The omens for Season of the Witch were not good: Nicolas Cage in a period piece, poor reviews, directed at the hands of glitzy and decidedly modern director Dominic Sena. Having set a somewhat low bar going in, this reviewer was pleasantly surprised by the film. This is not to say that Season of the Witch is a good film, even by the standards of the horror genre, but it is not an out and out failure.
The film's protagonists are close friends and fellow crusaders Behmen and Felson, played by Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman respectively. They spend about twelve years doing God's work slaughtering the infidel, and then lose their taste for it when Behmen accidentally kills a woman at Smyrna. They promptly desert and begin a life of wandering, doing their best to avoid the plague that is blighting the land. They are soon discovered as deserters and given an ultimatum by the local cardinal (Christopher Lee under a lot of bubonic facial prosthetics): escort the Black Witch to the abbey of Severac, about a week distant, for trial, or suffer the penalties usual for deserters. The choice is not difficult, and the pair agrees to the task.
The purported witch, played by Claire Foy, is but a young girl, in her late teens or early twenties. According to the priest Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore), who will be joining them on their trip, the girl confessed to causing the plague, and indeed every town she passed through was stricken. Accompanying Behmen and Felson are also the knight Eckhart (Ulrich Thomsen), altar boy and would be knight Kay (Robert Sheehan) and their guide, the swindler Hagamar (Stephen Graham, who might be best known to American viewers as Tommy from Snatch, or perhaps Al Capone in Boardwalk Empire). This motley assortment escorts the girl across the hinterlands to Severac, encountering any number of wolf attacks, rotting bridges, accidental deaths and sundry mayhem. There is some excitement along the way, and some moments of real tension, along with some pretty good gore and disease effects, but overall the film stumbles.
It's biggest stumble is there from the start, with the casting of Nicolas Cage as a crusader. He is quite simply not convincing at all as someone from the fourteenth century. He doesn't even try to put on an accent, which may have been a wise choice. However, perhaps in an attempt to make his lack of an accent stand out less (it is unclear what country the action is set, though Marburg is mentioned, so perhaps it is intended to be Germany), Dominic Sena has several actually British members of the cast suppress their natural accents, giving everyone (with the exception of Ulrich Thomsen) a sort of generic vaguely pan-European way of expressing themselves. Even beyond that, Cage is fairly wooden in his delivery, which does not help the sometimes creaky dialogue, and occasional anachronism. At one point, Behmen comments to Felson about the number of times he has "saved his ass", to name but one example.
Then there is the film's attitude to historical accuracy. The relationship of reality to the depiction of the crusades here is fuzzy at best, as is the vital Book of Solomon, which seems to be sort of a cross between the Song of Solomon of the Bible, and the Lesser Key of Solomon, treasured by hermetic scholars everywhere. (Of course, one should not be too strict in these areas with horror movies.) Toward the beginning of the film, Behmen is also portrayed knocking several crossbow bolts aside with a knife at close range. While in some perfect ideal circumstance, this might theoretically be possible, it is much more likely to result in a quick death for him that attempts it, and is just another instance of seeming unreality that jerks the audience out of the moment. Another example of this is the low quality CG effects that are employed at several points throughout the film. While the practical effects, especially the makeup, are quite good, the CG stands out immediately as fake and serves only to drain the tension from the film through a lack of verisimilitude.
There are, however, some welcome high points in Season of the Witch. Unlike in other semi-recent films set in something like the Middle Ages, the production values are generally high and the sets and locations are very realistic. The film was shot in Hungary, among other places, and the abbey of Severac at least appears to be an actual existing building. The outdoor settings, lush forests and lonely roads exude a reality and weight that lends heft to the film, as do the grime and dirt covering every wall and article of clothing. (The one exception to this attention to detail would be the dazzling white teeth of our male leads.) There are some decent performances as well. Perlman delivers his lines with a humorous twinkle, and seems to understand the ridiculousness of the proceedings. Clair Foy as the putative witch is also good, and commits herself to the role. There are also a few moments of real tension, particularly the crossing of a rotted bridge in the lonely passes of a mountain range, and some arrestingly creepy images.
Alas, these good points are not enough to save the film. The pace is too plodding, the tension too scattered and widely spaced, the dialogue too clunky to really survive. The film seems to be trying to tread a balanced path between serious horror and schlock, when it should have committed clearly to one or the other. This halfway between each approach dooms the entire affair, which is too bad, because Season of the Witch is really only two and a half beats from greatness in either direction. Rent this one.