The movies of Nicolas Cage are a crapshoot by now. Fans of this fine but wayward actor never know what to expect when they enter the theatre. A winner like Matchstick Men, The Weather Man, the Oscar-summoning Leaving Las Vegas? Or dire junk like Con Air, Bangkok Dangerous, or the extra-silly Ghost Rider? Cage’s determination to work a lot, plus his shaky taste in scripts and his heavy debt to the IRS, practically guarantee there’ll be more of the latter sort of picture than of the former.
His latest, a medieval sorcery exercise called Season of the Witch, falls somewhere between these two poles, although it inclines more toward the flaming-motorcyclists school of cinema than that of heartbroken alcoholics. It’s a good-looking film (much of it was shot in the Austrian Alps), but heavily derivative. The pestilential villages and grimy peasants on view have an unmistakably Pythonian cast, and there are resounding echoes of Ingmar Bergman, Mario Bava, The Name of the Rose, various Hammer horrors and even, in one big CGI monster bash, if you can imagine, Gremlins.
The time is the mid-14th century. A weary knight named Behman (Cage), having bailed out of the latest Crusade in disillusionment, is returning home from the Holy Land in the company of a fellow warrior named Felson (Ron Perlman). Arriving back in Europe, they are greeted by the scourge of the Black Death, at its ghastly peak. Soon they’re seized as deserters and tossed in a dungeon. Then a plague-ridden cardinal (Christopher Lee, unrecognizable behind a face full of bulging pustules) offers them freedom in exchange for undertaking a mission—transporting a young woman (Claire Foy) thought to be a witch to a faraway mountaintop abbey where the resident witch experts will render judgment as a pro-forma prelude to dispatching her in some appropriately hideous way.
Behman and Felson accept this deal, and set off with the alleged witch confined in a sort of cage-coach. They are accompanied on their journey by another sad knight (Ulrich Thomsen), a squirmy priest (Stephen Campbell Moore), a peasant guide (Stephen Graham), and an all-purpose valiant youth (Robert Sheehan). The caged girl is by turns sweetly appealing and weirdly malevolent. Could she really be a witch? The peasant guide thinks so: “Kill the bitch!” he suggests. Behman is having none of that, though, and the group proceeds on its way through snowy mountains and fog-choked forests. En route, they are attacked by flesh-rending wolves, possibly of the demonic variety. Finally they arrive at the remote abbey, only to find that nobody’s home. Nobody capable of offering a warm welcome, anyway.
The movie is plagued by an unrelenting mildness. The is-she-or-isn’t-she witch question generates minimal suspense, and the attempted supernatural thrills are subverted at every turn by witless anachronisms. Apart from the name of Perlman’s character (is “Felson” not a moniker more appropriate to a sitcom second banana than a fierce warrior?), there are lines of dialogue that land with a thud far short of amusement. “I’ve saved your ass a hundred times,” for example. Or, “We’re gonna need more holy water!” My favorite crops up in the middle of an early battle scene, when Felson turns to Behman and says, “I’m building up a powerful thirst,” and Behman replies, “You’re buying, my friend!”
The movie consists of little more than its elaborate production design. (The director, Dominic Sena, is a music-video veteran, and previously directed Cage in the lamentable Gone in 60 Seconds.) Cage is a pro, and he gives an actual performance, unfortunately to no avail. His character may be on a mission, but the picture—being released in the traditional January graveyard for doomed movies—is on its way to a funeral.
Kurt Loder is a writer, among other things, embedded in New York.