Witch-hunting certainly isn’t the most dynamic of subjects for the screen. Usually featuring the persecution of innocent, nonconformist women (who’ve often rejected family life and are thus suspect), the witch-hunt is now sob-story fodder, unless handled cleverly. Here in the United States, the subject channels more guilt, since the Salem witch trials remain as bad a memory as they were for Nathaniel Hawthorne, himself writing about events occurring years prior. Rarely do we find a fresh take on the subject, like Michael Reeves’ film “Witchfinder General” (1968; renamed “The Conqueror Worm,” after Poe’s poem to capitalize on Corman’s cycle, though unrelated to the producer) – featuring Vincent Price’s ruthless megalomaniac and the reactive mayhem he creates.
So, it’s refreshing to see “Season of the Witch,” set in the middle ages, begin with the persecution of “witches” who actually are evil. Director Dominic Sena’s intriguing prelude presents a priest exorcising the bodies of three hanged witches. One corpse awakes with a shriek as he finishes his incantation, before it perishes for good. The last, younger witch suddenly pulls him into the lake, then hangs him in a brief shot, before the opening credits. This kind of quick-hitting prelude is formulaic to contemporary shockers, and many can’t deliver on the promise.
In this case, we cut to Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman as master-killer crusaders. They reach a peak in a middle eastern desert, to view an extensive wave of Muslim warriors. Before fighting, the two treat the approaching battle as if it were a duck hunt, as their commander urges them to fight for their Christian god. When the armies meet, Cage and Perlman enter manipulated digital photography that makes them look god-like and every enemy in their paths minced meat. We need a serious suspension of disbelief to accept these two aging actors as faultless warriors in tip-top shape. A victim somersaults through the air, having met Cage’s blade, for the image to halt into slow-motion, and boredom commences.
Hence, the actual plot appears: two supermen of the past must affirm their faith. Sena and writer Bragi F. Schut (also screenwriter of the promising “The Last Voyage of Demeter”) deliver a pleasing cynical (if ahistorical) prelude on witch-hunting, only to follow with Cage and Perlman deserting their army, having suddenly decided – after rolling countless enemy heads – that they’ve killed too many in the name of the lord (one young girl’s death is enough for Cage to question the sundry other lives). When returning home, they encounter a village plagued by a witch’s curse – thus appears the vengeful young girl from the opening. From here, the film borrows from “The Hidden Fortress”/”The Searchers” mythos, about a “ship of fools’” transporting a prized young maiden (in this case, caged for the travelers’ safety). Two joining the mission are offed by the girl’s cunning, and thus the script flirts with the one-by-one-down structure of the slasher film. Though it’s hard to be in suspense when time is killed with a pointless, rope-bridge-crossing scene. I wished Indiana Jones could have materialized to cut it free already.
As the young witch, Claire Foy shows promise and stands out in most scenes. Ever since Perlman played Salvatore, the demented monk in the adaptation of Umberto Eco’s “The Name of the Rose,” he embodies Medievalism with ease, though here more eloquently and good-humored when served a joke on his looks. Cage looks unsure whether he should rage or pray with some fierce tears – in stubborn duty, Sena gives Cage one quick rant. With the mashup “NC Losing his S**t” still gaining many hits, thus is how he’ll be remembered. Only projects like “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” can direct him towards intriguing territory. Otherwise, we’re left with Cage in overproduced, under-focused vehicles like this, which leads to a contrived showdown. The film has its moments of goofy fun, but a greater whole should have come from its parts.