REVIEW: Season of the Witch (2011)

In the early 14th century, two knights (Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman) fleeing from the Crusade are given a choice: face justice for their desertion, or escort an accused witch to a remote monastery in order to be judged. Accompanied on their journey by a priest, a trader, and a young aspiring knight, they soon fall under the influence of something evil that stalks them at every turn.

Season of the Witch, directed by Dominic Sena (Gone in 60 Seconds, Kalifornia), is a terrible movie. It is also a remarkably enjoyable movie. It is terrible because of its stereotype-ridden screenplay and insufficient budget, making everything look rather cheap and haphazard. It is enjoyable because, despite those limitations, it manages to boast a few nicely-played sequences, throws in a solid cast of actors, and leans heavily on its team-up of Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman. That is a double act that pays serious dividends for the viewer.

Thanks to gross financial misfortune Nicolas Cage has spent much of the past decade in a sort of straight-to-video purgatory, eschewing big Hollywood productions in favour of whatever will pay his bills the fastest. This has resulted in his starring in a range of fairly unfortunate and mediocre works. Season of the Witch is absolutely one of these films, but at least in this case he genuinely looks as if he is enjoying himself. There is a warm sort of pulp glow to it all, and Cage is given a heroic and honourable protagonist to perform. He appears fully engaged in his character too; there’s a sense of revelry in playing an uncomplicated hero for a change. He is also perfectly paired with Ron Perlman, who himself has been cast as a big, cynical warrior with a solid line in snarky dialogue. There is a high level of banter between them, and it’s entertaining enough to paper over more than a few of the film’s shortfalls.

The film’s gothic pretensions lend it an air of a Hammer picture, a sense not lessened by a surprising cameo by genre stalwart Christopher Lee as a local archbishop. Other key performances include Ulrich Thomsen as a grieving knight – who lost his family to plague – and Claire Foy – making her film debut as the young woman accused of witchcraft. An awful lot of the other supporting performances are comparatively weak. It is testament to director Dominic Sena that the film largely overcomes them.

Sena does an admirable job given that his film’s production budget clearly cannot cope with the demands of its story. An opening montage of crusaders battling across the Middle East is particularly sub-standard, and opens the film on a deeply regrettable note. Things settle down for much of the mid-section before an over-ambitious climax stretches the effects budget beyond all sense. Sena has a decent visual eye as a director, but seems constantly let down by his screenplays. One wonders how his career would have played out with better material: the likes of Whiteout and Swordfish have never done him any favours.

Among the regular flow of B-grade cinema, this one floats to the surface. Sure it is derivative, mostly predictable, and more than a little silly, but it does have decent-enough entertainment value for its target audience. You’ll know if you’re in that audience; if you are, it’s what will drive you to watch Season of the Witch in the first place.

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