By Dr. Craig D. Reid
Tis the Season to be jolly. Witch Season are you talking about? Yes that one. Nicolas Cage gets all Wicker Man again as he now takes on a new unholy woman in Season of the Witch, a woman who might be holding the fate of England, and in fact all of Europe, in her wretched hand as some fanatical priest blames the bubonic plague (aka black plague or black death) on this young lass.
Which is the real witch, the church or the lady? Rats! Only they truly know the origin of the black plague, as a handful of six men, led by Behmen (Cage) flea…I mean flee to a holy place where no man has ever returned from as they escort the accused witch culprit to what could be a puppet church court where it is not God but misinformed monks of men who are pulling the strings to determine the health of a nation. Now that’s nationalized health care gone awry.
Although during this holiday season Old St. Nic owes a ton of money to the IRS, where pundits have been lining up to deck their own halls of opinions ranting that the man who is accused of tax evasion is doing low rate films for the buck in an effort to avoid “Cage” time, this somewhat entertaining film has its moments.
However, as a former fight choreographer in the Chinese kung fu film industry and in Hollywood, and an award winning screenwriter, what draws my attention and often times to me makes or breaks a film is the movie’s combative aspects and script. Thus at the end of the day, Season of the Witch fails miserably.
For those who came in late, or not at all, Season of the Witch is a pseudo-horror, quassi- actioner that finds two highly decorated Knights of the realm who due to the hypocrisy of their “onward Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus, going on before” leader (who acts more cross and is less about Jesus) turn their backs on the Christian Church, become deserters of the Christian Crusade and end up back in England to see their homeland ravaged by the Black Plague.
Witchcraft is blamed for the fatal outbreak and according to Cardinal D’Ambroise (Christopher Lee) the cause of his domain’s pestilence is a local young witch (Claire Foy). To avoid life imprisonment, Behman and his army pal Felson (Ron Perlman) are implored by the dying D’Ambroise to undertake a perilous mission to transport the enigmatic girl to a remote abbey, where in order to save mankind, the monks will perform a ritual to purge her tortured soul.
Joining Behmen and Felson on their harrowing quest is the suspect wizened priest Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore), a headstrong grieving knight Eckhart (Ulrich Thomsen), dicey guide Hagamar (Stephen Graham) and the young unmolested church Paige Kay (Robert Sheehan) who’s life dream is to become a Knight.
The film then becomes a series of cinematic cliché’s: When and how will each of the minor characters meet their doom (it’s like the landing parties on the original Star Trek TV series; you know which ones are going to die first based on their peck order); the old rickety bridge trick where the Knights must traverse a bridge held together by rotten wood and worn ropes; travel through a creepy forest of untold evil; attacked by a pack of ominous creatures, in this case wolves that become part were- and part worn, and re-animated corpses; evil crows circling dark dank fortresses; and the “is she or is she not” who the church says she is. Plus, can anyone tell where is everybody’s English accents?
The filmmakers try re-create famous epic Crusade battles with roughly the same 40 or so stuntmen who if you watch carefully on wide angle (just wide enough to see all 40 in the same shot every time to create the illusion of a large battle) are literally tapping swords like two English kids playing King Arthur. The only way to sell these fights is by using loud sound effects, tight angles on the leads that reveal nothing knew in regard to sword choreography and hide the lack of sword fighting skills of all actors involved, and shaky cameras to make like there’s a lot of dynamic motion going on where in actuality the action is stale and static.
Regardless what critics say is the reason for Cage doing this film, what does he say? “I wanted to make a movie that was really scary, play a knight and hang out in the forest, for a few years now,” Cage confides. “That’s exactly what this movie provided me with. Supernatural and invisible forces really fascinate and interest me. To act in this film gave me a little bit more range to get abstract. That all appealed to me. Plus, the idea of playing a knight was something that I had been doing, ever since I was a child, in my backyard, so this gave me a chance to do it, as a child’s dream come true.
“But also, I really admired in the character and responded to the idea of him being the first conscientious objector,” Cage additionally affirms. “The idea of him breaking from whatever religious propaganda was forced upon him, and still finding an even closer connection with his faith and with God. Those iconoclastic elements to the character made him very interesting to me.”
The one scene that I heard moans of “What’s that all about?” from the audience is when men in long gowns wearing bird masks surround Cardinal D’Ambroise on his deathbed. Those characters are based on real individuals known as the Beak Doctors. These plague doctors would wear flower and spice fragranted, ankle length overcoats, leggings, leather gloves and bird beak masks to protect them from airborne diseases. The mask had glass openings for the eyes and the curved beak housed a sponge that was soaked in a vinegar or camphor mixture of dried flowers (carnations, roses), herbs and spices. Back in the day, doctors believed that herbs and flowers could counter the evil odor (pus-rotting flesh) of the plague.
As a sign of their profession, Beak Doctors also wore wide brimmed leather hoods and used wooden canes to examine patients and to take their pulse. The canes were also used to keep live infected individuals at bay and to remove infected clothing from dead victims.
Originating in China, 25 million people in Europe died from the black death between 1347 and 1352. Unlike our heroes in the film that escaped the forest of evil, in terms of the bubonic plague, we are not out of the woods yet. According to the WHO (World Health Organization, there are over 3000 cases of the bubonic plague a year, 15 of those cases on average occur in the United States.
Maybe we should be using our financial resources to put a Cage around this disease instead of Nicolas.