Wednesday, 12 January 2011

Season of the Witch (2011)

We’re going to need a better movie.

Image: Paramount Pictures UK

The cast was solid, medieval horror usually makes for hammy fun, and it’s been a long while since there’s been a good film about witches. Unfortunately, this isn’t it.

It’s the 14th Century, and crusading knights Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) question the righteousness of war in the name of the church, especially after Behman accidentally runs a woman through with his sword. The two lay down their swords and set off on their own, but are recognised in a town that’s been afflicted by the plague. They’re recruited by bubo-covered Cardinal D’Ambroise (Christopher Lee) to escort a suspected witch (Claire Foy) to an abbey, where she can be dealt with, which will hopefully end the plague.

Season of the Witch has all the ingredients of a good, old-fashioned ripping yarn. There’s the period setting, the well-cast motley band of heroes, and the fact that escorting a witch across treacherous terrain should lead to some thrilling set-pieces and a nice bit of horror. Unfortunately, what we’ve been given is a mostly-bloodless, poorly put-together mess that squanders nearly every opportunity.

Period horror has taken a beating recently with Van Helsing and the disappointing The Wolf Man threatening to put the subgenre down permanently. Any hopes that this will be much better are dispelled early on. Quite how the director of Swordfish and Gone in 60 Seconds seemed like a good choice for this material is a mystery. The direction is mostly anonymous, but he certainly managed to convince Cage that he was working on something with much more dramatic weight.

If the film had been better, playing it dead straight would have been a good option. However, Cage’s dour performance is at odds with the increasingly ridiculous plot twists. At no point does he convince standing next to Perlman, who makes no attempt to escape typecasting but delivers an entertaining performance and sells most of the weaker lines. In the overqualified supporting cast we have Stephen Campbell Moore (The History Boys), who plays it straight as the priest, Stephen Graham (This is England), who gives his cowardly scoundrel a New York accent, Ulrich Thomsen (Festen), who is wasted as a bereaved soldier, and Misfits’ Robert Sheehan, who somehow manages to keep a straight face throughout as a painfully earnest altar boy who aspires to be a knight.

Best of the lot by quite some way is Claire Foy (Little Dorrit), who impresses each chance she gets and is given just enough screen time to keep you waiting for her big scene. Unfortunately, that never arrives. Season of the Witch ignores every opportunity for a good scene, instead taking the dull or outright ridiculous choice. Terrible CGI is littered throughout the film. The entire denouement is a colossal misstep that’s barely dragged along by the performances. It’s frustrating to see wasted potential, quite possibly the result of reshoots (also perhaps a reason for the cast’s wandering accents), or just bad filmmaking, but there is some enjoyment to be had here. It’s ridiculous and more than a little stupid, but if you go in knowing what you’re going to get, it’s a passable good time.

It’s disappointing; neither good enough nor mad enough to be a surprise hit or a proper guilty pleasure. However, Perlman and Foy are spot on and there are moments of fun escapism.



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