Rule number one of basic filmmaking: don’t name your film after an especially maligned Halloween sequel that has become only more infamously derided as the decades have passed. This is just the first of many mistakes occasionally-talented director Dominic Sena (Kalifornia and Swordfish, but also Gone in 60 Seconds and Whiteout) makes in Season of the Witch, a glorified straight-to-video bargain bin supernatural horror flick which may have settled the case for 2011′s worst film before the year has even really begun, while being lent a whiff of false credibility by the baffling presence of the infuriatingly inconsistent Nicolas Cage.
Behmen (Cage) is a 14th century Crusader who has recently returned home with his comrade, Felson (Ron Perlman), to find it ravaged by the terrible Black Plague. The Catholic church, adamant that the plague has been caused by a witch, Anna (Claire Foy), order the pair to escort her, a knight, a rowdy but tough criminal, and a priest, to a secluded abbey, where they will expiate the evil from her – no doubt causing her death – in order to apparently end the plague. Behmen, unconvinced of her guilt, however, will only see her dead if the charges against her are true, and despite some eerie goings on – seemingly caused by her – he can’t escape the thought that something far more sinister is at play.
Nicolas Cage has made a slew of bad movies in his years – the majority of his worst being in the last decade, no doubt – yet even his most criminal duds such as the dreadful The Wicker Man remake and Bangkok Dangerous were punctuated with an air of unintentional humour, aided by Cage’s apparently purposefully over-the-top performance in each. Regrettably there’s no such luck in Season of the Witch, a film which has unsurprisingly been languishing on a studio shelf for about a year. Cage’s soporific performance – ridiculous hairpiece aside – adds little to a film not privy to even a single lick of irony, holding its hokey plot in a curiously high, self-serious esteem, sucking almost every scrap of entertainment value out like a vacuum as it does so.
There is one mildly amusing line in Sena’s film which made the group of scarcely awake critics in my screening room perk up and deliver their solitary indication of enjoyment, in a light chuckle - “we’re going to need more holy water” – a kitschy quip so at odds with the otherwise straighter-than-a-ruler tone of the film that, yes, it provides one of the film’s few instances of actual entertainment. The rest of the time is spent trying not to dribble through a mind-numbingly predictable supernatural plot, featuring direction ugly enough that it’s hard to imagine it came from the same person who brought us the spectacular opening explosion sequence of Swordfish.
At least Nicolas Cage has something approximating a reasonable excuse for starring in this mess, purposefully positioning himself in the types of effortless, take-the-money-and-run roles that keep him scarcely fending off bankrupty. His best-known co-stars, Ron Perlman and up-and-coming British star Stephen Graham, invoke pity in a fairly incredulous pair of appearances, though at least Graham has graduated onto greener pastures with his work on the Scorsese-helmed HBO show Boardwalk Empire. Christopher Lee, meanwhile, is less embarassing as he adds another quick entry to his CV in a brief cameo as a hideously disfigured, terminally ill head of the church.
The characters are utterly charmless, the plot rarely veers off course, the performances are lazy, the visual effects sub-standard, and the direction approximates something between a turgid bargain basement swords-and-shields adventure pic and, in the case of the acrid, faux-epic battle scenes at the start, a particularly shoddy cut-scene in a particularly naff mid-90s PlayStation game. Season of the Witch may lack the overall badness of The Wicker Man, but it’s also less funny as a result, and therefore less tolerable; this is the kind of cynical slop that makes you wonder whether Nicolas Cage cares an iota about his career anymore.
Avoid it – wait for it – like the Black Plague.
Season of the Witch opens this Friday.