[11 July 2011]
Critics savaged Season of the Witch when it appeared and quickly disappeared in theatres. If you watch it, you’ll discover that not only is it a bad film, but that perhaps the filmmakers were actually seeking to harm the viewers in some way. There’s no other explanation for this medieval malarkey.
It’s hard to believe anyone would buy or even rent this DVD. Bad scripting impossibly disconnected plotting, poor acting by good actors and sub-par CGI SFX combine to make it diabolically bad and a candidate for the worst film I’ve seen in the last, oh, three to five years.
The film stars once fine actor, now devoted paycheck-picker-upper Nicholas Cage and the gifted and out of place Ron Perlman. Cage and Perlman play crusading knights (although this is set in the 14th century when the crusades were well and done but, hey man, its just a movie!) who come to realize that killing for God is wrong. Because, you know, in the 14th century lots of people thought that.
A series of poorly arranged plot points get our heroes out of the Crusades. Another set of nonsensical plot points results in the Church, presented to us at first as the big bad of the film, sending them on a journey to carry an accused witch (even though this is happening long before the historical witch panic) to a remote monastery. Why? You’ll be so glad you asked. You see, at this remote monastery is a secret text called the “Book of Solomon” that must be read over her. For some reason.
In the end, we find out why and I don’t think it’s much of a spoiler to explain, in part because the explanation doesn’t make any sense. It turns out, in what I think is supposed to be a surprise ending, that the young girl is not exactly a witch but rather possessed by a demon. Cue exorcism scene using, guess what, the Book of Solomon. Wait, I thought you used the Book of Solomon to read over witches? You can also use it for exorcisms? Never mind, here comes a big sword fight with a demon.
And they even get the demon wrong. One of the special features, “Becoming the Demon”, details the special effects behind the flying creature Perlman and Cage must fight. The featurette is basic course in CGI and so not very good. Neither is the result. Not only does the demon not appear frightening, it looks ridiculous. This has been the threat all along, one of the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz, with eczema? This concluding scene also features some zombie monks which, I know, sounds a little cool, Sadly, the effects budget must have been blown on the flying monkey as these guys are just brown hoods moving around.
Medieval actioners are sometimes saved by their look and atmosphere, indeed its one of the reasons to watch them. No such luck here. Desert scenes look absurd, to the point that the sand doesn’t actually appear to be real (its not, of course). The film is even badly lit throughout, especially notable during those crusade scenes when its clear that studio lighting is being used during allegedly epic sword fights and sieges. In what is supposed to be a pivotal scene where we learn that our witch may be more than a witch, everything is so murky and the camera work so uncertain that the characters literally have to explain to us what happened after it’s all over.
The screenplay appears to have been written by high school sophomores, and not very gifted ones at that. The dialogue is all contemporary. The one-liners fall like stones. Worst of all, the writers sometimes try to sneak in what I suppose they think are medievalisms. Perlman talks about the wild things a woman did “in the bedchamber” and guards yell thing like “Stand fast!” There’s also a scene where Cage knights a young page with Perlman looking on solemnly. Played straight with rising dramatic music in the background, it’s perhaps the most pathetic three minutes in film history. I almost said “unintentionally funny” but its…its not funny at all.
Even the costuming succeeds in being ridiculous. The crusades scenes, already looking awful, are made worse by anachronistic outfitting, a mismatch of every “medieval-looking” thing that the filmmakers found in wardrobe. Words cannot express how silly Cage looks in a 12th century Norman helmet (here, in the 14th century). Everybody else, mostly random villagers and priests, look like they are in a church pageant—a poorly funded church pageant, that is.
Extras include the featurette on the CGI demon effects, but also on the making of the Crusades portion of the film. It turns out that the original cut did not feature the crusades. This was added in later because the producers felt they needed to beef up the action. There’s a silly moment in this feature where one of the stunt coordinators insists that they “went back to the history books” to create these scenes. Unless you believe sword fighting in the crusades featured a lot of head butting, judo throws and pro wrestling moves, the historical accuracy of these scenes will disappoint you.
The special features also include an alternate ending that seemed to me much better than the chosen ending for the theatrical version. Although it would not have saved the film, it’s gave Perlman and Cage a chance to show off some of their superb skills and gave us a more satisfyingly scary demon by leaving out the CGI crap. But they dumped that ending in favor of CGI mishmash and it looks like that’s really the story of this movie. There wasn’t much here to begin with and, producer-driven film that it was, an effort was made to stuff more action and effects to see if this thing would come to life.
Speaking of being producer-driven, there’s no sign in the special features of director Dominic Sena. The features do not include any audio commentary, probably because Sena wanted to put this behind him and may have not been happy with the cut that made it into theatres. Sena previously directed the pretty good Kalifornia, and a nice little action film based on a graphic novel called Whiteout, a Kate Beckinsale centered project that is a guilty pleasure of mine. I’m sorry this garbage is now part of his CV.
Cage, please, stop wasting your undeniable skills on this kind of stuff (Perlman will go back to being awesome on Sons of Anarchy soon). Everybody needs a payday and there are plenty of great actors who make an appearance in awful films for the check (here’s looking at you, Ben Kingsley), but Cage is making a career out of it. Maybe we wont see anymore Leaving Las Vegas from him, but he can at least give us more Bad Lieutenant and less of this kind of thing.
If you’re craving some medieval goodness, I recommend the 2010 Chris Smith directed film The Black Death, starring Sean Bean. It has none of the silliness of this film, no CGI and at times becomes a thoughtful exploration of religion combined with an interesting mystery. There are even one or two convincing sword fights.