Friday, January 7, 2011

'Season of the Witch' is a time of fantasy/horror

Season of the Witch (2011)
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy, Ulrich Thomsen, Robert Sheehan, Stephen Campbell Moore, and Stephen Graham
Director: Dominic Sena
Rating: Six of Ten Stars

A pair of 14th century Crusader knights (Cage and Perlman) return to their homeland to find it ravaged by a terrible plague. They join a priest (Moore) and three other swordsmen (Graham, Sheehan, and Thomsen) on a dangerous mission to escort a mysterious girl (Foy) who is suspected of being the witch who has caused the plague to a remote monastery where her soul will be cleansed.

"Season of Witch" is a fast-moving fantasy/horror film that mixes movie cliches--can there be a horror film set in the Middle Ages that doesn't feature some plague or another?--and refreshing approaches to standard fantasy/horror/action movie types--such as the knights played by Cage and Perlman who have grown disillusioned with earthly religious institutions but who still don't go on long, never-ending screeds about God not existing--with a degree deftness that a fairly standard story and characters have enough of an air of freshness about them that you won't regret the time or the money spent on watching this movie.

The audience for this film are big fans of D&D-style low-fantasy adventures, as the horror here is more R.E. Howard than H.P. Lovecraft, and the heroes' relationship with God and religion is more Solomon Kane than Joan of Arc. It's a straight-forward adventure populated with situations and characters that will either bring feelings of nostalgia or satisfaction to DMs and players who will feel like the scenery in their mind's eye while playing paper-based RPGs has come to life on the screen before them. This movie is what a D&D movie should be like, with its ass-kicking heroes, sinister witches, zombies, and uber-powerful demons.

Unfortunately, the film shares a bit of the haphazard plotting that is typical of even the best conceived roleplaying game adventures, be they "homebrews" or published scenarios. Much of what happens in the film seems to happen just because it's a plot necessity, especially once the characters reach their destination. I can't go into it too much without spoiling the movie, but you will find yourself wondering why the heroes even made it inside the monastery walls as the film barrels toward its CG monster-filled climax. The red herrings presented--is the girl a witch or not?; is the priest a bad guy rapist/satanist or not?--are clumsily implemented and there is never any real doubt on the part of the viewer what the truth is. And then there's the unfortunately, unintentionally comedic named location of "City of Villach."All in all, the script is fairly weak, succeeding in large part because it is constantly moving the film forward to the next creepy scene or the next fight, and because the filmmakers were smart and confident enough in their abilities to stay off the soap-box and show us the brutality and corruption that can arise from religious fanaticism instead of telling us. (Although the friend I saw the film with though less of it than I did, she being troubled by the fact that the only women in the film were demon-possessed witches who were just there to be dispatched.)

The other keys to what makes this film fun to watch is the peformances by Nicholas Cage, Ron Perlman, and Claire Foy. None are particularly deep characters, but Cage and Perlman play well off each other, and they are perfectly believable as life-long friends and honorable knights. Meanwhile, Foy can project wide-eyed innocence and demonic menace with equal force.

Fans of the films stars and of low-fantasy (or the even lower D&D-style fantasy) will enjoy "Season of the Witch". Admirers of the Tolkien and Lewis screen adaptations might want to skip it.