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At The Movies: Season of the Witch

2011 February 1
Illustration by Markgraf of the "crusades" scene from Season of the Witch. Foreground: Nicholas Cage, in armour, grabs Ron Perlman, who is holding a bloodied sword, by the cloak "lapels". Speech bubble text: "I STABBED A LADY. WE MUST LEAVE THE CRUSADES AT ONCE". Ron Perlman speech bubble text, in small font: "this is a very sad time". Behind them, a pile of dead Saracen soldiers. A man resembling Altaiir from Assassin's Creed stands behind the bodies holding a sign with a large black arrow pointing at the pile, gestures angrily, and glares at Ron and Nick.

All those other bodies totally don't count.

There are many ways to make a film about witches.

Firstly, you can make a straight-up witch film.  You know, with a spooky young woman with a drippy curtain of hair over her face, glowering out from heavy eyelids, muttering to herself to make stuff go on fire and horses stress out.  A proper witch film.  With at least one scene of crows taking off from a forest and yelling.  It’ll be insidious and creepy, a spine-crawling exploration of subtle witchery and spooky magic that’ll end in the witch being vanquished and a sort of bleak conclusion as we all examine our ideas of the supernatural.  Something like The Blair Witch Project, to pick an obvious example.

Secondly, you can make a film that’s hyper-aware of the cruelty of witch trials and is cynical to the bone; the horror seeping in from our horrified examination of how cruel humans can be to each other when given a modicum of authority and a healthily heaped serving of paranoia.  You can also spice up this trope by having a nice wade through an examination of religion’s hand in the instigation of human cruelty.  The classic example of this trope is the 1996 film version of The Crucible, as we all know – a fine film.  A fine film indeed.

Thirdly, you can do an all-out schlock-horror gore-and-monsters fest where things sprout wings, raise the dead and have An Eville Laughe.  Something like Van Helsing.  Something where there’s no realism to speak of, and you’re in it for the rollicking monster fights and stabbination.

Season Of The Witch, bless its little darling pseudo-medieval socks, tries to do all three at once.

And you know, blow me, it failed in every single conceivable way.  I thought that it might be able to do something right.  It didn’t.  It didn’t at all.  It was amazing.

****Here’s a SPOILER WARNING, just in case, by some strange chance, you would rather see its failings yourself first! ****

The films starts with Some Women being accused of witchcraft and flung over a bridge and hanged. “Oh, I see,” I thought, as the priest pronounced them worthy of hanging despite tearful, desperate confessions. “This’ll be an Examination of the Church’s Cruelty.”

And then one of them comes back to life.

“Oh,” I thought. “Oh. Right.”

Then, we jump to THE TIME OF THE CRUSADES, where Ron Perlman and Nicolas Cage are fighting a dark-skinned, faceless horde, stirred into friendly, competitive violence by the Christianity-spouting standard-bearer.  God only knows where they think the Crusades happened, however – the intertitles confidently proclaimed “Styria” – as our heroes trundle from the desert into bafflingly-named snowy wilderness in only a few years.  Presumably, then, they had been fighting Staracens in Stamascus on the way to Sterusalem which had defied the laws of steographical stysics and raised in staltitude, altering its stlimate beyond repair.  And they are, I assume, Knights Stemplar.  Or of the Steutonic Order of – okay, I’ll stop.

But despite the prolonged, stupidly-costumed battles spent massacring hundreds of turbaned Staracens, it’s only when Nick Cage stabs a young, white woman in the stomach that he comes to the staggering realisation that they’ve been killing people.

“Holy shit, Ron Perlman!” Nick Cage says with his best worried face.  “I didn’t realise that we were killing people!

Ron Perlman’s face resembles a disgusted brick with frightening accuracy.  “Killing people,” he repeats, confused.  Then he looks at the floor, which is littered with bodies.  His tiny, crab-like eyes widen slightly with sudden horror. “Holy shit!” he rumbles. “Killing killing people! I didn’t sign up for this shit!”

And so they left the crusades.

It was at about this point that I sort of hoped for them to run into some Stashshashin.

