[7 January 2011]
PopMatters Film and TV Editor
“Today, you fight for God Himself!” So yelps the so-called Grandmaster (Brian F. O’Byrne), a decidedly unconvincing leader of 14th-century Crusaders. As you’d expect, he’s atop a hill looking down on a battlefield-to-be, his eyes fiery and his outfit religio-paramilitary. His listeners include the dutiful Behman (Nicolas Cage) and his best buddy Felson (Ron Perlman), both eager to serve the Lord. “Whoever slays the most,” Felson announces, “drinks for free!”
Thus devoted to their cause, the Crusaders spend the first few minutes of Season of the Witch in a montage of brutal, slow-motion clashes (the Gulf of Edremit 1332, Tripoli 133*, Smyrna 1334), as well as bawdy nights filled with ale and wenches. And then Behman goes and accidentally kills a Turkish peasant girl, her stunned “I’m dying!” expression haunting enough that he quits, with Felson in tow. “Let’s get the hell out of here!” he agrees as they turn their backs on the Grandmaster, because, suddenly it seems, all that wenching is less agreeable than he thought.
Now deemed traitors, Behman and Felson wander the coast until they come on a town beset by the Plague, specifically, according to a pustule-faced Cardinal (Christopher Lee), a Plague brought on by a witch they’ve got locked up in the local dungeon. Behman resists the Cardinal’s demand that they take the girl (Claire Foy) to an abbey on the other side of a big scary wood, declaring, “I serve the Church no more.” Felson, bless him, points out just how ridiculous such language sounds coming from Nic Cage, and the two share a hearty laugh in the dungeon alongside the girl. That is, until they witness her otherworldly strength and also bloody signs of the abuse she attributes to the flibberty priest, Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore). Her grim pallor (reminiscent of the girl Behman killed), on top of the priest’s obnoxiousness, convinces him to take the gig, a bad idea if ever there was one.
The guys set out with the witch-in-a-cage-on-wheels, accompanied by an assortment of men who, predictably, don’t understand the extent of their trouble. That is, the true believer Debelzaq, as well as a knight (Ulrich Thomsen) perturbed by his daughter’s recent death and a smarmy guide they save from the stocks (Steven Graham), who sums up his own usefulness during an especially murky night: “This damn fog is like a veil before my eyes!” Ah well. No one quite sees what’s in front of him, including the fresh meat, an altar boy named Kay (Robert Sheehan) looking to prove himself as a knight (and incidentally, provide the action scenes with some acrobatic somersaulting).
This crew, less motley than dismal, serves the plot much as the oversexed teens in a slasher flick, providing fodder for the increasingly aggressive paranormal force attached to the girl. This means that each has good reason at different points to be very afraid, pursued as they are by ghosts, shadows, and a pitiful pack of digitized wolves. It’s clear the men are out of intellectual resources when the creatures come near and Felson announces, “Kill as many as you can.”
The ensuing fight scene, like others in the film, lurches from shot to shot, the CGI alternately murky and wifty, the vaguely choreographed whacks and thrashings mostly disconnected. Still, the travelers press on, until at last they find what they think they’re looking for, the abbey, populated now by zombie monks that burst into cheap-looking dust swirls when decapitated. Now Behman and Felson’s Crusades training comes in handy, as does the altar boy’s martial artsiness.
The living-dead monks’ sorry state raises more than a few questions as to the power of this demon. Can it or can’t it command all manner of odious energies, such that wolves turn monstrous, storms churn, and wooden bridges fail conveniently? Why does the monks’ Ancient Book of Rituals remain beyond its reach? How is it that the demon might move their corpses or bring thunder and flames, but not just get itself to the abbey without all the journeying and quipping and complaining by these pasty humans? Why oh why has the demon inflicted this movie on the rest of us?
Such logic questions prompt others, having to do with the film qua film’s tone and reason. Could it have seemed like a good time to anyone involved to spend weeks tromping around in a Hungarian forest, wearing medieval wigs and tights and pretending to see demon effects added later? And further, did anyone give thought to a script that was making portentously literal-minded hay of past and possibly current worries over manifestations of evil and evil-doers?
Consider that Behman, our hero after all, doubts the Church’s judgments regarding suspected girls, burning them and drowning them and hanging them from bridges. His doubts seem at first a sign of his moral fiber, of his earnest turn-around on the Crusades and his general (not to say generic) decency. But what to make of the doubts of his doubts, the film’s visible evidence that, in fact, this girl called a witch is not persecuted by earthly malevolent patriarchs, but is instead a vessel for an otherworldly malevolent patriarch, say, Satan? Does that mean Behman has missed a point? The Church is right even if it’s wrong?
On the one hand, this turn of events grants Behman a chance to do earnest battle “for God Himself,” as he was unable to do before, when he got his Crusading priorities switched around, or when he killed the presumably “innocent” Turkish girl. On the other hand, it means that no matter the source of the malevolence, it’s the girls who bear the brunt of its effects, whether they function as emblems or targets or vessels. It may be a living, but it’s probably less fun than it looks.