki (Joedda McClain) doesn't have much use for her, and Joan is plagued by bad dreams that symbolize aspects of her unfulfilling life (in one, her husband leaves her in a dog kennel. Subtle, huh?). At a party, she becomes intrigued when she learns a neighborhood woman is a practicing witch. Soon after, Joan starts to explore witchcraft herself and for the first time in a long while, finds purpose and fulfillment, but the line between fantasy and reality begins to blur as Joan's nightmares become haunted by a mysterious masked figure.

Jack's Wife is a fascinating movie to discuss and analyze from a character and narrative perspective. More melodrama than horror, the film is an examination of how Joan feels unfulfilled and how she tries to find something to give her meaning, and that something just happens to be witchcraft. Her identity is tied to being a wife and mother, and with neither husband nor daughter offering her validation in either role, Joan finds something else to define her and give her purpose. With the witchcraft comes that direction and a new sense of freedom.

The horror elements of the movie are rather minimal. The nightmares are freaky, but most of the time, we follow Joan and explore her life and all the different ways she feels stifled. It's a rather talky picture, with Joan and company often sitting around and talking in static living rooms over drinks. If you expect Joan to don a witch's cap and ride a broom, you're in the wrong movie (for an example of a ghoulish witch, watch the Romero-scripted pilot for Tales from the Darkside, "Trick or Treat).

Whether Joan actually performs any real magic or is in touch with the supernatural is up for debate. For example, she casts a spell to seduce her daughter's college professor boyfriend (Raymond Laine); it doesn't seem to work, so she calls him on the phone, and he comes right over. Would he have come over anyway? It's possible the spell might have played a part or perhaps it just gave Joan the confidence to approach him. Hard to say. If it is just the power of the suggestion, that doesn't explain some dreams that seem to predict the future.

Romero also has some sly fun mixing the gothic and the mundane.  Sure, we get the candles and the pricked fingers and the arcane rituals, but they're conducted in banal middle-class houses. When Joan goes shopping for witches supplies, she pays with a credit card, and the real idea of black magic is treated by most of the characters as something of the latest counter-cultural fad. Joan even buys a primer for how to be witch, and instead of being some ancient tome, it's like any other book, available at the local book store.

Narrative-wise and character-wise, Jack's Wife is rich. From a visual and filmmaking standpoint, unfortunately, it's crude and amateurish. It's drab to look at. The pace drags, many scenes go on too long, and the editing is haphazard and jarring; there are very few establishing shots when a scene begins to acclimate the viewer, and the transitions between scenes are mostly nonexistent. This is particularly a problem with the dream sequences; they don't feel weird enough. In Martin, Romero intercut black-and-white period footage to suggest either twisted fantasies or memories of the main character  as he stalked his victims, as well as a dream-like, disembodied voice calling to him, but here, there's nothing that sophisticated. The entire technique of the movie just feels crude.

As much as I enjoy talking about Jack's Wife, I have to admit it is something of a chore to sit through. If you're a Romero completist, there's much to recognize and discuss, but it didn't leave me moved in any particular way and is kind of dull. Romero has said in interviews it's the one movie of his he'd like to remake, and maybe that's not such a bad idea. Maybe with the experience he's gained since then, he could conjure up something truly special.

No comments:

Post a Comment