By now, I think you’ll have realised that this film has one hell of a lot of problems.  The race failure is intense, as I’ve mentioned: I’ve yet to see a film that handles the Crusades at all handle race in a non-insulting way, but it’s a very difficult and horrible era to handle at all, what with the inherent colonially-minded, racist nature of the conflict in the first place.  But to have the moment of realisation for Nick Cage’s forgettably-named protagonist to come as he plants his sword squarely in the gut of a young, white woman (who must be very lost, all context considered) after cheerfully hacking his way through what appears to be all the non-white extras from Prince of Persia is just offensive.

The other problem that glared out of the celluloid into my tired, disbelieving eyes was the witch herself.  She was the only female character in the film, and she didn’t even get a name.  She’s credited as “The Girl”.  But as crap as this is, this wasn’t the worst problem with her.

Oh no.

She’s captured, tortured and abused at the hands of the Church, and that is made eminently clear.  She crawls, curls into the foetal position and weeps.  When anyone tries to talk to her, she panics and begs not to be left alone with the priest who she doesn’t want touching her.  The implication of rape is ladled on thick, heavy and triggering in a way that I found, in some parts, challenging to watch (although nothing is explicit: the way the witch behaves is just so wounded) – but then she lashes out like a caged tiger, and is eventually proven to be the “deceiver” the priest says she is all along.

Wow.  How many problems are there with that?

For a moment, I thought the film would be an expertly-balanced exploration of whether the “witchcraft” the girl does is real or imagined by the terrified men who keep her caged, and started to get into it – but it wasn’t at all.  In fact, nothing could be further from the truth.  It felt as if the film makers had made themselves all uncomfortable by bringing the reputation of the Church into question, and therefore had to reassure themselves that yes, everything was as it should be: any maltreatment of “the Girl” was made excusable and fine due to her actually being evil after all, and any power the girl had was due to her actually being a non-gender-applicable demon (the protagonists switch from referring to her as “her” to “it” in a single cut of film) and not a girl at all.  And any accusations of rape in the first place were probably false, anyway.

All that said, my film-watching companion and I did find ourselves bellowing disruptively with laughter at several points during the film, because it really is one of those films that’s so dreadful, it’s amazing.  The ill-researched sets, costume and fighting styles (that’s not how you fight with anything!) were hilarious.  Nicholas Cage’s permanently worried face was hilarious.  The clunky, awkward dialogue was hilarious.  The scene with the wolves was side-splittingly hilarious.  And the fact that it was all meant to be deadly serious and wire-sprung with tension was the best punchline of all.  We certainly weren’t the only ones ruining the scary-movie-dates of young couples by howling our amusement every time a plague victim’s head exploded.

But the handling of The Girl and her abuse was not hilarious at all and made me feel quite sick.

Oh, and here’s one for the gamers: there’s a bit in the soundtrack that is nearly identical to the stealthy-mission music in Assassin’s Creed.  This and the fact that Templars appear in the film combined in my mind to deadly fanboying effect.

YOU SHOULD SEE THIS FILM BECAUSE:

  • It is such ridiculous bullshit that in places it’s genuinely funny
  • It’d make an excellent cliché-spotting drinking game
  • Nicholas Cage and Ron Perlman make zombie plague monks explode

YOU SHOULD NOT SEE THIS FILM BECAUSE:

  • There’s racefail galore
  • The Bechdel Test doesn’t even get a look-in
  • No film should handle abuse in the way this one tried to
5 Responses leave one →
  1. Russell permalink
    February 1, 2011

    I think Styria is a character from Final Fantasy XIII. I don’t know why they’d be IN Styria, unless it’s to make the film less feminist than it already is.

    • Rob permalink
      February 2, 2011

      Styria is also a state in Austria. Though that might be a bit out of the way for someone trying to take part in the Crusades.

      • Miranda permalink*
        February 2, 2011

        Yes! This! I found that on Google when I was proofing this piece, but whenever I Googled “Styria crusades” it was all links about the armies DEPARTING from Europe. Not stabbing people up IN Styria.

        It possibly explains the snow, though. Maybe?

        This movie sounds so full of holes, though, that I wouldn’t be surprised if the research was just a quick whizz round Wikipedia :D

  2. Custard permalink
    February 2, 2011

    I <3 the illustration :)

    Also thanks for confirming this movie is as bad (actually worse) than I suspected.

  3. Stephanie permalink
    September 24, 2011

    This might be the funniest bad review I’ve ever read. I read it as I watched the movie, which made it infinitely more enjoyable. It truly was a bad movie, and most of the time I spent going ‘wtf?’

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