It would be understandable if you went into Season of the Witch expecting to see the worst. The movie is a veritable laundry list of “avoid this” signifiers: hack director(Dominic Sena, who’s credits include Swordfish, Gone in 60 Seconds and — yeesh — Whiteout) with confidence-killing oeuvre? Check. A once-promising star (Nicolas Cage) who’s spent the last decade content with cashing paychecks from bad movies? Check. A movie that sat on the shelf for nearly a year, was abandoned by its original distributor (Lionsgate) and dumped in the cinematic graveyard that is January? Check, check and checkmate.
So yes, you’d be quite forgiven for thinking Season plumbs the same kind of cinematic depths as previous Cage stinkers like The Wicker Man, Next and Ghost Rider. Maybe it was because I went in with below-zero expectations, but Season of the Witch doesn’t completely, well, suck. I wouldn’t call it good, exactly, but the film has a quality that can be best described as…fun.
A schlocky, ridiculous mash-up of Medieval adventure and occult horror, Season begins on the right note as three accused witches are hung for their crimes — and one of them returns as a scrunchy-faced CGI water zombie to kill the priest accusing them. Things get sillier from there as a montage of battle scenes introduce us to holy warriors Behman and Felson, played by Cage and Ron Perlman as a sort of anachronistic buddy-cop movie team, wise cracking about who’ll buy drinks after their battles. (Yes, it’s that kind of movie.) Haunted by their killing of innocents, Behman and Felson decide to desert their “holy duties” and go AWOL, but are caught and blackmailed (by a cameo-ing Christopher Lee no less!) into doing one last task for the church: escort an accused witch to a distant abbey for trial.
Anna (Claire Foy, who’s wide-eyed, dimple-chinned beauty makes her resemble a cross between Zooey Deschanel and Emily Blunt) has been accused of witchcraft to spread the Black Plague. Accompanied by a knight, a monk, a con man guide and an altar boy with designs on becoming a knight, Behman agrees to bring the girl — if she’s granted a fair trial. Along the way, Sena and screenwriter Bragi Schut tease us with the possibility that the girl may or may not be a witch, with Foy effectively displaying innocence and malice in equal measure, but ambiguity is not the director’s strong point. Let’s face it — it’s not spoiling anything to say that the girl is, in fact, eeeeeevil.
Either Cage is bored, or he decided to play his role more, uhh, restrained then normal, as Behman is shorn of the more “interesting” quirks typical of the actor. Perlman, meanwhile, plays Felson like a gruff, lovable lug (i.e. as himself.) The acting honors more or less go to the supporting cast with Foy, Ulrich Thomsen (as Eckhart the knight) and Stephen Campbell Moore (as a monk with the unfortunate name of Debalzac) actually decent performances — a real feat in the face of ludicrous storytelling, obvious CGI, cheesy dialogue and not-incompetent direction from the man who brought us the equal parts prurient, dull and inept Whiteout.
A movie this chock-a-block with phoned-in lead performances, hoary writing and cheap special fx would normally rate high on the total hate meter, but by the time Season of the Witch builds from its sub-Lord of the Rings Medieval-men-on-a-mission first acts to a lunatic climax involving pustule-laden zombie monks and a computer-animated gargoyle being head butted (!) by Perlman, the movie has taken on a cheesy, goofy, Saturday-matinee charm. Witless, cliché, artless and willfully stupid, Season of the Witch may not be good, per se, but it’s certainly kicking the year off less on a note of disaster than one of jovial absurdity.