In this cheerfully terrible January time-waster, Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman play wisecracking holy warriors tasked with transporting a suspected witch across a Black Plague-ravaged landscape to a faraway monastery, in the hope that a sacred ritual performed there will cleanse the woman’s soul and stop the spread of the disease. Is she really a witch, the devil’s instrument spreading sickness and misery? Or is she just a scapegoat for a bunch of desperate men of the church struggling to keep a hold on their authority?
Christopher Smith’s excellent Black Death, out next month, tackles much the same subject matter with wicked intelligence and impeccable craft. Season of the Witch, directed by Dominic Sena (Whiteout, Swordfish), is a lumbering cheesiest occupying the no man’s land between gory matinee horror and slow-burn suspense, able to indulge in neither. That it will see any sort of theatrical release at all is a Nic Cage miracle.
I say this with no particular ill will toward the film. It is harmless and reasonably swift. There’s a fun scene involving the crossing of a rotted wooden bridge, and the true villain, once revealed, is cool in an old-fashioned archetypal sort of way. Ron Perlman then proceeds to vigorously headbutt it, which is neat too. I’ve seen worse nominated for an Oscar.
But man, can you ever see the gears grinding, trying to churn out something releasable despite the lack of money, inspiration, or any apparent desire to see the project through. Nicolas Cage dutifully earns his pay, delivering lines like “I serve the church no more” and “What is it, priest?” with all appropriate seriousness. (At one point he uses the word “engird,” which was the highlight of my day.) Ron Perlman does his grinning badass thing with no real enthusiasm, and absolutely no help from the screenplay. Sena can’t even shoot a simple swordfight properly, and his inability to maintain any sort of rhythm (every line of dialogue lands with a clunk) renders hopeless the script’s attempts at insouciant lightheartedness.
The appearance of excellent, far more committed supporting actors like Ulrich Thomsen and Red Riding‘s Robert Sheehan somehow only highlights the down-to-the-bone chintziness of the enterprise. Effort and class seem out of place here. Season of the Witch begins 2011 on a murky, slightly depressing, profoundly inessential note.