SEASON OF THE WITCH -
Atlas Entertainment, Relativity Media
Rated: Canada: 14A / Ireland: 15A / Malaysia: 18 / Netherlands: 12 / Singapore: PG / South Korea, UK: 15 / Switzerland: 14 / USA: PG-13
Witches, demons, zombies and hellhounds. What more could you ask for from a post-holiday medieval horror flick?
Well, some improved dialogue and more than one or two people who can act would be nice, but other than that, nothing.
Going in, I had to say I expected a Uwe Boll adventure film: lots of big battles, chicks with swords, lousy acting and cheesy dialogue. The director, Dominic Sena (WHITEOUT), is the man who brought us SWORDFISH, which I hated, and GONE IN SIXTY SECONDS, which is where I wish I'd been after the opening credits of that particular film. As expected, the camera angles weren't all that imaginative – it was like looking at the regular world through a frame. Except for one thing. He had excellent reaction shots. Anytime someone said or did something portentous or even emotional, you got a close up of someone's facial expression. This aided not only in character development, but also plot advancement. And he managed to make Ron Perlman look positively personable in the process.
So the first few minutes of the film were exactly what I expected, only worse. Picture opens with three witches being questioned and then hanged from a bridge. When the still-twitching corpses are lowered into the river below, the attending priest begins to read from an illuminated holy book. When he sees his assisting executioners leaving, he asks them to stay because there are words to be spoken over the bodies to prevent the witches' return to life. The tired-looking man replies, “We've hanged them and drowned them. That's dead enough for me.”
With that rather ponderous bit of foreshadowing, the priest drags up two of the bodies and speaks the words over them, one at a time, destroying their power and stopping their twitching. Cue the third, who comes back to life, flies up onto the bridge, burns the book and kills the priest.
From here I thought I would be subjected to another hour and forty-five minutes of the same type of forties Hollywood crap, only with cheap CGI.Once again, I was pleasantly surprised. The acting and writing was much better than the average Boll film. Though in the interests of full disclosure, Boll films are a guilty pleasure of mine. To be fair, however, it might be because he tends to cast Kristanna Loken.
We jump ahead in time and Nicholas Cage (8MM, BRINGING OUT THE DEAD, GRINDHOUSE, NEXT, KICK ASS) and Ron Perlman (THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU , ALIEN RESURRECTION, DOWN, BLADE II, STAR TREK: NEMESIS, PRO-LIFE, HELLBOY [all]) play Behmen and Felson respectively, two soldiers fighting for the Church during the Crusades. Moments before battle, while the commanding knight is giving his motivational speech about how the unbelievers must be punished by God's warriors, Cage's character and Perlman's character offer some good dialogue ("You take the 300 on the right and I'll take the 300 on the left.") that makes you identify with them immediately. What follows is a montage of bloody battle scenes spanning a period of some twelve years.
I totally believed Perlman's Everyman approach to knighthood, particularly in these scenes, and in later scenes in the dungeon. Cage, however – well, as my wife has always said, when the part calls for overacting, you call Nicholas Cage (I always flash back to the last scene of Ghost Rider: "I'm gonna own this curse!"). Cage tends to play the part at arm's length – not using contractions and unable to make some of the stilted dialogue his own. Perlman has no trouble with this and unintentionally upstages Cage, well, constantly.
After a time, the army Behmen and Felson are a part of is ordered to storm a castle, and "leave no survivors!" Behmen crashes through the front gates following the battering ram team into darkness, slashing and killing figures right and left. As he bursts through the darkened tunnel into the light, a figure impaled on his sword is a terrified woman who pleads mercy with her eyes as she dies. He turns and looks around, finally able to see, and the dead and dying around him are mostly women and children. The two decide to leave, having no stomach for killing innocents. They swear off their oath to the Church and begin the long return to Europe.
After some long days of traveling, they come to a plague-ravaged village, and are identified as deserters by the devices on their swords and captured. Cardinal D'Ambroise (Christopher Lee: THE CITY OF THE DEAD, DRACULA HAS RISEN FROM THE GRAVE, TASTE THE BLOOD OF DRACULA, THE WICKER MAN, GREMLINS 2, SLEEPY HOLLOW, THE LORD OF THE RINGS [all], THE CORPSE BRIDE, ALICE IN WONDERLAND ) gives them a choice: be prosecuted (read: executed) as deserters or take an accused witch (Claire Foy) to a remote monastery. Apparently, the monks who reside there have the only remaining copy of the book containing the holy words that will destroy her powers. And those powers must be destroyed, because every town she has passed through has been ravaged by the disease infecting the area. All have accused her of bringing it upon them.
They agree, but Behmen demands the condition that she be given a fair trial before being executed. The Cardinal agrees, and subsequently succumbs to the plague himself. Our heroes assemble a team and set forth, undergoing several adventures, each one more dangerous and deadly (and some more predictable) than the last.
In a dark forest called Wormwood (does anyone else think "Mirkwood" here?), they are attacked by a bunch of evil-looking wargs – I mean wolves. Some they successfully fend off using crossbows and swords before switching to plan B. I'm afraid this scene kicked me out of the story a bit. The wolves were “enhanced” bythe witch's powers, presumably to look scarier. I couldn't help thinking the animals were plenty scary enough without being made to look like hellhounds. Instead of breathing a sigh of relief for each wolf slain, all I could think to myself was, "No CGI wolves were harmed during the making of this film."
In another scene, the travelers come to a suspension bridge (really? The suspension bridge thing was already hackneyed fifty years ago, and then TEMPLE OF DOOM came along and did the definitive suspension bridge scene.) and have to cross one at a time. But here I got a pleasant surprise: right in the middle of this tired old adventure-movie trope, we find a plot twist. But not a new twist to the bridge scene.
Here I have stop and give props to the makers of the film. One character actually receives severe burns on his hands from having the thick rope slip through them at high speed (Ron Perlman's character evidently had sense enough to wear his leather gloves). For me, it's a pet peeve that people slide down ropes or let them pass through their hands quickly without getting hurt. I'm bothered in the same way others are bothered by movies who have booming explosions in space. The last time I managed to use rope with my bare hands and not get hurt was when I pitched a backyard tent.
So without revealing too much more, they ultimately confront the film's big bad. Which I hadn't predicted. Score one more for the filmmakers. Some of the execution here was actually even pretty cool.
The writer of the screenplay, Bragi F. Schut, also created the short-lived (and hit-and-miss) series THRESHOLD. I enjoyed that one, quite a lot, and still would like to see what its endgame was. So that accounts for the good twists and appropriately held-back information in this film so the final punch is all that harder. But I would have liked to have seen a bit more polish – the pacing felt right, but some of the dialogue was a bit off.
To provide an example, just before the final encounter with said bad, a misplaced joke killed all the tension in the theater. The priest with the damaged hands pronounces that “We're going to need more holy water.” At which point I heard several people in the theater (including myself and my wife) intone, "We're going to need a bigger boat" (JAWS).
Okay, now let's review: hackneyed plot devices, some unfortunate dialogue, a bit of overacting and some underacting. The idea for the film was solid. Good even. But some unfortunate directorial choices, combined with a screenplay that needed maybe one more rewrite conspire to lower the rating I gave it.
But I had a good time.Great fun. And really, from a movie that borrows its name from an old Donovan Leitch song, did you really expect deep and great literature? SEASON OF THE WITCH is a good popcorn movie. A valiant effort. Three shriek girls.
This review copyright 2011 E.C.McMullen Jr.
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