What we have here is a bit of a contradiction: A historical drama that exposes the hypocrisy of the Church and a supernatural thriller that confirms the existence of evil demonic forces. This is clearly not a matter of what the filmmakers would have us believe, but even in terms of pure entertainment, I’m puzzled as to how anyone thought both messages could be sent in the same story. One can be taken seriously. The other cannot. Season of the Witch (not to be confused with the George A. Romero film of the same name) is initially caught in a tug-of-war between substance and spectacle, only for the latter to win and bring the whole thing down to the level of a dime store possession tale. It hardly seems a fitting vehicle for Nicholas Cage – although, I must admit, his project choices have of late been less than memorable.
He plays a knight named Behmen. Along with his friend, Felson (Ron Perlman), they start off as Church loyalists fighting in the Crusades; they mercilessly stab, slit, and maim in the belief that their enemies are an affront to God and his son, Jesus Christ. But after years of mindless battling, they realize that women and children are among the slaughtered, and they become disillusioned. Strange that it took them so long to realize who they were killing. They quit the army, are decreed as deserters, and live life as outcasts for some months before happening upon a town ravaged by the Black Plague – a dark, filthy place of wood and stone, where the faithful roam the streets flagellating themselves while robbed figures haul away rotting bodies on carriages. Watching this, I kept in mind that the men of Monty Python were able to make this kind of thing funny.
Behmen and Felson are caught and taken to the bedchamber of Cardinal D’Ambroise (a cameo by Christopher Lee), whose face has been monstrously disfigured by illness. He and his subjects have reason to believe a witch is the cause of this pestilence. They have her locked in a dungeon below, for, according to a priest named Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore), she has already confessed to it and to making a pact with Lucifer. D’Ambroise wants Behmen and Felson to transport this suspected witch, known almost entirely as The Girl (Claire Foy), to a faraway monastery, where she will be judged by a group of monks. Behmen, who feels nothing but guilt over a woman he impaled with his sword, agrees. But only on the condition that she be given a fair trial. Amazing how a man so cynical can also be so naïve.
If they hope to reach this monastery, they will need someone intimately familiar with the land, for the journey is long and uncharted. Here enters a swindler named Hagamar (Stephen Graham), first seen with his head and hands sticking out of pillory. Also tagging along is Eckhardt, a grief-stricken father and widower (Ulrich Thomsen), and Kay (Robert Sheehan), a boy who wants to prove his bravery and become a knight. As they transport The Girl over perilous peaks, across a rickety bridge, and through a haunted forest populated by demonic wolves, Behmen begins to suspect that she’s as evil as Debelzaq claims she is. How is it she has the strength of a man four, nay, five times her size? How does she know details about things she could have no knowledge of? Why does absolutely nothing surprise her? And why are people ending up dead?
One of the things that kept throwing me off was the dialogue, a mishmash of Arthurian English and action movie puns. An unintentionally hilarious line was supplied to Moore: After his character narrowly avoids a winged demon, he turns to Cage and says grimly, “We’re gonna need more holy water.” One idly wonders if writer Bragi F. Schut was harkening back to Jaws, specifically the moment Roy Scheider tells Robert Shaw that he would need a bigger boat. There’s also plenty of that annoying sidekick irreverence on Perlman’s part; he’s the guy you can always depend on for a wiseass remark about everything. That might have served him well in movies like Alien: Resurrection or Hellboy, but here, it’s so painfully out of place that it’s almost as if no thought went into the screenplay.
Season of the Witch might have worked as an innocuous piece of gothic camp, similar to the sensibilities of Terence Fisher or Roger Corman. Granted, that would take more than a rewrite of the screenplay; it would require an entirely different approach. It’s one thing to make statements about organized religion; it’s quite another to make them in a story that validates fanaticism at every opportunity. The film is a paradox, and not a very well made one at that. While I can certainly give credit for the technical aspects – the production design, the costumes, the makeup, the lighting, the music – there isn’t much I can say about the plot, the characters, or the performances, least of all Cage’s. This is doubly baffling, considering this is the same man who won an Oscar for Leaving Las Vegas.
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