Monday, January 10, 2011

Season of the Witch

Season of the Witch is an agreeably terrible medieval adventure yarn about six armed, grown men being terrorized by a young girl in a cage. It's full of war, pestilence, stabbings, man-eating wolves, demonry, diseased corpses, English accents that make Kevin Costner in Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves sound like Michael Caine by comparison, and no less than goddamn Christopher Lee. I can think of no better way to scratch that January bad movie itch.

Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman star as Behman and Felson, two Crusades knights who take the bold moral stance that the wanton slaughter of women and children is wrong and abandon their army. Upon stumbling back to plague-ridden England, their identities are discovered literally within minutes (not master deserters, these two) and they're offered a choice between death or escorting a caged wagon with an accused witch inside to the monastery where she is to be put on trial for starting the plague with her black magic. Accompanying them on the journey are a number of warm bodies to be killed, including a priest named Debelzaq, an untrustworthy guide named Hagamar, a young wannabe knight named Kay, and some guy named Eckhardt whose distant descendant will presumably go on to play Two-Face in The Dark Knight.

(Winner of the "Most Unwieldy Name in Season of the Witch" Award: Debelzaq! Congratulations, Debelzaq!)

To give credit where it's due, each of these characters except Eckhardt is distinctly-defined enough that you know where they stand with each other, the church in general, and Anna, the accused. Soon enough people start dying and it becomes clear that whether or not Anna is a witch, she's at least hiding something. Although the plot makes it sound like an adventure movie, it's too gray, dank, and dreary to earn a label that likens it to Indiana Jones and Willow; the tone and timbre is much more along the lines of horror. I won't give away where the story goes, exactly, but I will say that it all leads to a gloriously cheesy and supernatural finale that may not be quality cinema but is at least more immediate and personal the similarly CGI-laden climax of Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time.

To call Nicolas Cage hilariously miscast hardly scratches the surface of how bizarre and awkward his performance is. There are certain actors — your Sean Beans, your David Thewlises, your Marton Csokases, etc. — who are versatile enough to step into and be instantly believable in medieval settings. Nicolas Cage is not one of those actors. Even putting aside the baffling quasi-English(?) accent that drifts in and out of his performance on a whim, everything about his look and presence is so unmistakably contemporary and American that not for one second he's onscreen do you actually believe you're in the 14th century. Basically, it's the perfect performance for this kind of B-movie garbage and I will fight any man who suggests otherwise.

Season of the Witch may be shit, but it's shit with a certain flavor and personality to it, like the stool of man who's eaten too much spicy food. It's the kind of almost defiantly trashy film where Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman banter about who's going to buy the drinks in the middle of battle, Behman's horror at the Crusades is hammered in through a series of blundering dream sequences and flashbacks, maggots crawl out of corpses, Felson decides to test young Kay's skill in a swordfight for no reason other than that the filmmakers figured they needed a swordfight, and Christopher Lee's face is twisted and bleeding like a final-stage leprosy victim for no reason other than that the filmmakers figured it would be cool. It dares critics to hate it (and, indeed), but as far as medieval pulp goes I thought it kind of hit the spot. Of course such a movie could never in a million years be described as "good," but I'll take it in a second against an overproduced cartoon like Alice in Wonderland.

2 Stars out of 5

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