In the 14th century, conscientious objectors to the Crusades Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) have just returned to England to discover their homeland consumed by the bubonic plague. While history has shown that the plague was caused by fleas that fed on rats, Cardinal D'Ambroise (Christopher Lee) believes he has found the culprit: a young witch named Anna (Claire Foy), whom the two deserters must, with the help of a guide named Hagamar (Stephen Graham), transport to a remote monastery so that her "curse" may be lifted.

Conventional wisdom dictates that the first Friday of January is one of the worst possible release dates for a Hollywood film: falling as it does this year just one week after the end of award season–the period during which all studios must release their "prestige" films–and one week before Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the first nationally recognized holiday and "three day weekend" of the year and, therefore, the film industry's first big day of business. For this reason, distributors know not to waste a film with any box office potential on this hazy nether-reach of a Friday; originally set to be released in March of 2010, director Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds, Swordfish)'s latest film, Season of the Witch, was by Lionsgate pushed all the way back to January of the following year.

It may be regarded as somewhat silly, nay perhaps even offensive, to the memory of those individuals unjustly tortured and killed throughout the Middle Ages in the name of religious zealotry, that Season of the Witch takes place in a world in which witchcraft does exist, but it's actually quite an amusing premise, its conceit based on the fact that most people living in the fourteenth century did indeed believe in the pernicious influence of witches. Because it was a for all intents and purposes "valid" fear then, it is possible for the unbelieving viewer to suspend his or her disbelief.

Dominic Sena and director of photography Amir M. Mokri's handling of what are, I suppose, intensely horrifying scenes is a little clumsy as he fails, time and time again, to adhere to the age old rule that demons are never scary in the light (or in close-up): his primary means of evoking tension and fear being claustrophobically tight shots and zany, skewed dutch-angles. While this simple effect of visual disorientation has, in the past, been utilized to perfection, in 2010 it has become something of a visual storytelling cliche: because it is immediately recognizable as such to even a casual filmgoer, it is ineffectual, even condescending.

Attention to detail of any kind is wanting in terms of the film's costume and production design: no explanation is provided as to why Behmen and Felson's outfits have been recently dry-cleaned, and the film's sets strongly invoke Fred Rogers' Neighborhood of Make-Believe. Also questionable are the decision to shoot two historic battles in distinct geographic locations on the same set and most of the casting decisions: Cage delivers an acceptable performance, and Perlman and Graham are actually quite good, but the trio does seem, for this reason, somewhat ungainly and out of step with the hambone histrionics engulfing them.

As I mentioned earlier, the reputations of films such as these often precede them: perhaps for no better reason than its being released at an inopportune time, Season of the Witch has become the target of quite a lot scorn and negative hype throughout the industry. But rest assured it's not as terrible as all of that: while it may, from time to time, err on the side gritty medieval-ness and the dreaded "affect" of the horror-thriller genre, Season of the Witch is fairly economically paced and contains a handful of genuinely funny scenes; the pairing of Cage and Perlman is also worth a few chuckles.

Those who appreciate something like conventional dramatic structure will appreciate the little details, such as Anna's early attempt to escape her captors by attacking the cruellest of them, Eckhart (Ulrich Thomsen), who has sexually abused her, or Behmen and Felson's revelation that their sensitivities towards the "infidels"–the cause of their desertion–may stem from their irreligious and dissolute natures: both of these brushstrokes suggest well-defined characters whose actions are motivated more by principles or actual "personality traits" than the requirements of arbitrary plot convolutions. Ultimately, it could have been a lot worse.

Read more about:

Leave a comment