During its opening two thirds Season of the Witch is actually a rather enjoyable experience, the film opting to travel a lower key and spookier route than expected. Of course placing spotty director Dominic Sena at the helm ensures such good is eventually spoiled, Season of the Witch choosing to undermine much of its initial success through a finale chocked with unintentional laughs and shoddy CGI. The atmospheric and quietly unsettling first hour is probably sufficiently effective to warrant a rental, but the misjudged silliness of the climax ensures the feature strays far from greatness.
Having become disaffected with the Crusades, warriors Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) leave their duties in search of a location where they might repent for the violence they have committed over the years. Arriving at a small town the men are immediately identified, and quickly punished for abandoning God’s war. However the local Cardinal (Christopher Lee) is willing to make a deal. The community has been struck by a severe dose of Black Death, believed to be the work of a young witch (Claire Foy). If Felson and Behmen escort the imprisoned witch to a faraway monastery where her punishment can be carried out, they will be released. Seeing the task as an opportunity to cleanse his soul by saving the young woman, Behmen accepts, with Felson also happily trotting along for the ride. Their party consists of a Priest (Stephen Campbell Moore), a con man with knowledge of the area (Stephen Graham) and an aspiring young knight (Robert Sheehan). As they move into the foggy wilderness the group are subjected to several perilous scenarios, and are left clueless concerning the true prowess of their mysterious hostage.
It’s surprising to see Dominic Sena get so close to actually crafting a certifiably robust movie, before pissing it all away though an ill conceived wrap-up of epic proportions. The setting and mood found in Season of the Witch really holds up well for around an hour, unearthing a deep sense of darkness and threat for the majority of this period. The movie looks wonderful, the European landscapes on which it was shot emitting a haunting and ghoulish helping of disturbing unease. The film operates much more satisfactorily when it attempts to be a supernatural mystery with lashings of horror, the characters and atmosphere drawing viewers in rather splendidly. Yet the pleasure of these earlier and freakier moments can’t be sustained, as Sena can’t help but indulge his dubious urges, morphing the picture into an outright sword and sorcery snoozer before its conclusion.
Nicolas Cage is considerably less frantic than usual; at times the actor almost looks liable to slip into a coma. It’s clearly a paycheque gig for the thespian, but at least he has the decency to forge a credible onscreen dynamic with Perlman, who for the record is heaps of wisecracking fun. To see Cage in such sedate form is disappointing, but then again the stillness of his performance almost lends his regret laden back-story a hint of pathos. Everybody else appears to be having a rather good time and their energy transfers nicely into the story, particularly a menacing and surprisingly subtle Claire Foy. The actress intelligently uses her performance to infuse a sense of doubt into the movie, allowing the central characters to bicker amongst themselves concerning her possibly misunderstood intentions. This adds a welcome extra dimension to the production, and adds a solid dollop of intrigue to the already eerily compelling middle act.
The finale is predictable and nauseating, Sena deciding to cultivate a brash blockbusting ending of the worst sort. Filled to the brim with subpar digitals, Season of the Witch forgoes all of its slow burn suspense come the climax, instead preferring to batter audiences over the head with generic combat sequences and unremarkable man vs. monster action. Screenwriter Bragi F. Schut also needs to shoulder some of the blame for the preposterously overcooked finish, and only he is responsible for the consistently wooden dialogue that populates the picture. The film also has the audacity to end on a cheesy note of eternal hope, again doing bucket loads to undo the fine work done by the tautly structured initial segments.
Season of the Witch is better than you’ve likely heard, but on the other hand is also badly sullied by its inept denouement. As a gothic and leisurely paced creep show it actually fares quite well (albeit gore hounds would do well to note it’s largely bloodless), but as a fantasy swashbuckler it never gels thanks to some tragic creative missteps. There’s some magic to be found here, but not enough for it to become the devilish thrill ride it so obviously wants to be.
Director: Dominic Sena
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy
Runtime: 95 min