Fate has not been kind to “Season of the Witch”. Originally scheduled for a release in early 2010, Dominic Sena’s Medieval horror-fantasy wound up getting pulled by its then distributor, Lionsgate, and found itself on the shelf until the beginning of 2011, during which time, of course, Christopher Smith’s “Black Death” was released; and, while that film didn’t exactly set the world alight, it gained some degree of acclaim, being a historical film set in the same time period, that deals with exactly the same themes as “Season of the Witch” and which has a very similar story: a bunch of 14th century knights and a callow monk or two are sent on a mission that involves trekking through the fog-shrouded forests of a Medieval Europe that’s recently been decimated by bubonic plague, and is now cowering in fear before accusations by the authorities of witchcraft born of fear and rampant superstition, with an accused witch in tow.
In “Black Death”, Sean Bean was the knightly crusader cast as the film’s main box office draw; “Season of the Witch” plumps for bringing together Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman as wisecracking macho Knights’ Templar buddies in the middle-ages, who’ve had a bellyful of smiting the Turk in the name of the Lord during their many years sword-wielding in the Holy Land, and now want out after having become disillusioned with the Church and its apparently unquenchable thirst for the blood of the infidel. The similarities between the two films don’t end with their middle-ranking, middle-aged stars and their shared subject matter: while Smith cast the veteran David Warner in a near-cameo length role to provide “Black Death” with a reference point in classic Gothic horror (which it then set about messing with brilliantly), here Christopher Lee pops up -- equally as briefly and almost unrecognisable behind rubbery buboes prosthetics -- as a disfigured dying Cardinal who issues Cage and Perlman with their dangerous witch-transportation mission. When Smith’s film was first released, the parallels between its chosen period and our own – on-going bloody war in a foreign land and fear and suspicion of ‘the other’ at home – were specifically alluded to by the director, who significantly rewrote elements of the script to minimise the fantasy side of the story and turn it more towards being a serious examination of faith and fundamentalism and their deep-rooted relationship with fear and violence. “Black Death” ended up becoming an excellent little picture, trading on a mise-en-scene that cleverly exploited its material’s potential for Lord of the Rings-style supernatural fantasy, then wrong-footing the viewer with a realist denouement that was infinitely the darker for being based in psychological truth rather than horror cliché. It’s Season of the Witch’s vast misfortune to not only find itself trailing in the wake of this memorably convincing historical-fantasy thriller, but for it to be glaringly apparent that it is much the inferior product when the two are set side by side.
The film begins with a scene-setting witch hanging prologue, set in the year 1235. A piteous rabble of poor and bedraggled women are herded onto the battlements of a Medieval castle, first to be hanged above the moat, then to have their lolling corpses sunk in the raging waters below while a solemn priestly monk promises them their souls will be saved -- if not their earthly bodies! If we were starting to believe that the film might develop into a similarly serious study of belief and of hysteria in an extreme patriarchal society -- along the same lines as Smith’s film and the movies by which it was partially influenced such as, say, “The Witchfinder General” and “The Wicker Man”—then our illusions are very quickly shattered when one of the drowned bodies of the women is resurrected, levitates from the waters, rockets many feet into the air above the monk still attempting to intone the exorcism rites from the book of Solomon which are supposed to lay the dead to rest, and, after taking on a CGI-created demonic “Linda Blair” visage, murders him -- shooting out streaks of flame from its fingertips that also destroy the holy book containing the exorcism incantations.
No subtlety about the subject here then: witches really exist -- or rather the Devil manifests himself by possessing the poor and the dispossessed. The wholesale slaying of millions by the Church just appears to have been fully justified from the off then! From here on, the film unashamedly revels in a fantasyland aesthetic composed of CGI enhanced mountain forest scapes with towering black castles and boiling skies that pitch the whole spectacle into a realm best described as Gothic-flavoured Tolkien inhabiting the fairy tale side of a Terry Gilliam epic, with a strong whiff of Sam Rami’s “Army of Darkness” also discernable in the final twenty minutes especially.
