Dead birds falling from the sky. Fish carcasses washing up on shore. Snow in Los Angeles. So far, it’s as if 2011 has been a crappy apocalyptic prequel to 2012. That the year’s first film would center around 14th-century plague death seems like a timely macabre. Ah, but such painful pestilence as Season of the Witch is nearly annual par for star Nicolas Cage’s course — at least until he settles up with life’s other certainty — taxes.
The beef isn’t that Cage would make a lowly picture such as Witch, filmed in 2008 and dumped three years later. After all, this is the guy who ate a cockroach 23 years ago. It’s that Cage doesn’t indulge his buggiest, battiest tendencies in a Hungarian-set supernatural romp where even the creeping evil and despair feel packed away in mothballs. (His other 2011 B-movie, Drive Angry, can’t possibly be worse.)
Prosthetic plague pustules erupt more than Cage’s Behmen, who even raps a doorknocker halfheartedly as if he feared a YouTube-compilation trifecta (after The Wicker Man and Knowing) and pulled back too far. A summer-stock Shatner moment (“Can … you perform the ritual?”) is as loopy as Cage gets, and he seems to be mentally sorting through Eastern European tavern options while uttering sentences. Witch is a mess, but Cage has devoted far more to worse films — so disinterested that you have to wonder if he felt more fulfillment voicing a CGI mole in G-Force. The film has nothing to do with Donovan’s song or the third Halloween film. However, masks that kill people would’ve been something to cut an oppressively serious tone held until a bargain-basement Van Helsing finish, during which Ron Perlman’s Felson head-butts a demon and undead ninja monks scurry about.
Although Behmen and Felson sound like a Broadway music-and-lyrics team, they’re BFF crusaders who’ve tired of pillaging and plundering in the name of perverted holy directives and desert their army.
A note on Cage’s hair, as there always must be when it’s longer than normal. Opening as Witch does in a sun-drenched desert, Cage resembles the world’s saddest front man for a Nickelback cover band.
And there’s early proof that black magic is afoot when he boasts highlights centuries before the invention of Clairol.
The nomads subsist for a time, but are eventually arrested in a plague-stricken village. Soon after, they’re conscripted into a perilous six-day voyage to a faraway castle — where they are to lead an incantation that will banish an accused witch (Claire Foy), suspected of inflicting the Black Death wherever she goes.
They’re given that order by a Cardinal in Witch’s best scene — dominated by a one-and-done appearance from Christopher Lee, who’s nearly unrecognizable with bulbous, bubonic bloat all over his face. Something like a squash has set in where his right eye once resided, and his lip is crustily curled up in a gnarly, grotesque sneer.
Together with swordsmen young and old, a stoic monk and a con man who’s made the journey before, Behmen and Felson depart, and Witch quickly devolves into a series of boring, workmanlike and lunkheaded setpieces of “suspense” and “action.”
You’ve seen more convincing turns from guys convening at Ye Olde Pancake House after a LARP scrimmage and better effects in a cut scene from a 10-year-old video game. In a horseback-riding close-up scene, Cage and Perlman look as if they’re walking on treadmills in front of a green screen and a lightly jostled camera.
Whenever Bragi F. Schut’s screenplay doesn’t feel spat out from an online translation program, it suggests — with casual misogyny — that burning more women may have prevented the Black Death in the first place. Such moronic plague quickly withers any intelligent debate over witch-hunting’s persecutorial aspects.If, for any lamentable reason, you watch Witch stick around through the end credits — a typographical onslaught of umlauts and accent marks as thick as the film’s foggy forests. Also, the film’s cashier is tellingly credited right after the cast, and yes, there’s even a misspelled word. Music is not generally “preformed,” but then again, neither was any sort of intelligent idea for Witch before the film was committed to celluloid.