Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Season of the Witch (2011)

Not to be confused with George A. Romero's Season of the Witch, but then, you wouldn't.

It's the 14th century. After having slaughtered the pope's infidel of the day for a few years, crusaders Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) have become a bit disillusioned by their work. Especially Behmen is quite nicely on his way to being a heretic, what with his doubting the Church's ability to speak for the will of their God.

Behmen is so disgusted by the state of affairs that he and Felson not just desert from the crusades (which, historically speaking, was their right after forty days of service, but, you know, Hollywood), but also manage to piss off the Pope himself before they do.

Obviously, the pair try to stay incognito once they've returned to Europe. Life at home hasn't improved during the crusaders' absence, for the plague has arrived and is killing off people left and right.

Worrying about dying from a horrible death might just be an academic question for our protagonists, though. They're recognized as deserters in the first city they enter, and could probably look forward to a nice execution, if the plague-sick cardinal of the place (self-important horror icon Christopher Lee) did not have need for their services. The Church, you see, is convinced the plague has been caused by a single witch (Claire Foy) they just caught and can be stopped through a ritual that can only be performed by monks living in a monastery about 300 miles away. Because the plague has somewhat reduced the numbers of able-bodied men, the cardinal would very much like Behmen and Felson to help transport the girl to where she belongs. Only after a night in jail and a meeting with the supposed witch that convinces Behmen she looks somewhat innocent to him, does he agree to do the Church's work again, yet only if the girl will be guaranteed a fair trial.

Now Behmen, Felson and a small band of man (first guy to die, priest, young man who wants to become a knight, and rogue-ish guide, you know the deal) will only have to survive travelling through places with charming names like "Wormwood". Surely, no additional trouble will await them at their destination.

Season of the Witch looks like a bit of a dubious candidate for the critical mauling it has received to me. Sure, the film's historical accuracy leaves a lot to be desired, but I somehow doubt that a film full of witches, demons and zombie monks is in any way or form meant to be historically truthful. In fact, it's the sort of historical pulp fantasy that treats all elements of medieval beliefs - or to be more precise, its own very contemporary interpretation of what these beliefs were - as if they were true, giving itself a fine grab bag of supernatural fun to work with. None of the film's ideas about the supernatural, nor the way it treats Behmen's crisis of faith, are in any way, shape or form original or even just a bit clever. They are, however, the perfect basis for an adventure movie full of decently done genre standard scenes (though I was disappointed by the lack of a bandit attack), and the usual clichéd character work any Hollywood writer can probably do in their sleep. This surely is not a film to set new intellectual standards, but compared to the Steven Somers school of dumbness in pulp adventure, Bragi Schut's script is perfectly fine - possibly even coherent.

The film's director Dominic Sena (remember when he had only made a few music videos and the decent Kalifornia, and still was a talent to watch?) does not exactly present his audience with visual brilliance. He's comparatively point-and-shoot-y for a contemporary mainstream director. This directorial style is, however, a pleasant reprieve from the world of bad slo-mo, whoosh-cutting, and obfuscating staging many of his colleagues inhabit. Only some of the CGI sequences could have used a bit of that kind of obfuscation for my tastes - the initial battle sequences are looking especially phony.

It's also nice to see Nicolas Cage slightly back on track again in that he doesn't overact every darn second of the film as if he had to use up Bela Lugosi's and Sharukh Khan's combined scenery-chewing reservoir in every single scene he does. I'd even suggest some of Cage's acting here has nuances. Obviously, I always love Ron Perlman.

Now, I'm pretty sure somebody like Neil Marshall could have taken the same basic ideas and made a much better, and more exciting film out of them, yet if there's one thing the still very small but growing movie genre of historical neo-pulp fantasy truly needs, then it's movies like Season of the Witch that are neither unwatchable shite nor awesome, but the entertaining middle-ground a genre needs to thrive.


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