Season of the Witch [Blu-ray]
Blu-ray A - America - Twentieth Century Fox Home Entertainment
Review written by and copyright: Anthony Arrigo (30th August 2011).
The Film

Oh, how the mighty have fallen. Remember when Nicolas Cage could command $20 million per picture, open a film to respectable numbers and lived large on the A-list? Well, pop “Season of the Witch” (2011) into your Blu-ray player to gain a clear understanding that those days are long gone. That isn’t to say every casting decision he’s made in the last few years hasn’t been good – he’s starred in a number of solid releases, like “Kick-Ass” (2010) and “Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call New Orleans” (2009) – but the old Nic Cage more than likely would’ve passed on this role, which is more befitting Casper Van Dien, or some other SyFy Channel standby. He’s clearly still capable of doing good work, but the fact of the matter is that the guy has debt. A lot of it. I don’t even follow tabloid reports, but I’m aware of the fact that Cage has blown a substantial portion of his money on big boy toys that he now realizes weren’t the greatest investment. So, since he’s still got a big name the clearest path to regaining his fortune is to be whored out to any production that can afford to hire him. Sometimes the resulting effort produces a Good Nic Cage movie, other times we’re stuck with Bad Nic Cage. Here, we get something of an amalgamation of the two. The end result, however, is something terrible & awesome, and if you’re able to view it with your tongue planted firmly in cheek, there’s some fun to be had.

Behmen (Nicolas Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) are two knights sworn to fight for God during the crusades, but after a particularly nasty battle, one in which mostly women & children were slaughtered, the two decide they’ve had enough of killing for the church, so they desert the army in search of new adventures. On their way, they come across a town which has fallen victim to a nasty plague. When one of the locals notices they’re deserters, the men are given the option of a “deserter’s punishment” (read: slow, painful death) or they can escort a suspected witch (Claire Foy), who they say is responsible for the plague, to a monastery, where she will be tried for her crimes. The men reluctantly agree, and they set off with a priest, Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore), a criminal with knowledge of the area, Hagamar (Stephen Graham), and a strong-willed youth with impressive sword skills, Kay (Robert Sheehan). At first the men aren’t convinced the girl is a witch, but soon they realize that she might be something worse altogether, making their already-perilous journey an impossible task full of death and torment.

I had been told this movie was bad before I saw it, but that it falls into the “so bad it’s awesome” category. I’d have to agree. A big part of that is due to the performances of Cage and Perlman. These aren’t the greatest roles either of these men has played, but it seems obvious to me that they’re both in on the joke. This isn’t exactly Shakespeare, and I’m willing to bet they both decided early on to have fun, wear silly costumes and chew scenery like a pack of Bubble Yum. Just check out the helmet Cage’s character wears into battle – it looks like a medieval version of Magneto’s famous dome-topper, only this one doesn’t fit on Cage’s head quite right… and it looks hilarious. Perlman has that “don’t give a f*ck” attitude throughout, but he doesn’t take the low road and phone it in like many actors would’ve done. Instead, he plays the role with a quiet yet cocky demeanor. Actually, now that I think about it, that’s kind of what Perlman does in every movie, but he’s all kinds of awesome and the guy’s got a solid screen presence, so I’m generally ok with seeing him pop up in just about anything. Cage plays his role fairly middle-of-the-road, without injecting much of that trademark flair he’s known for. You know, the signature yells and over-emphatic delivery he loves so much. Those are mostly gone here. He doesn’t sleepwalk through the role, but his natural charisma seems to be extinguished, or at least suppressed.

One aspect of the story I enjoyed was the ambiguous nature of the film’s titular witch. When we first meet her, she’s a seemingly innocent girl chained up in a dungeon, awaiting a (likely unfair) trial by the church. Behmen and Felson both feel something for her, so they agree to lead the mission purely in hopes of saving her life. She displays unexpected strength, attacking her captors with ferocious anger, but the men chalk it up to her fear & anger toward those responsible for branding her a witch. As the story progresses, however, they start to realize that she might not be a witch, but rather a demon who has taken a human host, intent on spreading pestilence across the land. It turns out the demon needs to gain control of a book, one which remained hidden within the monastery where witches stand trial. Hence, the entire journey was one big ruse, with the demon using the guise of a girl possessed by witchcraft to have the church lead it directly to the book. This puts Behmen and Felson in the position of now having to fight the girl they swore to protect earlier on. You know something is up with the girl since there’s no way they’d build a film around a character that isn’t a witch, but I was surprised by the demon angle. It worked.

The demon’s design is appropriately, um... demonic and evil, but I wish they’d made room in the budget to have prosthetic FX work done in lieu of the mid-grade CGI they chose to employ. This is where so many low-budget moves miss the mark. Had they done something more practical with the creature, it would’ve immediately elevated this film. Many bad films are remembered today purely because someone in the make-up dept. had enough talent to pull together a memorable beast. Things like that can make or break a film, and if this one had used something that looked more tangible, I think horror fans might’ve responded differently. As it stands, I’ve certainly seen worse CGI. I wish they given a couple million less to Cage and put it toward trying to improve their picture.