Then it’s time for Cage and Perlman to make their entrances. We’re catapulted forward in time a hundred years, where we find the tough-as-nails Teutonic knight Behman of Bleiruck (Cage) and his even tougher sidekick Felson (Perlman) at first looking rather chipper as they gleefully prepare for battle in service of their Lord on the Gulf of Edremit. The guys indulge in some wry buddy flick-style joshing as the opposing CGI painted hordes line up in the CGI painted desert sands – Behman betting on who will get to kill the most infidels (“you take the 300 on the left, I’ll take the 300 on the right” quips Felson) and get their drinks for free that night, whereupon the film launches into a battle montage sequence that takes us forward in time almost another decade where we find the now hardened veterans -- looking all scarred, beardy and macho (we’ve gone from the fresh-faced Jack Bauer of series one of “24” to the series eight version in a matter of minutes!) -- as they’re thrust headlong into the battle of Smyrna, both knights experiencing a sudden and rather belated epiphany along the lines of ‘all this killing in the name of God seems a little … well, hypocritical?’ But only after Behman accidently butchers an innocent Turkish woman, running her through with his crusader’s sword in the heat of battle.
Haunted by guilt, the two friends do a bunk from the field of battle, going the Holy Crusader equivalent of AWOL, and wandering the hinterlands of Europe dressed in rags and looking all contrite – but still in a tough and macho kind of way. Back in their native lands they find the countryside and the occasional isolated farming cottage have been ravaged and are piled high with swollen, putrefying corpses – victims of the Black Death, which has been sweeping the continent since the two knights left their homeland many years previously. It’s not long before the deserters are recognised and brought before the plague-suffering Cardinal D’Ambroise (Christopher Lee) who offers to let them off if they’ll take on one last crucial mission for the Church authorities. A black witch in the form of a young destitute girl (Claire Foy) is suspected of having brought the plague to the region after she was discovered wandering on the outskirts of the village, soon before the first plague deaths occurred. Behman and Felson are charged with escorting her on a long and hazardous journey to a faraway monastery, which is the only remaining site to still possess a special book of incantations that can lift the curse of plague from the land.
They are to be accompanied by a pious monk, Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore), who is the churchman who first pointed the finger of suspicion at the girl and obtained her original confession; the Church’s best knight Johann Eckhardt (Ulrich Thompson), who is assigned to add some muscle to the expedition; and a seller of fake relics called Hagamar (Stephen Graham), who is the only person who knows the perilous route through the dark mountain forest that leads to the monastery, and who is therefore needed to lead the way. Neither Behman nor Felson are especially keen on the idea, but when they see the poor, emaciated and helpless girl imprisoned in the dungeons below the church, both agree to take the mission -- if only to ensure that this victim of Holy superstition receives ‘a fair trial’. The group is accompanied by a young altar boy called Kay (Robert Sheehan) with aspirations to become a knight and fight in the Holy Land like his father. As the journey gets underway the travellers soon begin to realise that dark forces are indeed at work; while Debelzaq claims that the apparently innocent girl in rags being transported in a cage on the back of their wagon is the cause of every woe that befalls them, they find themselves assailed by apparitions in a plague town, forced to cross a deadly decaying bridge between a bottomless chasm (a very “Evil Dead” touch this -- which further emphasises the Sam Rami influence) and attacked by demonic wolves which materialise out of nowhere in a foggy glade while they attempt to set up camp for the night. Could this frail young girl really be capable of possessing such powers of Maleficium?
The film initially attempts to create some doubt about the guilt of the girl accused of witchery, but it’s a very half-hearted effort, especially coming after the supernatural pyrotechnics and demonry we witnessed in the prologue. In its rush to reassure a mainstream audience of its credentials as kinetic fantasy, the cat is let out of the bag straight away, and it’s not long before young, much-abused Anna (as we later learn she is called) is deviously causing division among the camp charged with ferrying her to her destination, by preying on each of their psychological weaknesses one by one, and causing increasing difficulties and a series of unnatural deaths among them.
