Nicolas Cage may have hoped Season of the Witch would be a searing Medieval war drama with monsters — but it has more of a Monty Python feel to it. Are you ready to meet the Knights who say Nic?
The tone of Season of the Witch is established in the sublime opening scenes, where we see an earnest young priest executing three witches, only to have one of them campily come back to life and attack him. And then we see an absolutely brilliant montage of the entirety of the Crusades, stretching over six or seven years, in which an unscathed Ron Perlman and Nic Cage deal death to the Muslim hordes en masse, while a Catholic priest, who bears a passing likeness to Michael Palin, declaims religious propaganda about how slaying the heathen will please God. There are endless closesups of the Holy Grail-esque priest's face scattered throughout this opening sequence, as well as the rest of the film.
By the time you get to a sequence, later in the film, where someone actually narrates the whole skit from Monty Python and the Holy Grail about seeing whether a witch floats or drowns with a straight face, you know you're in the middle of a serious Python homage. It's not really as funny as Monty Python, to be sure, but it is very, very silly and a beautiful disaster of film-making.
It doesn't really matter that Season of the Witch is total schlock — it doesn't even matter that the film is set in the 14th century, long after the Crusades had ended, and tries to wrap together the Crusades and the Black Plague into one Society for Creative Anachronism-fueled rampage through ahistory. None of it matters — you go to see this movie to see Nic Cage and Ron Perlman swing swords and overact, and you won't be disappointed.
By and large, there are two types of terrible B-movies: boring slow-motion cataclysms, and non-stop crazy trainwrecks. Season of the Witch, is a hundred-car train pileup at the bottom of a ravine under a broken bridge. If you enjoy watching a bad movie that's relentless and frenetic in its horribleness, this movie is a rare gem.
As someone else said to her friend after walking out of last night's screening of Season, "At least I was never bored." And you won't be bored by Season of the Witch, not for a second. This movie is schlocky enough for a million Syfy original TV movies, but unlike a lot of Syfy movies, the pacing is crazy and there are tons of ridiculous moments piled on top of each other. Maybe it's just the double espresso and the bag full of chocolate-covered speed pills talking, but I walked out of this film feeling like I'd seen a new classic of bad movie-making.
Ron Perlman deserves the lion's share of the "credit" for making this film a silly bit of fun instead of a boring slog — Perlman basically treats the whole thing like he's in a buddy comedy with Nic Cage, and he's either smirking or outright laughing through a lot of it. You can see that Perlman's having fun with it, whereas Cage turns in his standard low-boil hypomanic Nic Cage performance where he impersonates Elvis, and Cage only really starts shredding the cheap scenery towards the end of the film. Put the two of them together, though, and you've got two knights who are Too Old for This Shit but who are ready for One Last Mission.
Cage and Perlman share tons of ridiculous anachronistic banter, most of it coming out of Perlman's mouth. Like, "You take the 300 on the left and I'll take the 300 on the right" during the first battle sequence against the entire Muslim world. None of it is that funny, except that they don't even remotely sound European or medieval, so it's like a couple of New York cops dropped in the middle of the Middle Ages. Later, they team up with a skeevy merchant who can guide them through the wilderness — and who sports a completely ludicrous Brooklyn accent.
And — major spoiler alert — it all culminates in Ron Perlman head-butting the Devil. Several times. Who doesn't want to see that?
So what's it about? Basically, Cage's character, Behmen, is a knight fighting in the Crusades — until his squad of knights massacres a town full of women and children. It's all foggy and misty and smoky, which represents the fog of war, so Cage doesn't know he's killing women and children until he gets a good look at an improbably hot lady that he's just impaled on his sword. Cage is grief-stricken and full of remorse — why do good soldiers do bad things, man? — so he decides to quit the Crusades, which are still going on even though it's been like nine years and it's the fourteenth century.
Behman and his buddy Felsen (Perlman) travel the countryside and discover that holy crap, there's a Black Plague happening. People are blaming the Plague on witches — and one witch in particular is accused of infecting whole towns. Cage and Perlman are offered a pardon for deserting from the Crusades, if they'll just help transport this one witch to a monastery where the monks can do the ritual to undo her powers and end the Black Plague. Cage, being a modern sort of guy who's disillusioned after the Cruades, doesn't believe she's really a witch or that witches cause the Plague — but he agrees to go along, because she reminds him of the chick he impaled, and he wants to make sure she gets a fair witch trial.
No, really. There's a lot of talk in the movie about making sure she gets a fair trial for witchcraft. What exactly this trial would consist of — we're told it will not be the "see if she floats" thing — is never clear. But Cage seems very worked up about making sure that hot young witches not get burned without proper representation. (Sadly, we never get to see the courtroom scenes, where presumably a plucky young public defender would have to come up with maverick legal stunts to prove his client's innocence. We also never get into whether the Fourth Amendment applies to witches — and considering they have the Crusades and the Black Death happening at the same time, I see no reason why we couldn't have the U.S. Constitution as well.)
The other thing that elevates this movie above, say, Uwe Boll territory, is the fact that it really wants to be about something, even though it mostly flails incoherently. Cage's character is scarred by his experiences in the Crusades — we know this because the film bludgeons us with dream sequences and moments of Cage glowering at the camera — and he's decided that the Medieval church is too bloodthirsty and he won't kill in God's name any more. But of course, it's not much of a spoiler to say that in a supernatural horror film, the church might turn out to be right that there is other-worldly wickedness out there, which needs to be fought.
And meanwhile, the film bombards us with images of horrific acts committed in the name of God, from the wholesale slaughter at the start of the film to monks flagellating themselves. And of course, those bloodthirsty priests are always eager to torture the suspected witches within an inch of their lives. And yes, nobody expects the Spanish Inquisition.
Is killing in God's name always wrong — or is it only wrong when you're not facing zombie monks, shapeshifting wolfy creatures that look like they're ripping off Twilight, and a flaming CG demon? This is an important philosophical question, one which we all have to examine in our own lives, and Season of the Witch makes a stab (so to speak) at addressing it, before finally giving up.
Seeing a horrendous movie on this level is, for some of us, a quasi-religious experience, in which the dreadful performances, crappy philosophizing and dime-store visual effects are like a form of torture that enables us to glimpse the face of God. So it's great that this movie actually comments on the idea of divine terribleness.
Perhaps the best metaphor for this film comes about halfway through, where they're trying to drag a rickety wagon with a caged witch in it, across a rotting, ruined bridge over a bottomless ravine. The bridge crumbles, one of the wheels falls off the wagon and tumbles into the vastness below, and the horses stumble and get injured. But in the very next scene, the wagon is running full tilt through the forest, being chased by the latest CG menace. That's this movie: the wheels come off, the story's footing is fundamentally unstable, but it keeps racing forward anyway. And by the time Nic Cage finally unleashes his full-on shouty scowly pissed-off ex-soldier-of-God performance, you'll be feeling a horror at the bad movie-making that becomes something akin to rapture.