Dominic Sena’s Season of the Witch features Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman as ex-Crusaders fighting their way across medieval Europe through all manner of zombies, devil dogs and gargoyles to deliver a suspected witch to a monastery. That is a bad movie is not surprising. To find, however, that it isn’t entertaining is actually disappointing. Here’s a genre picture that can’t even deliver on the advertising of the title; there’s no actual witch and there’s certainly no season. This is by-the-numbers sword and sorcery with only the blandest of flavors.
When noble knights Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Perlman) leave the Crusades out of moral objection, they find themselves on the run in Europe as deserters. They come to small village plagued by a deadly disease that the locals believe was brought on by a witch. The clergy, at the behest of a nearly unrecognizable Christopher Lee, send Behmen, Felson and a priest named Debelzeq to make a six day journey to a monastery where the witch can be put to trial and exorcised with a sacred book. Before you can say ‘Necronomicon’ the little convoy is off, picking up a couple extra cliches along the way including the young clergyman who dreams of being a knight. That the witch, played by Claire Foy, spends most of her time looking out of her cage with big doe eyes does not enhance our confidence that she’s a formidable foe.
To further establish the plot is a moot point, as it only serves as a shabby highlights reel of 80’s fantasy movies. You know the kind; conflicted heroes battling cheaply designed monsters to protect cowering damsels. In what it thinks is a grand twist, Witch’s damsel is also the big bad beastie. This is done by having Foy be a mere vessel for something more hideos and dangerous. If it sounds like I’m spoiling things, then perhaps you should also avoid the previews, which show Foy jumping through the air Raimi style, spinning in her cage ala the Matrix, and birthing winged demons from her person. There isn’t a thought or concept in Witch that isn’t telegraphed from the very beginning, and without any surprise the movie lacks suspense. When we watch Behmen kill an innocent accidentally—despite murdering hundreds elsewhere– we can be sure he’ll spend the rest of the film finding a way to save one.
From a production standpoint, Witch is competently mounted, with moody cinematography capturing rickety bridges across chasms, misty foreboding forests, and vast, lonely towers perched on mountaintops. The soundtrack rumbles with pomp and circumstance, and the costuming is delightful, featuring bird-masked physicians, exquisitely filthy peasants, and near-authentic knight armor. The armor, in particular, is a highlight even if Cage seems to be fitting a bit too snugly in his.
The visual effects are are mostly terrible. The Crusade scenes in the film’s open are so blurry and indistinct that your eyes swim just trying to look at them. While the monsters could be expected to be a bit less spectacular than a film like Lord of the Rings, it isn’t too much to have hoped for more than the cartoon critters that occupy the last third. When you are attempting to create a film that plays like the SYFY channel version of The Seventh Seal, you need to make sure you have the money and talent to really make those devils fly. Otherwise, you are embarking on a fool’s errand.
What really kills The Season of the Witch is that it lacks any sort of joy, mirth or a sense of humor. Granted, religious purging, witch burning and the plague aren’t exactly popcorn accoutrements, but the film’s plot isn’t sturdy enough to deal with these ideas seriously so it should have approached the enterprise with some welcome camp. Cage and Perlman are both master scenery chewers, and their introduction is a bloody collage that makes the Crusades look like Hope and Crosby pub-crawling through the lower reaches of Hell. Later, when faced with the true nature of the demon, one monk cries ‘We’re gonna need more holy water!’
But these moments are simply teases, and Cage is surprisingly stone-faced. With all manner of arcane magic swirling around, he just stands there half-lidded and pretends he isn’t the same man that once round-house kicked Leelee Soblieski while wearing a bear costume. Perlman grins the whole movie through but doesn’t do anything else. He was obviously contemplating how many pumps he could buy his wife with that big fat paycheck.
Bad Cage movies are only as good as their hairpieces, and this one features the same wig from Sorcerer’s Apprentice, matted down with mud and grime. It’s worth a few chuckles but not much else. The film itself isn’t even worth that. If you are looking for medieval swashbuckling done right let me direct you to last year’s Solomon Kane, with James Purefoy playing Robert Howard’s Puritan monster masher. That one had great acting, handsome sets and a real witch. The true devilry is knowing this one got a US theatrical release and Kane got squat.