SEASON OF THE WITCH is not a painfully bad film. Its not a particularly good one, either. Rather, it falls into that middling ground of an effort that provokes in the audience the collective sigh of Eh, Ive seen worse. And they have. GULLIVERS TRAVELS springs to mind, and would that it would spring out again.
Set in the 14th century, when the color palette available included only earth tones leavened with a few touches of gray, it is a less than sweeping tale of witchcraft, religious disillusionment, and the bubonic plague. All three are neatly tied together in the person of The Black Witch (Claire Foy), an anemic waif of a girl with the unfortunate luck to have been in the wrong places at the wrong times, as in the plague seems to pop up wherever shes been. She also babbles incoherently from time to time. According to the state-of-the-art scientific method of the time, that makes her squarely in league with Satan and ripe for punishment. Rather than hanging and drowning her before reading a special spell over her corpse, as was done with the witches in the completely unnecessary prologue, she needs that special spell read over her first. Alas, the only copy of the spell to be found in this time before the printing press and paper is in a monastery conveniently located six-days away through a forest evocatively named Wormwood, and over a standard-issue creaky rope bridge thats about to disintegrate over a vertiginous gorge.
Making that journey with the witch are a pair of knights (Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman) who deserted from the Crusades after being ordered to wipe out a nest of heretics that turned out to be women and children. Theres also a priest (Stephen Campbell Moore), a dealer in dubious religious relics (Stephen Graham) because he is the only one who knows how to get to the monastery, an disturbingly beautiful altar-boy (Robert Sheehan) who longs for glory and knighthood, and a local citizen (Ulrich Thomsen) along for reasons that are never explained beyond needing fodder for the body count to come.
The girl has a split personality, terrified and weeping one minute, snarling with superhuman strength the next. Theres something paranormal going on, but the film takes far too long in getting to the meat of the story, concentrating instead of the two knights as they brawl and banter their way through the Crusades before they throw the whole thing over in the face of religious extremism. The pacing is monotonous rather than suspenseful, and art direction bland rather than atmospheric. Points can be given for cleverly showing that the monastery library has a set of more or less accurately rendered blades used in the preparation of parchment, all the better to raise the stakes during the climactic showdown in that same library in a sequence that reeks only slightly of a similar one found in a much better film, IN THE NAME OF THE ROSE, in which Mr. Perlman was so memorable as a Bogomil. Points, too, for the few moments of footage in which Mr. Cage rallies himself into a fine simulacrum of fury. It passes all to quickly, making the rest of his performance not just wooden, but irksome. The others do passably well with dialogue that clunks along like a badly made set of chain mail.
SEASON OF THE WITCH attempts to liven thing up with some diverting pyrotechnics, brings on a pack of snarling, otherworldly wolves with the same hope, and scrutinizes he effects of plague in a fashion that can only be characterized as morbidly self-indulgent. Nothing quite works, nothing quite catches the imagination, and the effect of the whole is more like a troubled nap than a compelling flick. Or even a fun one.