Here's the thing about contemporary bad movies. They're as likely to look FAN-tastic as good movies. Think about this for a second: when someone tells me that they like a movie because it has good special effects these days, I have to take that with a grain of salt, because almost ALL movies that make it to the multiplexes have good special effects. Ditto for production design and overall film craft. We are living in the golden age of film as a burnished ornament. We are living in the golden age of the polished turd.
I didn't really know what to expect of Season of the Witch (2011, directed by Dominic Sena). For the most part, it looked like a train wreck, an ill-advised medieval horror movie that was so bad that it had been more or less orphaned by its distributor. Director Dominic Sena was fired from the film after poor audience reactions and the film was "doctored" by studio hack Bret Ratner. Nicolas Cage, for his part, is taking anything that comes along to forestall the wolf at the door. His financial problems have been well documented in the press. This is another movie for which he is probably ill-suited. Lionsgate shelved the film in 2010, and it ended up being released by Relativity Media, the outfit that funded the film. This is their first dip into film distribution. Also, the reviews have been pretty dismal. What did I expect? A polished turd, of course. But then someone in my social networks posted the following image of Christopher Lee, and I knew that, regardless, I was going to plunk down my money to see it. In the theater.
And, do you know what? It's not half bad for all that. Mind you, it's not good, but it's certainly a pleasure just to look at.
The story here follows Behman and Felson, two knights who have become disillusioned with the mission of the Crusades and head for home. This makes them deserters, but the road home has other problems. The plague has come to the land. The blame for the plague has been laid at the feet of The Black Witch, a girl who has been thrown into the dungeon and put to the question. She has confessed under torture. In spite of their best efforts, Behman and Felson are recognized, and as penance for their desertion, they are tasked with transporting the witch to a distant abbey where the monks hold a book containing the ritual for well and truly ridding the world of witches and demons. The girl, for her part, finds a sympathetic eye in Behman, who has seen too many women and children slaughtered. She also finds a sympathetic eye in Sir Eckhart, the townsman who accompanies them, and in Kay, a would be knight who joins their journey as a way of gaining a "sir" before his name. The girl attempts to pit these men against one another, and especially against Debelzaq, the priest who obtained her confession. In her efforts to do so, she rouses Behman's suspicions. Is she truly a witch? The answer lies at the end of their journey, and it's not what any of them expect...
When you get right down to it, this is a pretty stock sword and sorcery movie, and I couldn't help thinking that its almost the same movie as Solomon Kane. Structurally, the movie is a mess. There's a pre-credit prelude that tips the hands of the screenwriters and robs the movie of ambiguity and suspense. It's the Curse of the Demon mistake, in which the supernatural is shown to be real. You'd think that in an age when filmmakers are highly cinema-literate that no one would make that mistake anymore, but you would be wrong. That's studio tampering for you, I guess. I'm a bit uncomfortable with the way the film gives lip service to more enlightened attitudes toward the Church's treatment of "witches," only to show that the witches actually deserved everything they get. I'm equally uncomfortable with Behman's journey from violent fanaticism to reasoned compassion being completely invalidated by the end of the movie. He falls back into superstition. Admittedly, the universe presented by the film gives him ample reason for this. The underpinnings of this movie are fairly fundamentalist, which rubs me the wrong way. From a purely geographical/historical point of view, this is a movie that has no concept of distance and time. Behman and Felson are seemingly involved in every major battle of the Crusades, through which the movie breezes in a montage that supposedly spans a decade but which seems to take place in a nearly contemporaneous perpetual ahistorical moment. The movie requires its characters to be at specific places, so it puts them there regardless of the logistics required. This is a common failing (see, for instance, the ten-year seige of Troy condensed into what seems like a week in Troy). There's some epistemological hanky panky at the end of the movie, too, in which the plot pulls the rug out from under the viewer. It masquerades as a movie about witchcraft when, in fact, it's a different kind of horror movie entirely. It's not very elegant with it.
There's a certain amount of pleasure in watching Nick Cage and Ron Perlman play off one another as longtime comrades in arms, and in the early going of Season of the Witch, the two come off a little bit like a medieval Hope and Crosby, embarked on another "Road" picture. "The Road to Perdition" would be a good title for this, I guess, if it wasn't already taken. The comedic tone is at odds with the horrors the movie wants to show to the audience, and eventually, it fades away. If you squint, you can see the influence of Bergman on the film. This is a descendant of The Seventh Seal, but instead of Bergman's existential comedy, you have canned thrills. Visually, the movie seems drawn from Bosch. Did I mention how good this movie looks? Allow me to repeat: this is a gorgeous movie. This has production values to burn (literally at one point). Sena makes the most of his Eastern European locations (mainly Austria). It's a pleasure just to look at the scenery. Ditto the costumes, which are rich and imaginative. Whatever money they spent on this movie is up there on the screen.
So, all in all, this is a highly polished turd. I DO kind of like it, though, because I like dumb sword and sorcery movies and I like medieval Gothics, and this movie tickles both of those needs in me. And it gives me Ron Perlman and Christopher Lee fixes, which are not to be discounted. I was never bored while I was watching it. The formula here is to keep the eye drugged while the mind is disengaged. For me, it kind of worked. Your mileage, however, may vary.