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Movie Review: Season of the Witch (PG-13)

seasonwitchPoor Nicolas Cage. If his money problems are really so bad that he has to take roles in horrendously scripted and executed movies like “Season of the Witch,” what does this mean for moviegoers in 2011? Because “Season of the Witch” is really, really bad – which suggests that Cage’s other movies slated for release this year, “Drive Angry 3D” and “Trespass,” aren’t masterpieces, either. Oh Cage. We pity you.

The supernatural is hot right now, but if you’re used to vampires and werewolves who fall in love with humans and live happily ever after, “Season of the Witch” is not for you. Instead, this heavy-handed, unexpectedly really Christian flick deals specifically with demons and – duh – witches, women who back in the day may or may not have been working for the devil. If you had to read “The Crucible” in high school, you know this story: Women and teen girls were singled out in their towns and villages and tested for witchcraft – if they survived trials like wading into lakes with pockets full of stones meant to weigh them down, they were burned at the stake. If they didn’t survive, well, they were dead anyway. Oh well.

This kind of morbid history lays thick on “Season of the Witch,” which opens during the 13th century in the city of Villach – now in Austria – and progresses into the 14th century, during the Crusades. It’s 1235 A.D. and witches and their evil impact is everywhere; the Church, eager to stamp them out, sends a priest to Villach, where he rounds up a young teen and two older women and urges them to confess their cavorting with the Devil. The girl does – though it’s obviously a lie – and the other two refuse, leading all three to get hanged and drowned. But the priest isn’t done yet: The ritual’s final step, where he reads from the Key of Solomon (a book of magic) to ensure that the corpse’s bodies don’t rise again, is the most important. The first and second women’s bodies seem fine, but the third – which morphs into a demon and ends up killing the priest – disappears into the night sky, suggesting that we haven’t seen the last of this otherworldly evil.

But it’s the transgressions of men that bring us a century forward to knights Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman, of “Hellboy” and the TV show “Sons of Anarchy”), who have fought in the Crusades from 1332 A.D. to 1344 A.D. Close friends and valiant, effective warriors, the two during the day engage in bets where the man who kills fewer infidels has to buy the other drinks and during the night get drunk and happy with random women. But the two have morals, too – and when they’re led into a battle that ends with dead children and women (one killed at the end of Behmen’s own sword), they decide to desert the Church’s mission and strike out on their own. It’s when they finally make their way home, 12 years after being away, that they realize things are amiss: A farmhouse with two grotesque corpses inside, covered in boils and pus, introduces them to the Plague.

If you know anything about history, you’re surely aware that the Plague, or Black Death, spread throughout Europe because of rats, disease and overpopulation. But members of the Church who recognize Behmen and Felson as deserters are convinced it’s the work of a witch, known only as “the girl” (Claire Foy), and Cardinal D’Ambroise (Christopher Lee) basically blackmails the men into transporting the girl to a far-off monastery where they can judge her on whether she caused the plague. The two men warily agree – Behmen especially driven by guilt over his murder of the woman during the Crusades – but only if the girl is given a fair trial when they arrive at the monastery. With that promise intact, they set off, joined by priest Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore), whom the girl despises; a knight named Eckhart (Ulrich Thomsen), whose wife and children were killed by the plague; criminal Hagamar (Stephen Graham), who knows the way to the monastery; and youngster Kay (Robert Sheehan), a former altar boy who joins the group because he dreams of becoming a knight.

Their road is treacherous – they must pass over a rickety bridge and through a creepy foggy forest named Woodworm – and, you know, they’re transporting a witch, so tensions are high. And when she begins working her wide-eyed, “I’m just a girl” charm on Behmen, his allegiances – both to the men traveling with him and the Church as a whole – are tested in a way that could affect what happens to the girl both before, and after, they reach the monastery.

Maybe, if the movie was darker and creepier and less preachy, “Season of the Witch” could have worked. But instead of giving itself fully over to horror, the film plays in a weird middle ground, focusing far too much on Behmen’s sense of morality and whether the Church is a benevolent or malevolent force. And the scenes which should be horrifying, like wolves the witch beckons to her whose faces morph into demons and the final showdown between the good guys and the bad, suffer from poor special effects and CGI that look goofy, not scary.

Some of this could be forgiven if the film didn’t have such an awful script. Half the time Cage speaks in a British accent, half the time he doesn’t; Perlman doesn’t even try. There’s some Old English phrasing flying around, like “Stand fast,” and then there are more modern words – mainly four-letter curse words, but not the f-word – and colloquialisms thrown in that just don’t make sense, like “Let’s get the hell out of here.” Really? Crusaders would use the term “saving your ass”? Doubtful. And just as unbelievable is the fact that two knights who were dedicated to the Church’s cause for longer than a decade would desert at all – that’s not to say warriors can’t have a change of heart or anything, but it’s hard to believe that only one murder during the course of 12 years of killing could change Behmen’s and Felson’s minds so mightily.

For older teens, most of what’s in “Season of the Witch” won’t be nightmare-worthy – there’s some cursing, violent-but-not-gory battle scenes and heavily CGI-ed demons – but there’s a creepy exorcism scene; some reanimated corpses that crawl on ceilings like spiders; doctors wearing those macabre bird-beak Venetian masks; and visions Behmen has of the woman he killed, including one where she eats blood. There’s no real sexual content, except for one scene where the two knights are getting drunk in a bar and are surrounded by women we assume to be prostitutes, and another where the girl they believe to be a witch is naked, but you don’t see anything. The real gross stuff is the disease-ridden corpses, which ooze fluids and are covered in disgusting sores. For younger teenagers and children, all this stuff could be too overwhelming, so they should probably steer clear. No one would blame them.

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