Season of the Witch Technical Review (UK - BD RB)
Chris takes a look at the Blu-ray release of the recent Nicolas Cage fantasy horror
After years of bloody warfare fought in God’s name, Crusader Behman (Nicolas Cage) and his friend Felson (Ron Perlman) are disillusioned with the Church and decide to abscond. They return home to find their homeland in the grip of a terrible plague and after being arrested for desertion are given a choice: deliver a young girl accused of witchcraft to a distant monastery, or face execution. Behman believes the Church is using the girl as a scapegoat to appease the local population, so he agrees to make the arduous journey across the land through wolf-infested forest and cavernous gorges along with Felson, a priest, an altar boy, a knight and a thief. As one by one his companions succumb to a series of unfortunate events Behman’s faith is shaken and he begins to doubt the girl’s innocence.
Season of the Witch was the very first film I saw at the cinema his year, way back on the 7th of January. To be honest I wasn't expecting much from the trailers and I wasn't disappointed. It's a formulaic fantasy action movie with horrific elements thrown into the mix, with a Nic Cage performance commensurate with the quality of the script. (We're talking Ghost Rider not Leaving Las Vegas here). It’s also incredibly anachronistic, with the character’s switching from formal, ‘olde worlde’ language to contemporary slang and back again at the drop of a hat. While the cinematography showcases the landscapes well a lot of the digital sets look less than realistic and the CGI is generally of a poorer standard than most event movies. Even so the film cracks along at a reasonable pace and Ron Pearlman is always an enjoyable screen presence, even when he’s appearing in B movies like this. I also thought Claire Foy did a pretty good job in her role as the girl who may or may not be an evil witch and it was nice to see Christopher Lee pop up in a short cameo.
Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. What is going on at Momentum? As you might be aware a couple of their recent releases ( Red Hill and The King's Speech) were released as 1080/50i BDs, whereas the US equivalents were 1080/24p. They also released The Promise the same way a few years back. Season of the Witch is the latest film-sourced material to be given this treatment and I'm scratching my head as to why any company would consistently choose to take progressive, twenty-four frames per second film content and deliver it as twenty-five frames per second interlaced content. People will argue that the reassembled image is, for all intents and purposes, identical to a progressively encoded disc, but that's not the point. Not only does transferring a film in this manner shorten the runtime it can also introduce video and audio artefacts (more of this in the next section). If they are not careful Momentum are going to do serious damage to their reputation among enthusiasts (I already know a number of people who refuse to buy their 1080i releases).
Anyway, with that unpleasantness out of the way I can get on to talking about the quality of the image itself. Running time and audio issues aside this is actually a fairly decent looking 1.85:1 widescreen (1080/50i VC-1) transfer. Detail is actually quite reasonable, especially in the close-ups, while the colour palette reproduces the varied hues well. For much of the running time the image looks cold, almost drained of colour, presumably to represent the pestilence inflicted by the witch, but there are moments when we’re treated to sun-baked deserts and warm, almost fiery skies. Contrast runs quite hot in the desert scenes, which makes sense, but is more natural elsewhere. Blacks are generally solid, although there are a few scenes where they are more akin to grey, but this is possibly an artistic decision. Frame rate aside it’s also a pleasantly filmic presentation, with a fine layer of unobtrusive grain visible at all times. There are a few tiny film artefacts to been seen and I did spot a couple of pans that had a lot of judder, resulting in an odd stuttering effect over and beyond that which I’d expect from film content. Some of the caps below also exhibit signs of interlacing artefacts that could be visible on larger displays, but they weren't readily apparent in motion on my average-sized screen. You might also have noticed that some of the caps show less than subtle colour gradation in some circumstances.
While I’d like to make it clear that I’m not stating definitively that encoding at 1080i has diminished the image quality, some of the issues I saw could be attributed to it. As long as all the elements come from a progressive source and are encoded/deinterlaced correctly I doubt anyone could spot the difference between a 1080i and 1080p transfer, but there's always the chance of failure at some point in the chain. However, my main issue with the interlaced encoding is discussed below.
This is where the 1080/50i timing really annoys me. I had thought the advent of Blu-ray and proper twenty-four frames per second reproduction would mean an end to incorrectly timed and pitched audio, but as long as discs like this exist I will remain disappointed. Although many people aren't sensitive to pitch increases I can usually detect them, especially if I'm familiar with a piece of music or an actor's voice. With Season of the Witch it's readily apparent from the opening scene that something is awry, as the priest's voice is noticeably 'chipmunked'. Things only get worse once the easily identifiable voices of Nic Cage and Ron Pearlman arrive on the scene, while effects and music are similarly afflicted (although to a lesser degree).
It’s a real pity, because the speed-up is the only negative thing I really have to say about the DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track. It’s very immersive right from the opening battle montage, in which swords clash and the screams of dying soldiers can be heard all around the soundstage. This effective use of all five channels continues throughout with all manner of ambient effects, from the sound of horses hooves and rainfall to the foreboding whispers of the cursed forest. Discrete effects aren’t as abundant as I’d have liked, but when they are used it’s to good effect. Bass is also quite punchy at times, although it’s not the sort of guttural LFE that will shake the room. Dialogue is nice and clear, although as previously mentioned some of the actors could sound a little odd if you’re sensitive to pitch shifts, while music is effectively used to set the tone throughout. All things considered this isn’t actually a ‘bad’ soundtrack and most people probably won’t have a major issue with the speed-up, but audiophiles and people with perfect pitch will have cause to complain. The real shame is that Momentum could have completely avoided the issue had they simply delivered a 1080/24p transfer.
Unfortunately the disc doesn't include a lot of additional content. There's a short (nine minute) making of featurette that follows the same promotional path as most similar features, which is to say short on-set interviews with the principal cast and crew. The only other extra is a trailer. That's it; nothing more to see here.
Season of the Witch is another stop on the downward spiral that is Nicolas Cage’s career, but as schlocky as the film is it’s still a sporadically entertaining popcorn flick that should pass a couple of hours of an evening. While not top-tier stuff the Blu-ray looks pretty good for the most part and the audio is of a similar quality. Of course the speed and pitch increase could have been avoided but it’s unlikely that Joe Public will notice such things. I’m not excusing it for one minute; it’s just the way it is. Perhaps worse than the technical issues are the extras, which are pretty woeful in both number and value. On account of this it's difficult to recommend the disc as a blind-buy, but if you're a technically undemanding fan of the feature you should at least be happy with the A/V. As for everyone else, might I first suggest a rental?
* Note: The images below are taken from the Blu-ray release and resized for the page. Full-resolution captures are available by clicking individual images, but due to .jpg compression they are not necessarily representative of the quality of the transfer.
Review by Chris Gould
Suitable only for persons of 15 years and over
Release Date: 27th June 2011
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English
Extras: Making of, Trailer
Easter Egg: No
Director: Dominic Sena
Cast: Nicolas Cage, Ron Perlman, Robert Sheehan, Stephen Campbell Moore, Ulrich Thomsen, Stephen Graham, Claire Foy, Christopher Lee
Genre: Fantasy and Horror
Length: 91 minutes
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