Plague sweeps through the land, and there is no other possible explanation than witchcraft. Two battle-hardened crusaders (Cage, Perlman) who have renounced the violence of the Church are given a choice – face execution for desertion, or transport a witch to the abbey of Severac, where her evil can be destroyed.
The rag-tag band of heroes, few of whom are volunteers, have a long and difficult journey ahead, through wolf-infested forests and across deep ravines and the obligatory poorly-maintained rope bridge. The worst danger of all though, lies in their possible corruption through the dark arts of the possible witch.
This is not a film with no flaws. There are lots of places where plot holes are obvious and inconsistencies run rampant. Of particular note are the battle scenes, in which a confused jumble of people run at each other with no thought of strategy or geography. Overall, it’s the sort of world-building that you would get by asking an excitable teenager about samurai – enthusiastic, sort-of accurate on the surface, and filled with popular misconceptions.
With that said, suspension of disbelief is required for the type of film that I choose to call “action fantasy”. The broad strokes of the narrative are all that’s required to justify the combat and quips. So while Season of the Witch presents a cardboard cut-out version of Medieval Europe filled with pantomime stereotypes as characters, I’m prepared to forgive all that for a scene in which Nicholas Cage deflects multiple point-blank crossbow bolts with a dagger.
One thing that is interesting about this film is that the tone shifts around quite a lot, in a way that I’m not sure is always deliberate. Sometimes, it is that big, dumb action fantasy that both of the lead characters are so good at. Sometimes, it’s a rather good dark fantasy film that didn’t quite have the budget to justify its ideas. And sometimes, it crosses over into genuinely creepy territory, almost becoming horror.
There are essentially two ways to present medieval witchcraft stories. The first way is to focus on real witches, make them the enemy, and avoid all mention of false accusations or unfair trials. The second way is to focus on the evils of the witchhunters, and have very few or no actual witches. You have to pick a side and go all-in on it, or you end up with a confused jumble and no clear idea of which side to root for.
Season of the Witch goes for the rare and perplexing middle ground. The Church is presented as cruel and unreasonable, led by power-mad and spiteful clerics who use religious rhetoric for their own ends. Trials are rigged and women are executed without justice or mercy. On the other hand, almost everyone accused of witchcraft turns out actually to be a malevolent and powerful witch. It’s a lot harder to push the narrative that the Church is ignorant and violent if they keep on being right about everything. It’s bad to kill women who have committed no crime; it’s a lot more morally complex to do the same thing to those who commit horrifying murders in the name of Satan.
It’s possible, of course, to deal with such complex ideas well. It needs space though, and a strong enough script to support the ideas without getting muddled or accidentally suggesting something else. Season of the Witch doesn’t quite manage that, and the narrative ends up confusing more than it is complex.
I enjoyed this. It’s dark fantasy with witchcraft and corruption, which is totally my thing. It could have done with a bigger budget, and possible more time – a series might have worked better. But within the constraints of the medium and the expenses, it’s fun and exciting and deals better than might be expected with complicated topics and ideas. It’s got exciting, over-the-top action, heroic growling, and monk zombies; what more could you really want?