Season of the Witch Netflix Streaming DVD | Blu-ray
Directed by Dominic Sena
Starring Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Stephen Campbell Moore, Stephen Graham, Christopher Lee
Rogue / Relativity Media
Originally Released: January 7, 2011
Lead us not into temptation…
Like the title says, this Dominic Sena movie is about a witch. Or is it?
Establishing itself during the middle ages, full of religious persecution, the Crusades, and the Plague, Season of the Witch (totally unrelated to the 1972 George Romero classic of the same name; or the third chapter of the Halloween franchise) is a journey movie, that is essentially a medieval (and tamer) homage of The Exorcist, taking influence from adventure films such as Lord of the Rings, National Treasure, and more.
…or is it?
With the grandiosity of the above description being fairly accurate, Season of the Witch actually falls short of the epic feel of the comparisons above. In fact, the movie has been critically panned since its release, rightful in some areas, but snubbing one particular element worth highlighting: While many areas of the film are a bit of a let-down, there is a fun aspect to the film that props it up, making it a movie worth checking out at least once.
Set during the 1300s, Knights Templar Behmen von Bleibruck (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) abandon their duties in the Crusades after bearing witness to and participating the slaughter of innocent women and children throughout a poorly planned battle (…or was it?). Returning to their home land, they discover Europe under the grip of the Plague.
The Church is convinced that the Plague has been brought on by a girl called Anna, one they have branded “The Black Witch.” To help end the Plague, Cardinal D’Ambroise (Christopher Lee) enlists Behmen and Felson to assist in the conduct of the Black Witch to a remote monastery, where she will face a religious trial with the use of the Key Of Solomon, an ancient book that is kind of like the opposite of the Necronomicon from Evil Dead – it’s a Christian volume of incantations.
What follows is a long adventurous journey, in which the audience is left guesstimating exactly what the girl is – witch or not… or something else entirely? Along the way, many religious themes are invoked, particular those associated with that of sacrifice and temptation.
The performances by Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman are less-than-glamorous, but their chemistry between each other is brilliant. While they have put in far greater performances elsewhere, the camaraderie between the two of them in Season of the Witch is amusing, electric, and irresistible. From the Lord of the Rings style banter between them in battle (similar to Gimli and Legolas… or is it?), to the serious moments, and to the moments of laughter between two friends, the connection between Cage and Perlman develops into a highly endearing part of the film. At times, the two come across as freelance Jedi mercenaries, which is pretty damn cool.
The principal witch in question in the movie, Anna, played by Claire Foy, puts in perhaps the best performance of the movie – with a dynamic range of character acting from positive innocence, all the way to demonic and pugnacious hatred.
Her performance range is impressive, and you’ll find yourself compelled to watch her intently when she is on-screen. You will question her character’s motivations throughout the entire movie, and revel in the uncertainty of her identity.
Perhaps the most wasted talent in this film is that of Christopher Lee. As a longtime fan of Sir Christopher, I was looking forward to his cameo appearance in Season of the Witch, only to be disappointed with a terrible make-up job intended to be scary, that turns out to be somewhat laughably embarrassing and so deeply rooted in unreality that it takes so much away from this grand man’s impact. I have no idea what the filmmakers were thinking when they did this, but it was totally uncool in my mind.
Likewise wasted in the movie is Stephen Graham as Hagamar, who has put in some brilliant performances in movies such as This Is England and Doghouse, among many others. An English actor, Graham is imperiled by the Americanization of this movie, which is not only drowning in American accents, but in which he is forced to abandon his own accent, which would fit in the setting, and take on a fake-ass American one. There is actually a lot of Americanization involved in this movie, which I’ll get to in a second, but the accent usage also contributes to the poor reflection of period and history in the film.
Those scrutinizing for historical accuracies in period pieces are going to be sorely disappointed. To modernize the feel of Season of the Witch, many of the historical aspects and nuances are replaced by contemporary American principles, including criticism of church corruption to “fair trials” and “dismissal of charges”. On top of that, there’s dating errors, and aspects of the epoch in question that just don’t add up. For example, Cage’s character is put ahead as a Teutonic Knight, but wears the breastplate of a Templar, with a completely unrelated herald stamped upon his sword. To the casual viewer, this won’t mean much, but to lovers of history, this is akin to burning books… (Or is it?)
