It is possible to trace to the moment where it all started going wrong for Nicolas Cage of the Royal Coppola Dynasty. At the very least, it is possible to trace it to the year. After memorable roles in Peggy Sue Got Married and the Coen Brothers’ Raising Arizona, he was nominated for his first Golden Globe for Moonstruck in which he starred alongside Cher. He turned heads and earned an Independent Spirit nomination in Vampire’s Kiss, infamously eating a cockroach on-screen, and continued to impress directors like David Lynch (Wild at Heart) and earned another Golden Globe nomination for Honeymoon in Vegas.
Yet 1995 was where it all changed for Mr. Cage. Earning a slew of awards, including a Best Actor statuette at the Oscars, for his portrayal of a doomed alcoholic in Leaving Las Vegas, Cage apparently turned his back on acting and ran into the loving arms of Jerry Bruckheimer. A string of commercially successful, albeit critically questionable, films followed including The Rock, Con Air and Face/Off, and more recently he has enjoyed major leading man status in the successful National Treasure series. Yet despite a few recognised turns in Adaptation and Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans, his equally memorably flops Ghost Rider, Bangkok Dangerous and the not-too-bad Sorcerer’s Apprentice have tarnished his reputation. Let’s not get started on the hair.
In Season of the Witch, Cage stars as 14th century Knight Crusader Behmen who, along with his colleague Felson (Ron Perlman, Hellboy) chooses to desert the war rather than commit any more acts of violence in god’s name. Returning home to a land ravaged by pestilence and plague, they flee from the authorities and the suspicious minds of villagers who are willing to label any misfortune witchcraft. Eventually discovered by the local church, Behmen and Felson are asked to escort a girl accused of witchcraft (Claire Foy) to a nearby monastery for a trial. While Behmen does so in the interests of protecting the girl from the hysteria of the Church, he and the group that accompanies them are about to be plunged into a world of darkness.
Season of the Witch is very much a return to the glory days of Hammer horror films, or the type of supernatural or paranormal flick you’d seen Roger Corman, Vincent Price or Christopher Lee attached to. Indeed, the latter appears briefly as a plague-stricken cardinal who charges the group with their holy quest. While the title recalls the George Romero and Halloween films of the same name, the film is allegedly inspired by the Igmar Bergman masterpiece The Seventh Seal! While the film has a witch’s hope in medieval Europe of making that stretch, the film is built around an interesting premise. The “is she or isn’t she” suspense around the levels of witchiness that the unnamed girl possesses is where much of the drama in the film lies, and as members of the escort part start dropping off like flies, the evidence swings wildly in both directions. For the most part, this is an effectively simple technique in audience engagement.
Set against the beautifully shot vistas of Austria, Hungary and Croatia, there is a feeling of authenticity to the film. One still can’t help but chuckling the first time Cage and his luxurious hair appears, but this subsides to a cheeky grin by the time the end credits roll. Dominic Sena (Swordfish and Gone in 60 Seconds, where he previously collaborated with Cage) directs the action scenes capably, and while some of the opening Crusades sequences do seem like a low-rent Lord of the Rings at times, most of the CGI is convincingly done on the film’s relatively modest $40 million budget. The film loses momentum in the final act, which comes about all too quickly and thus diminishes much of the tension created to that point, but for the most part Season of the Witch is the type of fantasy-suspense film that we don’t see enough of these days.
The Reel Bits: Season of the Witch is a sword and sorcery mini-epic that has thankfully avoided consignment to the direct-to-DVD bin. While never revolutionising the canon, it nevertheless has enough character and supernatural appeal to keep genre fans happy.
Season of the Witch was given a limited release in Australia on February 24, 2011 by Roadshow Films.