A film review by Craig J. Koban 

January 11, 2011

SEASON OF THE WITCH jj

2010, PG-13, 95 mins.

 

Behmen: Nicolas Cage / Felson: Ron Perlman / The Girl: Claire Foy / Kay: Robert Sheehan / Cardinal: Christopher Lee

Directed by Dominic Sena / Written by Bragi F. Schut.

One thing is definitely frightening about SEASON OF THE WITCH, and it ain't the witchcraft involved - it's Nicolas Cage's horribly stilted and wildly misshapen performance as a Christian knight of the Crusades.

Not only does the actor feel too oddly contemporary and mismatched for such a period piece and character, but he really suffers for how he brings out just about every mournful and dreadful element that has made some of his worst films of recent memory really stick out; namely, him sporting a ridiculously obvious rug, a detached sense of emotional connection to the character and material, and giving line readings that are uttered with only a scintilla of urgency and care required to garner a much-needed paycheck.

Has there ever been a more inconsistent actor of the last 20 years than Cage?   He can be such a magnetic and joyously unhinged performer (see LEAVING LAS VEGAS, ADAPTATION, MATCHSTICK MEN, THE WEATHER MAN, THE LORD OF WAR, and BAD LIEUTENANT: PORT OF CALL - NEW ORLEANS to name some), but he can also reduce himself rather effortlessly in painfully mediocre roles (see BANGKOK DANGEROUS, THE WICKER MAN, the NATIONAL TREASURE series, and GHOST RIDER).  There is sometimes no sight more dreadful than to see a proven and accomplished Oscar winning performer succumb to parts that are so pitifully unchallenging and unfulfilling, and Cage's work in SEASON OF THE WITCH is no exception.  Wigged out to the extreme, flat and monotone, and uttering his regal and solemn lines with a period accent that never hits an authentic tone at any waking second, Cage’s presence in SEASON OF THE WITCH provides many unintentional laughs. 

His co-star, on the other hand, is Ron Pearlman, who embodies his role of the crusading knight with considerably more delight and plausibility (plus, as a physical specimen with a mug that looks like it was carved on the battlefield, Pearlman more that meets this role’s basic requirements).  In the film Cage plays Behmen and Pearlman plays Felson, and together they are two very close BFFs during the Crusades and engage in years of bloody and protracted battles in God’s honor (which are presented with the obligatorily hazy CGI extras numbering in the thousands that never once looks convincing).  Yet, the boys finally have an epiphany…after 12-years of slashing an pillaging their ways through the enemy…that mercilessly slaughtering countless people does not serve the Lord very well.  They decide to ditch their religious duties. 

As Behmen and Felson secretly try to return home, they inadvertently come across a decrepit and Black Death-afflicted kingdom that is ruled by the local cardinal (a very decent Christopher Lee, unrecognizable under his heavy plague makeup).  Within no time, the former knights are forced into servicing a special request for the cardinal: they are to escort an imprisoned young woman (newcomer Claire Foy) to a nearby city where she can be tried for the charge of witchcraft.  The cardinal has his deeply rooted beliefs that the woman just may have been the cause of the Black Death ravaging his kingdom and hopes, in turn, that trying and murdering the girl will spare his lands from it.   

Behmen and Felson begrudgingly agree to take on the task and are accompanied on their long and arduous task by a overly anxious and witch fearing monk (Stephen Campbell Moore), a wise-talking con artist (Stephen Graham) and a young, determined, but inexperienced warrior (Robert Sheehan, who could double Jay Baruchel any day of the week) that – if you consider the perfunctory fate of nearly all young and inexperienced youth characters that get in over their heads while joining the heroes on a treacherous task - you just know will either be dead by the end credits or be the savoir of everyone.  The group's nightmarish trek is beset by obstacles, like a teetering and fragile rope bridge that separates two cliffs, a rabid squad of man-hungry wolves, not to mention that very, very odd things seem to happen around the young girl, who is locked away in a cage for most of the duration of the trip.  Not to spoil the ending, but let’s just say that by the time the heroes reach their destination they make a ghastly discovery that greatly impedes their ability to give the girl a trial…and then all hell breaks loose. 

SEASON OF THE WITCH was directed by the capable, but underachieving Dominic Sena, who made a real critical splash oh-so-many years ago with his lauded 1993 crime/road picture KALIFORNIA (still containing Brad Pitt’s most electrifying and disturbing performance) and he has never really been the same filmmaker since (efforts like SWORDFISH and GONE IN 60 SECONDS confirm this).  At the least, Sena does make THE SEASON OF THE WITCH look decent with modest filmmaking resources: the cinematography, costume and production design are quite effectively and competently rendered, especially considering the film’s relatively scant $40 million budget.  Pearlman, as stated, is a teeth-clenched, one-liner uttering, sword slashing protagonist that provides the film with a point of interest as far as the heroes are concerned.  Young Claire Foy, making her feature film debut, is effectual as her duplicitous motivated character that seems both innocent and complicit at the same time.   

Yet, the film squanders some really tantalizing opportunities with the witch character herself.  Instead of the script engaging in a frisky and intriguing cat and mouse mind game with the audience over whether or not the girl is either a demonic witch or just a innocent and deeply frightened victim, the film opts to telegraph itself a tad too obviously as to the girl’s real identity and motives.   SEASON OF THE WITCH could have been a really memorizing journey to take if it had more nerve with trusting the audience and playing up the ambiguities of the girl’s condition, but it opts for a conclusion that unravels in a predicable and outlandish fashion.  By the final climatic act, it appears that the film is less concerned with supernatural powers and more with demonic possession and becomes a visual effects heavy, third-rate EXORCIST. 

Then we are dealt with the more laughable elements of the film, like its use of anachronistic dialogue (I may be crazy, but I am sure that words like "damn", "shit", and my personal favourite, "altitude" where ever freely used by Crusades-era warriors).  We are also given a weakly delivered verbal gag during a particularly dicey moment that’s meant to be a nod to JAWS when a priest breathlessly states, “We’re going to need more holy water.”  I personal would like to exorcise references to 30-plus-year-old films that any modern film utilizes.  Furthermore, it’s sometimes really difficult to discern whether SEASON OF THE WITCH is meant to be solemn, dreary, and terrifying or just a semi-campy, schlock-induced exercise that seems drawn out of the legacy of Hammer horror films.   

On thing is for sure: SEASON OF THE WITCH is more sleep inducing and watch checking than it is intensely frightening and suspenseful.  Beyond that, it’s kind of surprising how straight faced and serious the actors are amidst some of the sillier aspects of the unraveling narrative, almost to the point where the film would have been more agreeable and digestible if it just embraced it’s more hammy and preposterous B-horror underpinnings with more relish.  Alas, SEASON OF THE WITCH is not really thrilling, not really scary, and not really memorable as far as horror/action pictures go.  What it does contain – beyond some handsome production artifice – is a creaky and meandering story that fails to generate seat-squirming level of intrigue and tension.  

However…beware of the horrors of Nic Cage’s wig and accent!  Those things were lingeringly chilling, indeed.

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