Actually, this Americanization plays throughout the film like a version of the National Treasure movies. While fun, it loses punch and historical taste in favor of modernized misconceptions of the way things were or might have been. For those of us with an attraction to history, the sacrifice of accuracies to be replaced with “dumbing down for modern humor” is somewhat sacrilegious – pun most definitely intended.
The religion characteristic in this movie also plays with a touch and class of modernity, with a focus on free choice and faith, against the corruption of organized religion. Underneath this theme is a subtext of strong criticism of the negative historic repercussions of dogmatic power and control, a criticism meant to be aimed at a modern audience as well. While it won’t play well for the online atheism circle jerk, it will resonate strongly with those who constantly question their devotion to their beliefs.
On the topic of religion, in a movie called Season of the Witch, it’s sad to see that very little is explored with regards to the persecution of both Wiccans and Pagans, and also women who had nothing to do with witchcraft during the time period. There is a minor scene that introduces the movie that does only just touch on this, and yes, it’s obviously a movie relating to the “Fictional Supernatural Witch Monsters of folklore and horror” (…or is it?), not a lot about the persecution is highlighted. In many ways, along with the religious subtext, I thought this was a lost opportunity that could have helped bolster the movie a little better.
Keeping this subtext and Americanization in thought, the movie plays more like a darkened adventure film, rather than the horror film it is (initially) intended to be. There are, however, lots of frights and monstrous make-up shots in this film, that go to show that not all horror films rely on simply bloody gore. In fact, there’s a strong lack of blood and gore in Season of the Witch, and done quite to its advantage. The balance between basic horror motifs and the action/adventure successions are most definitely a credit to both the film and the direction Dominic Sena.
The camerawork and lighting is somewhat clichéd for the style of movie, with a darkened, gloomy tint set in the medieval age. The exception seems to be during the Crusade footage at the beginning of the movie, which goes for the austere lighting also clichéd in many of the contemporary Crusade films. Rather than go for a unique feel, Sena has gone for the traditional feel with the look and imagery of this movie, and rightfully so in my mind: the shadier lighting and gloominess works especially well for the context of the horror iconography in the movie.
That being said, there are more than a few shots and sequences, especially during the “journey of escorting the witch” that are mindblowing and breathtaking. Many wide shots and elevated shots take in the expanse landscapes taking in a combination of both production footage and CGI that meshes together so seamlessly, you’ll struggle to decipher which is which. I would say that this is definitely another credit to this movie, to be sure…
On the subject of visual effects, viewers will most definitely enjoy the eye candy in this movie. From an adventure / lite-horror perspective, the effects are creepy and demonic when they need to be, to keep the fright factor up, but downgrading the gore factor.
This works especially well during the climactic sequence towards the end of the movie, where some scenes turn into living versions of demonic (…or is it?) heavy metal album covers, invoking the air and feel of Black Sabbath, Dio, Deicide, Darkthrone, Mayhem, Morbid Angel, and many more.
Similarly, visually speaking, the costumes and set designs are stunning. A lot of work has gone into these areas of the film, and I feel that a lot of the early critical reviews of Season of the Witch sadly overlooked this quality. While the costuming is not on the scale of something like Lord of the Rings for example, it is an enriching element of the movie, both embracing the style/feel of the tale but also clinging to the darker gloominess I cited above.
There are a lot of wasted opportunities and let-downs in Season of the Witch – BUT it does have a lot of redeeming factors: from its humor to the visual nature of the movie, what it breaks down to is that it’s a fun movie to escape into, with a solid dollop of horror iconography thrown in. This is a popcorn-muncher movie, and good for a bit of fun. If you’re looking for a horror-type film for Halloween, and are turned off by too much gore, then Season of the Witch might be right for you this October 31.
In any case, despite its faults, Season of the Witch is fun. It’s worth adding it to your queue for some fun Halloween viewing.