(Season of the Witch, Dominic Sena, US, 2010, 95 mins)
Christopher Lee rasping under a layer of buboes, medieval misogyny, pestilence and God’s good work – the spectre of Hammer looms large in this B picture. What’s missing is the sex.
Season of the Witch is fantasy schlock that gleefully unpicks any post-enlightenment understanding that you may have retrospectively applied to the politics of the 14th century. Any Monty Pythonesque revisionism is dispensed with in an effective, lady-hating opener in which three poor damsels face summary justice for alleged witchcraft. They look desperate; tears stream down cheeks and the 21st century audience shifts uncomfortably, sensitive to the injustice and the superstitious ignorance that is about to seal their fate. The bodies tumble, the ropes go taut, necks snap and we’re appalled but barely a minute later our liberal instincts are mocked, our moral relativism checkmated; a priest’s incantation revealing each woman to be the demonic force the church imagined.
Thus any ambiguity surrounding the veracity of witchcraft is gone and better yet, the church’s barbarism is a just and necessary force that we understand should be cheered from the aisles. It’s a tense, backward opening for sure but as John Lydon once said, “d’you ever feel like you’ve been conned?” My modern eyes might have expected a hint of contemporary revulsion – a dab of implied criticism, but this is 95 minutes of the opposite; apologia for centuries of female persecution and the career of Nicolas Cage.
Those attention grabbing opening minutes undercut the remainder of Season of the Witch, not least because once Cage’s Knight of the crusades Sir Venice Beach (as he might have been called), a heretic humbling mass murderer of indeterminate nationality, is forced to escort a pretty young thing accused of practicing bad magic and spreading disease to a monastery, there’s little doubt that she’s guilty as charged. A shame, as a question mark over her guilt or innocence might have added some suspense to the quest. In fact, why have the black death as a backdrop at all if, despite one character’s valiant attempt at empirical observation, namely that the pestilence has reached towns with no reported witches, you’re lumbered with the possibility that it might be exactly what the church says it is – a satanic wash?
Later, with the memory fighting to hold on to much of the second act, there’s a twist designed to inject new urgency and additional peril into proceedings, but it’s a cruel revelation as its impact is contingent upon a high level of audience engagement throughout a plodding mid-section. Oh Dominic Sena, you cry, if you wanted me to feel something at this late stage couldn’t you have worked harder earlier? Still, he didn’t and you can’t.
The casting is enough to test your faith, assuming you have any, which Sena desperately hopes is the case. Cage, whose attempts at medieval formality are mangled by his Californian brogue, is joined by fellow crusader Ron Pearlman, a man whose accent, attitude and idioms have been imported from the future. In fairness to Pearlman, his bulk and world weary snarl look less out of place than Cage’s highlights, while his one liners – “do you ever think God has too many enemies?” following a decade long battle montage, add levity. Oh God, levity, ’tis truly manna from Heaven.
Sena, whose indictment when read out in cinema’s equivalent of The Hague, would include the likes of Swordfish and the remake of Gone in 60 Seconds, imbues his film with plenty of synthetic gloss – an applied glaze using a desktop paint box, but you can’t polish a bowel refugee, as no one says at all, and it seems the Director agrees as beyond the brushing there’s little attempt at elevating the material. The editing is perfunctory, the staging flat and the brain has nothing to do; it’s an idle spectator, the path of the characters mapped out like Cage’s journey (both literal and redemptive), with no deviations from the signposted route.
That’s Season of the Witch, ended long before it’s finished. “Isn’t it amazing,” said my companion for the screening, “that in difficult times you get a lot of movies that tell you to put your faith in the church?” Remember, he said it, I didn’t.