Season of the Witch (US - BD RA)
Gabe shuffles through a pretty and hollow Nic Cage action/horror hybrid...
Not to be confused with George A. Romero’s tale of housewives gone mad, or the ill-fated (eventually rediscovered) third film in the Halloween series, Season of the Witch follows two Templar Knights, Behman (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman), who desert the Crusade after finding themselves disaffected by the innocent bloodshed. The duo is discovered while moving through medieval Europe, and taken to Cardinal D'Ambroise (Christopher Lee) as prisoners. D’Ambroisie, who is dying of the bubonic plague, orders Behman and Felson to escort a ‘witch’ suspected of cursing his land with the plague to a special monastery capable of determining her alleged evil. In no position to refuse, the deserters agree, gather a team, and take to the dangerous road ahead.
Nicolas Cage has become a brand name…and not the brand name he’d want. He makes movies so bad lately it’s hard to remember he also makes good, or at least okay movies with just as consistent a frequency (I count three genuinely good films since 2000). The question we tend to ask ourselves when faced with the unmistakably bad Nic Cage films (and it’s usually quite obvious which ones are going to be bad) is what kind of bad movie is he going to make – a fun bad movie, the kind you want to watch with a big group of friends while laughing, or a truly bad movie, the kind you’d rather not watch at all. Season of the Witch lies somewhere between the two, but is a definitive failure for Cage who is never the best thing about the middling feature. In fact, I’d argue the film is better every time he’s off screen. The lesser-known British cast classes up the joint a bit, and Ron Perlman continues his reign as the best reason to watch a bad movie, but Cage is a black hole of sleepy deliveries. It’s amusingly simple to tell which projects Cage cares about by his performances. His Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans and Kick-Ass performances might have been skewed and strange (I happened to like both), but at least they constituted effort. Assuming I’m correct in these assumptions, Cage cared exactly zero rat’s asses about Season of the Witch.
I wasn’t expecting much from the plot given the trailers, and I wasn’t disappointed. I am surprised to learn that for some reason Bragi F. Schut’s spotty script was a hot property when it was written a decade ago, and since there aren’t any other names credited as working on rewrites I have to assume the studio interest came out of a desperate need for a nap. The basic idea is kind of neat – mixing elements of the historical Crusades and Knights Templar with supernatural and realistic horrors – but the execution is vapid at best. The characters are shallow (Perlman and Cage are supposed to share some kind of back story bromance, but there’s nothing to beyond their word to indicate they met each other before the first frame of the film), and driven mostly by solitary traits. There’s nothing beyond what each actor brings to the performance to make us love or hate these people. Schut makes a play for a bit of a twist at the end, which is kind of admirable, but there are so many bizarre holes in his plotting, and vital questions left unanswered, that much of the ‘evil plan’, as it were, doesn’t make sense.
Season of the Witch seems to have been made for a large grouping of niche fandoms, and in the end will likely end up pleasing no one. Hard horror fans won’t like it because it pulls its punches, and wallows in sentiment. Historical epic fans won’t like it because it makes about as much historical sense as one of the Stephen Sommers Mummy Movies (you’re likely to find more facts in Amando de Ossorio’s Blind Dead films, which feature blind, blood drinking zombies), and the battles hold about as much weight as an amateur rugby match. This is a slow, droning, lifeless plod between unspectacular set-pieces – like the time the witch gets loose and they unspectacularly recover her, or the time the party unspectacularly cross a rickety bridge, or the time they briefly fight wolves and lose unspectacularly. It all culminates in an unspectacular monster showdown. The brief behind the scenes material on this disc actually keys us in to why the film is so fractured and incomplete. The dopey first act Crusades battles, and the digital effects-infused climax were both added after principle production wrapped, and are the weakest, most narratively detached and cheap looking scenes in the film. The battles were shot almost entirely on a green screen back-lot, and look entirely bargain basement – and not in a stylistically sound way like 300 . There’s something handsome about the scenes actually directed by Dominic Sena (a once promising director that never went anywhere), at least in terms of empty visual calories, but handsome looks aren’t nearly enough to maintain a dull, predictable story.
