Recently, Roger Corman's Deathsport made its way across my desk. A weird mash of medieval sword-and-sorcery nonsense with more futuristic motorcycle mayhem, this low-budget David Carradine vehicle was mildly grating and wholly unoriginal, yet, to some, the schlocky familiarity is part of the appeal. Corman made what were eventually defined as popcorn movies: go to the theater, buy some snacks, and see a little spectacle. They don't make many movies like that these days, but Season of the Witch fits the bill perfectly, spinning a familiar road trip story around a group of wildly uneven performances and some reasonably polished visuals.
Nicolas Cage plays Behmen, a knight who, with his loyal friend Felson (Ron Perlman), becomes disillusioned with the Church's increasingly bloody reign, and takes off. The pair wander the countryside for a month before being picked up by Cardinal D'Ambroise (cameo appearance by Christopher Lee). As deserters, they're headed for jail, but D'Ambroise offers them a second option: transport a purported witch (Claire Foy) across the country to a place where a group of priests hold an enchantment that can lift the curse they say she has taken from town to town, her victims covered from head to toe in pus-filled boils. Eventually, Behmen and Felson agree to the journey, but Behmen is not convinced the girl is as evil as her captors claim.
As television and film budgets climb, so does the scope. Movies aim to become franchises, becoming increasingly epic and continuing for years, while the small screen uses advances in technology to try and keep pace. Season of the Witch falls somewhere in between; a modestly budgeted fantasy epic that carries that extra measure of big-screen budgetary heft, but lacks the kind of grandeur of a major studio production (independent arm Rogue and production company Relativity partnered to finance the film). The palette is drab, but as far as low-budget, effects-heavy films go, the imagery is pretty solid, with director Dominic Sena taking pains to cut away, reduce, or hide the number of CG baddies he puts on screen, while wisely sacrificing a sense of grandeur for fantasy-film authenticity (nice looking castles, detailed costumes, Evil Dead-style makeup effects, etc). It's a small film, but it never tries to fool the viewer into believing it's a big one.
Add the relatively impressive look to a cast that includes the always-reliable Perlman (wonderfully good-natured) and a band of reliable, slightly-familiar character actors, one would think Season of the Witch would be a little better, but Nicolas Cage is, unfortunately, at his least goofy. Even his shaggy hairdo lacks the unlikely eccentricity of some of his past roles. He gives an adequate performance, but the film's B-movie nature call out for a more spirited hero. Instead, Cage spends most of the movie mulling over the moment that caused him to break from the church, and playing through a half-hearted internal is-she-or-isn't-she battle regarding their cargo.
Season of the Witch arrives at an awkward conclusion, in which Sena and screenwriter Bragi Schut try to find some sort of emotional thread amidst the rubble. No dice. On one hand, the experience, then, is less than satisfying, but on the other, it achieves most of the modest goals it sets out to accomplish, and the audience in question will probably be satisfied enough. Just like Deathsport, the schlocky familiarity is part of the appeal: it's not particularly good, it's not particularly bad, and if one misses it now, they'll have their chance to catch up with it on the SyFy Channel between six months from now and the end of civilization.
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