I’m about to get existential on your ass: Who, exactly, is Nicolas Cage? Is he the character actor who worked with David Lynch, Mike Figgis, and the Coens – the one who ate a live roach on camera? Is he the big-time movie star who can hold down franchise fare like ‘National Treasure‘? Or is he just a guy who owes a bunch of money to the federal government? (Poor lad had to sell his German castle.) Or – and this is really trippy – is he some concoction of all of these various Nicolas Cages? Just who made ‘The Wicker Man‘ or, for that matter, this weekend’s medieval slasher ‘Season of the Witch’?
‘Season of the Witch’ starts off promisingly enough. A brief scene shows several witches in the Middle Ages being hung. It has a goofy, gooey, ‘Drag Me to Hell‘ vibe, which I respond to quite enthusiastically. Then there’s a kind of war movie montage, not unlike the opening of ‘Wolverine‘, except much better. It shows us our heroes (played by Mr. Cage and Ron Perlman, looking more like some crucial missing link in the evolutionary ladder than ever before) battling through several skirmishes as part of the Crusades. Then they’re blacklisted. For something. I can’t quite remember and just I saw the movie a few hours before writing this. Anyway, through some kind of grinding plot mechanics, they’re tasked with shepherding a witch who’s believed to be the cause of the Black Plague back to some monastery. There, she can properly be dealt with, using a magical book that we saw in that opening sequence. (It’s the kind of dusty old tome that Giles would undoubtedly keep in the Sunnydale High library.)
The movie quickly shapes up to be a kind of Dark Ages guys-on-a-mission movie, with some fairly nondescript character actors rounding out their motley crew. (I do like Ulrich Thomsen, who at least gives it his all despite the rather marginal material.) And you know what? It’s not exactly terrible. For a while, it kind of shambles along. The knights talk about the sins they’ve committed, both in the line of duty and outside as well. There’s significant time given to the question of, “Is she a witch or isn’t she a witch?” Which, if we’re talking about narrative fulcrums, isn’t exactly the best thing to rest your rousing adventure movie on. It also reminds me of the full-of-promise/light-on-reward ‘The Last Exorcism‘ from last year.
And like ‘The Last Exorcism’, the last act of ‘Season of the Witch’ disintegrates into a whole lot of supernatural hokum. It’s filled with lots of so-so special effects and demons and zombies and other things that, at this point in the movie, I was barely paying attention to. Nic Cage, lost in his own intellectual jumble, can’t quite nail down a character. His (spiritually) wounded knight isn’t someone you can root for because you aren’t entirely sure what he stands for or what he’s trying to absolve himself of. Ron Perlman is more likable, even if you think he’s eventually going to kill one of the other cast members and crush their bones to make his bread.
What’s most surprising about ‘Season of the Witch’ is its even-keeled mediocrity. It’s a move that’s far more handsomely made (by director Dominic Sena and his technical team) than you would imagine. There’s an eerie, Hammer horror atmosphere to the entire thing. If someone had the balls to really go down this avenue, with painted backdrops and the like, it could have been something really special. Instead, it’s a competently made production that doesn’t bare many of the hallmarks of the troubled-project-now-being-dumped-in-January that it really is. (The movie has been shelved since last March.) There aren’t any odd editorial tics or noticeable ADR work (usually used to gloss over confusing chunks of plot), or things that scream, “We shot this 18 months after principle photography wrapped.” It’s just a dumb, mid-budget action movie. It could have benefited from an R-rating and a better musical score. As it is, it’s just okay, but far from bewitching.