I’m a sucker for bad movies set in the Middle Ages that function as attacks on the Church, then and now. My favorite might be Jacques Demy’s “The Pied Piper,” which stars Donovan in the title role. Like that film, “Season of the Witch” concerns the Plague and the belief that it’s been caused by an unnatural source. There is also a minor link in their references to the Crusades. But the new movie, starring Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman as knights who go AWOL at the end of a hilarious, and surely historically inaccurate, montage of multiple Crusades battles, doesn’t mess with the greed and corruption stuff so much as the scapegoating and hypocrisy.
The problem is that the movie can’t stick with it’s anti-clerical message. Or, maybe it really does mean to play out primarily as an assumed attack on Christianity, for at least two-thirds of the running time, only to ultimately decide that, as bad as the Church is, the Devil could be worse. I think. But “Season of the Witch” does still condemn, through ludicrous means, the history of Catholic evils, particularly the ‘killing in the name of’ stuff, which as a young woman accused of witchcraft reminds us has led to more casualties than the Black Death has (though I don’t think this is actually true).
SPOILERS to follow after the jump, which should be fine for those of you with no interest in seeing the movie anyway.
There are a lot of contradictory messages strewn about in the movie. Not that anyone but me is looking for meaning in a cheesy swords-and-sorcery flick from Cage and director Dominic Sena (who worked together on “Gone in 60 Seconds”). But when a movie makes so much effort to imply that witch hunts are bad and then, for special effects allowance, affirms that the girl is indeed a witch, or something similarly supernatural, it’s hard to contemplate the intent of the screenwriter (Bragi F. Schut). While everyone else at the screening I attended was laughing at the dialogue and accents, I was once again over-thinking. Plus, I thought the movie had some balls in being so anti-religion and then concluded that maybe it still has balls for being so anti-anti-witch-hunt.
The story: Cage and Perlman’s buddy-cop characters, Behman and Felson (I’m glad I’m not the only person who thought of them as the “Bad Boys” of yore), abandon their decades-long Holy War commitment when all of a sudden they realize that ‘some’ (just a few apparently?) women and children are being slaughtered along with the millions of men. They return to a Plague-infected England and are wooed into a prisoner-transport plot, escorting the accused witch (Claire Foy) to a faraway monastery. The reason they’re going there is mostly for the sake of a road trip adventure, narrative-wise, but it’s also because this is before the invention of the printing press, let alone the Internet, and the only known copy of a sacred text resides there.
Along the way, Cage really wants to believe the girl is innocent, mainly because of his guilt in killing a woman in battle, and to give her a fair trial upon delivery. And if it weren’t for the silly magic seen in the film’s prologue, we might also want to trust our historical knowledge and believe witches weren’t real. But then the shape-shifting hell hounds show up, certainly summoned by the girl, and Cage changes heart again, wanting to kill her on the spot. Fortunately for us he doesn’t and we keep moving on to a destination filled with zombie monks and a winged demon. Now it’s an exorcism movie, one as difficult to make moral sense of as last year’s “The Last Exorcism.” And whatever or whoever is inside the girl has some interesting points about humans already doing plenty of bad things without the Devil around.
Forget that little speech, though, because in the end Cage and company defeat the creature and the Plague goes away. A title card even confirms the connection. So the Church has been validated in its witch hunts because the epidemic was indeed the Devil’s work. As was, it turns out, the Crusades. Or, maybe Satan was just there watching and laughing? It’s unclear. Either way, the final moments of “Season of the Witch” not only changes its course regarding the evils of Christians, it also surely turns out to avail a reading of the movie as allegorically supporting terrorist witch hunts and other profiling. But I won’t go that far.