(by Dustin Putman
The start to any cinematic new year is scarcely thought of as a time for blazing creativity in Hollywood, and so it makes sense that this year's first major release, "Season of the Witch," has a title ripped not only from the atmospheric 1966 Donovan song, but also from 1972's little-seen George A. Romero film and 1982's underrated "Halloween III: Season of the Witch." Furthermore, it's no surprise that the inaugural January movie is one that was shot two years ago and has gone through extensive reshoots and numerous date changes. As for Nicolas Cage (2010's "The Sorcerer's Apprentice"), an eclectic actor whose checkered career has included sporadic great efforts interspersed with long stretches of trash, he has moved away from the dead zone that is Labor Day weekend (where 2006's misbegotten "The Wicker Man" and 2008's "Bangkok Dangerous" stunk up multiplexes) only to find himself stuck in the equally egregious post-New Year's spot. Should audiences take heed of all these red flags? That would be a big, Satanly yes, and then some. Article continues below
Returning home from fighting in the Crusades following a crisis of conscience, disenchanted 14th-century knights Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) discover a land fast becoming overtaken by a deadly plague. Disease-stricken Cardinal D'Ambroise (Christopher Lee) assigns them a mission, progressively perilous: escort an imprisoned girl (Claire Foy), thought to be a witch, to a remote faraway abbey where they hope stripping her of her alleged powers will be enough to put an end to the rampant sickness. Joining them on their journey is a motley crew of one-note hangers-on: priest Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore), his escort Eckhart (Ulrich Thomsen), altar boy Kay (Robert Sheehan), and charismatic swindler-turned-guide Hagamar (Stephen Graham). With something wicked this way coming, they'll be lucky if they escape with their own lives.
Directed by Dominic Sena (2009's long-delayed "Whiteout"—noticing a trend?) as if he were a Uwe Boll disciple in training, "Season of the Witch" opens with its only inspired scene—a halfway threatening prologue wherein a priest is haunted by a witch he had earlier hanged—and then goes rancidly bad. The first reveal of Nicolas Cage sporting a long blond wig with ringlets that makes him look like a Shirley Temple drag queen impersonator after a post-medieval-party-themed blackout is the sort of fright probably not intended by its makers. This is followed, for a while, by an overwhelming so-awful-it's-funny incompetence that makes the film watchable for all the wrong reasons. A montage of Crusade battles consists of shaky-cam nonsense and repetition shot on the same soundstage over and over. A would-be dramatic scene that sets up Behmen's moral dilemma and his loss in faith of the Catholic Church is rendered a laugh riot by his wearing of a helmet that instead resembles the Liberty Bell. The characters, indeed, play things straight while dressed in Monty Python garb and littering their faint Shakespearean dialect with phrases one would be most apt to hear in modern-day South Jersey. "Let's get the hell outta here," Felson instructs early on. Later, Behman gets into a sticky situation and eloquently mutters just what you'd imagine a Crusader from 1330 A.D. would say: "Sh*t."
This, alas, is where the mocking pleasures of "Season of the Witch" end (well, okay, the climactic sight of Ron Perlman head-butting Beelzebub is also good for a snicker). A supernatural horror picture should hold some kind of rooting anticipation to it, a certain amount of momentum to its pacing, and a fair helping of tension as to how the story is going to play out. Director Dominic Sena and screenwriter Bragi Schut—who shouldn't be bragging about anything—fail on all three counts, lurching barely forward with a distinct lack of interest and absolutely no idea how to create scares and suspense. The reliance on chintzy CGI to personify a pack of snarling wolves and any number of third-act floating demons is tacky and altogether wearisome. None of them look convincing—there is never a doubt that they are innocuous computer products of an under-funded effects group—and this is especially unfortunate considering how promising some of the creature designs are.
When not being filmed against blatant greenscreen, actual location shooting in Hungary and Austria is wasted on some of the flattest, dreariest, most undistinguished and frankly nauseating cinematography in recent major-studio filmmaking. Did director of photography Amir Mokri's (2009's "Fast & Furious") lighting equipment break on day one and never get replaced? Shall we keep going? The protagonists are a bland, nearly nondescript bunch of ciphers who are at the beck and call of a script that regardless asks nothing of them. Outside of a sole defining trait or two, there isn't anything learned about them and their relationships with each other are so impersonal each actor might as well have shot his scenes on different days. As for the is-she-or-isn't-she-a-witch villain of the piece, she is so underused and forgettable she practically blends in with the background. Above the mess they've walked in on with no idea how to turn the project around for the better, Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman (2008's "Hellboy II: The Golden Army") cannot hide their discomfort as they long for a shred of substance to work with or a line of dialogue that isn't a groaner.
So, yes, "Season of the Witch" is a token January movie, a direct-to-video-level piece of D-grade schlock that just so happens to have an A-list star attached. Seeing is believing, as they say, and no audience member who has laid eyes on the wreckage will have any trouble understanding why it's been delayed for so long and begrudgingly screened to critics at the last minute. Distributor Rogue Pictures knows they have a stinker on their hands; the question is how it went through the various stages of production with no one questioning its myriad technical and stylistic deficiencies. "Season of the Witch" is a sorry excuse for a sword-and-sorcery action-thriller, languid, empty-headed and visually hopeless. If Nicolas Cage has not yet learned how to be discerning about his career choices, he never will.