Dominic Sena directed this? Granted, I don’t expect a whole lot from the guy, but he did start off his theatrical career helming one of Brad Pitt’s best films, “Kalifornia” (1993). Of course, in the ensuing years he’s mostly produced a lot of crap, including the abysmally bad “Whiteout” (2009). I think he well in giving this film some decent atmosphere, even if I think it relies too heavily on green screen a lot of the time. But his direction is competent and I think he kept the film tight and brisk; there’s very little in the way of lag time. I still think he’s crazy for cutting down Christopher Lee’s role. The guy is in his 90's! We should be enjoying, appreciating and worshipping every second of footage we get from him. Regardless, I don’t think he set out to make a bad movie – few directors intentionally do – but his apparent respect for the material keeps it grounded enough to be com e avoid being a far worse picture.

Video

Be aware that the film’s 1.78:1 1080p 24/fps AVC MPEG-4 encoded image is highly stylized and post-processed at times, giving it an unnatural appearance. This is not to say it’s bad, but don’t expect a typical, unfiltered image. The opening scene is so heavily shaded in sepia that I thought my TV had blown a gasket for a second. Then the scene turned to a crimson blue night, and I knew the filmmakers were intent on giving this low-budget production a unique aesthetic. I have to admit, it looks fantastic. The level of detail is right up there with some of the best titles I’ve seen. You can not only count each individual link in Behmen’s chain mail suit, but you can make out small amounts of rust and wear. Everything is crisp and highly defined, giving the image a wonderful representation. The shooting at times almost has a digital appearance, but it was shot on 35mm. Grain is minimal, but present. Night time scenes are dark and shadowy, but never oppressive to the images within. There isn’t much to complain about here; it’s a damn fine looking film.

Audio

I felt the English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround sound track mixed at 48kHz/24-bit was slightly underwhelming. I never felt like it had the “oomph” required to match the stellar video quality. There was some decent use made of the rear speakers – moments during battle, clanging swords, wolves in the forest – but they mainly lay dormant throughout the picture. The LFE track has some presence but it really didn’t have much punch. Dialogue was at times a tad low, but overall the balance was even. I expected something more aggressive, to be honest, so it surprised me that this wasn’t such a dynamic track. I think that there are many moments where it is used to great effect, but overall I felt it could have been a little beefier.
There is also a French Dolby Digital 5.1 surround sound track included. Subtitles are available in English, French and Spanish.

Extras

The film underperformed at the box office, but that didn’t stop Fox from including a decent amount of supplemental material. There are deleted scenes, a few featurettes, an alternate ending, a theatrical trailer and a digital copy of the film on a second disc.

DISC ONE: BLU-RAY

There are a handful of deleted scenes (1080p) included for the following:

- “Shore” runs for 1 minute and 1 second, a quick narration plays over footage of Behmen and Felson arriving after their desert the army.
- “Cardinal” runs for 1 minute and 30 seconds, more footage with the inimitable Christopher Lee. How dare they cut anything he appears in!
- “Leaving Marburg” runs for 1 minute and 7 seconds, Behmen is upset to learn that Debelzaq is accompanying them.
- “Wormwood Forest” runs for 47 seconds, the men discuss the dangers of getting trapped inside the forest.
- “Holy Water” runs for 1 minute and 36 seconds, Debelzaq blesses new water for their fight with the demon.
- “Courtyard” runs for 1 minute and 7 seconds, the men walk around the village looking for the demon.
- “Prologue Unrated” runs for 2 minutes and 16 seconds, not sure why what little extra they show here was cut. It’s not very “unrated” and it amounts to seconds of footage.

“Becoming the Demon” (1080p) is a featurette that runs for 8 minutes and 28 seconds. The film’s visual effects crew talks about their creation of the demon, what they were going for in terms of style & design, and finally how it was all rendered for the film.

“On A Crusade” (1080p) is a featurette that runs for 6 minutes and 7 seconds. The filmmakers talk about their decision to use the backdrop of the Crusades for the film, and then discuss how they recreated the battles on screen.

An alternate ending (1080p) runs for 9 minutes and 20 seconds. Personally, I prefer this one to what they used. Instead of an army of CGI zombie monks and a video game quality demon, we get – brace yourselves – people in prosthetic makeup! I’m sure the producers thought this one wasn’t action-packed enough, but I think it’s much more effective.

The film’s theatrical trailer (1080p) runs for 2 minutes and 26 seconds.

DISC TWO: DVD

This is a digital copy of the film compatible with Apple, Android and Windows devices.

Packaging

The 2-disc set comes housed in a Blu-ray eco case with a slip-cover available as of this writing.

Overall

I was told to expect very little from this film, and while I wouldn’t say it rose above those expectations in terms of quality, it exceeded them in enjoyment. It’s a fun film with a cool premise and some decent FX work that all manages to somehow work. It helps if you’re generally a big fan of fantasy/witchcraft films already. The disc features a striking image with a solid audio track, a fine selection of extras and, c’mon, it’s got Christopher Lee in it! At the very least, worth a rental.

The Film: C+ Video: A- Audio: B+ Extras: C+ Overall: B-

 


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