It’s a crummy movie, but it looks good from a purely graphic standpoint, and this Blu-ray transfer is almost flawless, at least based on the intentions I’m assuming were set by the production. According to the imdb.com specs Season of the Witch was shot using ARRI Media digital cameras, making this another brand, along with RED, I can set above the more expensive, digital-blur inducing Sony and Panavision cameras (I’m not really familiar with this stuff, but to my eyes the bigger company cameras are consistently weaker). The stylized colour timing mostly swings between two extremes. The first extreme is that of high contrast photography that highlights the massive differences between black and white. These scenes, usually daylight, are tinged a sickly blue-green, and feature incredible depth of detail. You can practically count the dead leaves, gnarled branches and hairs on Perlman’s head (if you were in to counting things). The other extreme pertains mostly to night scenes and interiors. These are even darker, and are usually highlighted by harsh, neon blues and oranges. These scenes feature slightly less harsh contrasts, more grain (which usually adds some nice texture, and might have even been augmented digitally themselves), and slightly less pure blacks (which once again, kind of look purposeful). The general sharpness of the image, even when the camera and characters are swishing about, is enough to make the sub par digital effects stick out as smudgy, including both the obvious (creature animation), and the subtle (fog effects).
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround track included here is a bit disappointing. I had to turn up my receiver loudly enough that I was initially afraid I’d disconnected a wire, or picked the wrong audio option. The low volume levels lead me to assume this is an over compressed track, and the general (though slight) lack of LFE punch or rumble seems to verify my assumptions. Beyond the compression this track gets the job done in terms of your basic action/horror expectations. There are directional cues that wander throughout the channels, more subtle additions that give a sense of immersion, and some aggressive clanging swords. Dialogue is appropriately centered, and consistently clear, though the lower volume levels do play havoc with some of the quieter performances, and some of the ADR work is mixed too loud over louder action effects. It works, but it’s all pretty underwhelming, as is Atli Örvarsson’s Howard Shore-lite musical score, which continually threatens to turn memorable, but never quite makes the leap.
The mercifully brief extras begin with seven deleted scenes, and an ‘unrated’ version of the prologue (10:00, HD). The movie didn’t need to be a second longer, and none of these scenes are particularly good, but they do add a smidge of much needed character development, and point us towards the possibility of a stronger cut of the film (which could only be an improvement). Not to mention the fact that anyone that would cut a Christopher Lee cameo short is clearly a bad person (glares at Peter Jackson). ‘Becoming a Demon’ (8:30, HD) explores the process of adding creature effects to the film with producer Alex Gartner, Tippett Studios art director Nathan Fedenburg, Tippett Studios CG Supervisor Aharon Bourland The character was changed to look more like an explicit monster, rather than a girl with skin problems after original production ended. I assume this had something to do with test audiences wanting something more from the lackluster film. In reality, the original ‘creepy girl’ edit is a better scene that makes more sense, and holds a lot more weight. You can see for yourself, as the scene is included as an alternate ending (9:20, HD). ‘On a Crusade’ (6:00, HD) covers the opening act battle scenes that were added in reshoots, featuring interviews with Gartner, stunt Coordinator Andy Armstrong, and 2nd unit director (I think that’s code for ‘guy that took over when Dominic Sena was fired’) Vic Armstrong. These include storyboards and basic behind the scenes footage. Things are completed with a trailer.
Season of the Witch has a lot in common with Christopher Smith’s Black Death, and though neither film is particularly great, I’d recommend watching Smith’s more pontifical and gruesome over this faceless bore. If you’re a fan of the era, and are looking for something off the beaten path, I also happen to have just caught Paul Verhoven’s Flesh & Blood the other day, and was relatively charmed by its off-kilter look at swashbuckling and the Plague. Other Plague and Knights Templar themed horror films more worth your time include Michael Reeves Witchfinder General, Michele Soavi’s The Church, and the aforementioned Blind Dead films. If you must see Season of the Witch I can at least ensure you that your HD set is in for a good workout, though your sound system will probably be a bit jealous. Extras are brief, but revealing.
*Note: The images on this page are not representative of the Blu-ray image quality
Review by Gabriel Powers
Some material may be inappropriate for children under 13
Release Date: 28th June 2012
Disc Type: Blu-ray Disc
Audio: DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 English, Dolby Digital 5.1 French
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Extras: Deleted/Alternate Scenes, Alternate Ending, Becoming the Demon, On a Crusade, Trailer, Digital Copy
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: Action, Adventure and Horror
Length: 96 minutes
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