- Rated PG-13
- Buy the BD
All photos © Universal Pictures
Reviewed by Bob Westal
t's a bit of a cheap shot, but it's true: the most chilling thing about "Season of the Witch" is that its screenplay won the prestigious Nicholl Fellowship in 2003. The universe would make somewhat more sense, however, if I learned that director Dominic Sena and his cohorts destroyed the original screenplay by Bragi Schut without the writer's cooperation.
Call me a stickler, but I don't think award-winning period horror/thriller screenplays should have 100% earnest medieval knights who generally speak in stilted, old-fashioned sounding English, saying "Shit!" when they're scared. The best line in the whole film should not be: "We're gonna need more holy water!" A perfectly reasonable person should not attempt to grasp a heavily weighted rope with his bare hands when everyone around him has the common sense to wear heavy gloves. I'm still trying to figure out online whether or not it would make any sense for a soldier to clean a wound with an alcoholic beverage a few hundred years before the discovery of microbes, but I sense I've done almost as much research as those involved with the film did. I'd argue that even the title of Schut's screenplay, which it shares with a Donovan tune you've likely heard on oldies radio and a little seen 1972 George Romero film, is ill-advised considering its medieval setting.
On the other hand, I'd forgive everything instantly if there was a strong, cohesive story, characters that were more than figurines, and if it weren't badly padded with material extraneous to the main story. There's a good Saturday afternoon-style programmer trying to get out of "Season of the Witch." The problem is that its attempt at blending swashbuckling adventure with a dash of "The Exorcist," a touch of "The Seventh Seal," and a bit of Ray Harryhausen is, for long, long stretches, too leaden and dour to be any fun at all.
Nicolas Cage stars as Behman, a knight and professional soldier who, in the company of his boon companion, Felsen (Ron Perlman), is an enthusiastic participant in the Crusades. That changes when one battle has the two of them mindlessly slaughtering unarmed women and children who are members of the wrong religion. I always thought murdering innocent people over theological quibbles was pretty much the whole point of the Crusades, but Behman is, after decades on the job, shocked and horrified. He and the cheerfully cynical Felsen loudly desert.
Almost immediately, the pair stumbles into a town wracked with the bubonic plague. Clearly the cause of the horrific illness is, you guessed it, witches! Before you can say, "eye of newt," the pair are dragooned into escorting a shackled teenager (Claire Foy) to the court where she will be judged on charges of being one of Satan's girlfriends. Feeling pity for the girl, Behman extracts a promise of a "fair trial." (Are scales and a duck involved?) While viewers might ordinarily assume that the young woman is a luckless victim of woman-hating churchmen, we've already seen a prologue which makes it clear that some form of supernatural shenanigans really is underway. Also, her behavior is a bit on the creepy side. Could this be a movie which actually endorses witch hunts? Arthur Miller's "The Crucible" as rewritten by Ann Coulter?
Of course, it's not that interesting. A third-act revelation brings in a less controversial supernatural source of all the nastiness. The balance of the film is a display of swords and deviltry as the valiant Behman and Felsen, aided by an avid knightly wannabe (Robert Sheehan) and an earnest Church apparatchik (Stephen Campbell Moore), face the particular incarnation of evil in question.
A few things do work in "Season of the Witch," but Nicolas Cage's performance isn't one of them. He is up to the physical demands of the swordplay, but he commits only to listlessly playing his character's sadness and depression, and barely that. Swashbuckling movie stars of old like Errol Flynn, Stewart Granger and Tyrone Power weren't half the actors that Cage can be when he's at his best, but they all would have known how to instill some spirit into this guilt-ridden hero.
Ron Perlman, however, steps very nicely into the shoes of such great classic-era heroic second-bananas as Alan Hale and Robert Preston, and he seems to relish the fact that he has nearly all of the film's intentionally funny lines. Robert Sheehan also brings some sincerity to his callow but well-intentioned aspiring knight. Claire Foy and Stephen Campbell Moore, on the other hand, really have no choice but to yield to their badly underwritten parts. In a one-scene cameo, a heavily made-up Christopher Lee, who I actually did not recognize, is convincing as a Cardinal who is feeling a bit plaguey around the gills. It would have been nice to have some more of him.
Another plus is the fight choreography by Kevin McCurdy. It lands a few cinematic blows at various points in the film with some apt physicality by Perlman and Cage. Also, while most of the effects in the film are pro-forma CGI stuff mixed in with beautiful real-life European locales, I thoroughly enjoyed a demon that shows up towards the end of the action. Some will find the effect goofy, but I couldn't resist a character who comes across like a miniature, more rodent-like version of the demon from the "Night on Bald Mountain" sequence from Walt Disney's "Fantasia.”
There's no way I'd consider "Season of the Witch" anything remotely like a good movie, but the more I think of it, all it really needs is a fast-forward button, low expectations, and the giddy mood that comes from either being a little high or extremely young.
Two-Disc Blu-ray Review:
Fox’s Blu-ray release of “Season of the Witch” is a great example of quality over quantity. Though the movie itself isn’t very good, the disc's bonus features are actually pretty entertaining, especially the featurette on creating the CG demon (“Becoming the Demon”). Also included is a handful of deleted scenes, an alternate ending swapping out the aforementioned CG demon for Claire Foy’s possessed girl, a short featurette on filming the opening battle sequences (“On a Crusade”), and a digital copy of the film.