By Mark Jenkins
Friday, Jan. 7, 2011
The age of chivalry has never looked dingier than in "Season of the Witch," a sluggish mash-up of knight's tale and creature feature. The movie proceeds in near darkness, perhaps to obscure its shoddy special effects, but the pervasive gloom is less discouraging than star Nicolas Cage's indifferent performance. This is the sort of looney-tunes adventure that would have benefited from the actor at his most unmoored.
Cage plays Behmen, a 14th-century crusader who tires of righteous slaughter after a dozen years in the Middle East. When he and boon companion Felson (Ron "Hellboy" Perlman) head back to Europe, they're marked as deserters by one of the saga's many officious priests.
The two knights make remarkably good time, and are soon in a section of Eastern Europe with a heavy Transylvania vibe. You know, forests choked in mist, near-impassable gorges, packs of voracious wolves with no fear of man. Also, for those viewers who like their menace sprinkled with history: the Black Plague.
Arriving in a pox-ridden town, Behmen and Felson are ID'd as deserters and offered a choice between a trial or a quest. They reluctantly choose the latter, which involves transporting an accused witch (Claire Foy) to a remote mountain monastery for judgment. On the way, the unnamed young woman seems meek, but sometimes reveals the upper-body strength of an aerobics instructor. Perhaps her brawn means she's a sorceress; in the movie's prologue, three women are hanged as witches, and only two of them turn out to be innocent.
The intro's mix of feminist history and old-fashioned heebie-jeebies is typical of "Season of the Witch," which never commits to being any particular kind of movie. It has elements of the Ridley Scott historical epic, along with hidden-texts and secret-libraries hokum that suggests "The Name of the Rose" and "The Davinci Code." It's also a horror movie, complete with a cameo by British scare-flick patriarch Christopher Lee as a dying, pustule-covered cardinal.
Director Dominic Sena employs the sort of shock cuts typical of the horror genre, but the sudden flashes of gruesomeness don't increase the movie's overall velocity. A decade ago, Sena directed Cage in "Gone in 60 Seconds," a car-thief caper that drove circles around its own silliness. But this film is slower than the midtempo Donovan ditty from which it borrows its title, and without that song's sense of atmosphere.
Occasionally, "Season of the Witch" shifts into buddy-flick mode, but Cage and Perlman deliver their zipless repartee at half speed, punctuated by long pauses that only emphasize the dialogue's flatness. Writer Bragi F. Schut basically repurposes other movies' taglines, so "We're going to need a bigger boat" from "Jaws” becomes "We're going to need more holy water." In fact, the slow-talking knights do get more holy water, but they just waste it on the CGI villain. They should have poured it on the script.