There’s a curious reticence about the whole spectacle though, as if the film can’t quite settle on the right tone to adopt. The plague prosthetics are suitably grim and horrific, making for some agreeably grotesque plague-addled monk zombies at the climax of the film, and the demon CGI work whips up the Gothic fantasy vibe needed most convincingly during the finale, yet even so there is demonstrably something missing. At the heart of the malaise are the film’s two stars, Cage and Perlman. This is a partnership which could be extremely entertaining in the right project, but this clearly isn’t it. The duo seem muted and underpowered for some reason anyway, but they’re not helped here by a weak script that fails to deliver the amusing dialogue their buddy-buddy sparring demands, and one can’t help wondering if a fantasy set in the plague-ridden middle ages is really an appropriate vehicle for such a relationship to flourish at all. One can’t escape the allegorical dimension to all this either, even if the film is pitching itself as pure knockabout supernatural fantasy. Christopher Smith was quite up-front after all, about his film’s applicability to the current status of religious fundamentalism and the West’s response to it in the present era, so since “Season of the Witch” is set in the same period as “Black Death” it’s hard not to make similar comparisons.
And this is where the film ends up going to some very strange places. On the one hand, it locates Cage and Perlman as the equivalent of disillusioned U.S. soldiers (after all, the two do act like they’re US soldiers who’ve simply been transported in time back to the mid-1300s) driven into a situation where they’ve ended up committing atrocities and are now understandably disillusioned with the Holy Roman Empire they’ve served unquestioningly for so long (this is the film’s surrogate for the United States) and its crusading mission in the Middle East. When Cage sees Claire Foy’s tortured, whipped and abused young girl, Anna, cowering in the mud of a church-sanctioned dungeon awaiting execution on the say-so of a smugly pious Debelzaq, he is instantly reminded of the innocent Turkish girl who died impaled on the end of his sword back in Smyrna and all the women and children who have fallen in the course of the Holy War he’s helped to wage, while we the audience think of tortured terrorist suspects and Guantanamo Bay. But once it is revealed that Anna really is secretly responsible for bringing the plaque, it’s as though the film were trying to say that no matter how we might occasionally stray in our execution of this necessary war against ‘the other’, that that other is out there, and is indeed evil -- and we must not let its disciples deceive us as they display their wounds and the marks of mistreatment they have suffered at our hands, by exploiting our sympathies with a concern for their human rights!
It’s interesting that Anna, like all the other shuffling women we see hanged for practicing witchcraft at the start of the film, isn’t really so much a witch as a poor girl who has been possessed by the Devil: a Devil who takes all his human vehicles from the dispossessed and the underprivileged – those who do not otherwise feel they have a voice; they’re the equivalent of radicalised Muslims on home soil who have become disposable assassins for a foreign idea; while the plague tearing a swathe through the land and causing fear and misery and horror, is like their dirty bomb or a 9/11 event! In a nutshell, “Season of the Witch” tries to have it both ways by contextualising Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman as being salt-of-the-earth all American good guys who are justifiably angered by what their Church is doing, while, at the same time, the initially thoroughly dislikeable monk Debelzaq -- who has overseen the torture of a young girl and stands for the same authority which has sanctioned the crusades that have caused so much bloodshed -- is in the end essentially proved right – and presumably therefore the Church’s methods and its own fundamentalism are, by implication, being condoned. It rather takes the fun out of the fiction and leaves rather an nasty taste in the mouth, unless one is willing to disengages from such speculations and attempt to enjoy the film as a superficial fantasy, but then it doesn’t quite cut the mustard either, for director Dominic Sena still seems to want to layer in references to Ingmar Bergman’s “The Seventh Seal” (which was clearly also an influence on Christopher Smith) that create an edge of serious intent that doesn’t exactly sit well with the CGI wolves and winged demons and monk zombie shenanigans elsewhere in the movie. While Cage and Perlman text in their performances, the supporting cast aren’t given that much more than stereotypes to play. It’s frustrating to watch young British performers of the calibre of Robert Sheehan (who is an awesome comic actor and brilliant in the British comedy drama “Misfits” -- a riff on the US series “Heroes”) and the versatile Claire Foy (“The Promise”) being left with such threadbare roles, here, though at least they’re getting some experience with the more physical side of acting in Hollywood movies, which will stand them in good stead if their careers are to continue down that road in the future.
The UK DVD from Momentum Pictures offers the fairly standard package with a good 1.85:1 transfer and strong surround audio track. The extras are limited to a theatrical trailer and a ten minute making of featurette where the producers are the main interviewees and the leads (Cage, Perlman and Foy) do a much greater acting job in attempting to drum up enthusiasm for this average fantasy potboiler than they manage in the actual feature itself. The film is available in DVD and Blu-ray versions with identical features.