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Season of the Witch
January 11, 2011

Review by Ed Sizemore — Warning, Contains Spoilers

Behman (Nicholas Cage) is a disillusioned knight who quit the Crusades when he was asked to kill women and children in the name of God. Accompanied by his friend, Felson (Ron Perlman), they are labeled as deserters by the Church and become wanted men.

Season of the Witch

They return to discover Europe in the midst of a plague. They are captured while trying to buy supplies and scheduled for execution. The Cardinal believes the plague to be the curse of a witch and furthermore, that he has captured that witch. If Behman will deliver the woman to a nearby monastery for examination, he will be given a full pardon. Behman agrees under the condition the woman is guaranteed a fair, impartial trial.

Season of the Witch is supposed to be a supernatural/psychological thriller. We and Behman are meant to ponder whether the suspected woman really is a witch. However, there are two significant mistakes that undercut all the suspense.

The Problems

First, too much time is spend on the first act of the film. A good twenty minutes is spent showing us Behman as a knight during the Crusades. While I enjoy a good sword fight, these scenes don’t serve any purpose in relation to the rest of the film. We simply have to establish Behman as a devout man who has had a falling-out with the Church over its interpretation of God’s will. All of this material could have been adequately covered in a five-minute flashback.

The second mistake is more fundamental. The movie opens with a scene of three women condemned and executed for murder. When the priest is pronouncing last rites over the bodies, one of the women rises from the dead and assumes a demonic form before killing the priest. At the very onset of the film, we know this is a world where witches do exist. And since one just escaped, it’s likely that we will see her again. So later, when we are wondering if the woman with Behman is a witch, we have this scene to sway us into thinking she most likely is.

A good thriller requires a subtle touch. You have to drop hints that suggest the woman is a witch and let the audience sit pondering that idea. Then counter with clues that she is the victim of superstition, and let the audience ponder that explanation. It takes time and well-thought-out writing. You have to carefully craft two arguments that appear equally compelling. Just as importantly, you can’t favor one explanation over the other until the big reveal. Season of the Witch falls apart when trying to do this.

How It Should Have Been Done

Let me suggest my version of the same film. First, an American audience is already prejudiced to disbelieve both the reality of the supernatural and the authoritative pronouncement of religious authorities. When a priest starts accusing a women of being a witch, the natural response of the audience is to believe the woman is a victim of superstition and prejudice. They are likely to see the Church as run by corrupt men using a witch hunt to cover their sins and ignorance. The filmmakers should appeal to those sentiments and even appear to side with the audience.

So you start the movie with Behman having been arrested for desertion from the Crusades. In prison, he meets our suspected witch, and they briefly exchange backstories. Behman explaining he quit the Crusades because he refused to murder women and children, coupled with the lack of the witch execution scene, will feed into the audience’s prejudice against the Church. You don’t have to work as hard developing the case for the woman’s innocence. Instead, you can focus your efforts on crafting scenes of events that can’t be fully explained. Scenes that begin to chip away at the audience’s sense of surety.

What the filmmakers should have gone for in this film is an old-fashioned, one-two punch. At the moment of the big reveal, the audience should first be shocked to find out that the woman is actually a witch. This leads into the second half of the combo, that the Church was right. This would be a bigger and worse blow to a modern American audience. I would love to see a film with the boldness to do that.

Now, I haven’t spoiled all the secrets of Season of the Witch. I’ll leave the final reveal for people to discover by watching the film. My version of the film dovetails nicely into this revelation and gives it even more impact.

I will commend Stephen Campbell Moore for his performance as the priest that accompanies Behman. He plays a serious man, devoted to the Church. He comes across as an unlikable zealot in contrast to the earthy piety of Behman. Yet in the final scenes, he does a great job of showing us how the characteristics we disliked are now what make him heroic.

Season of the Witch has the skeleton of a good movie, but it fleshes it out wrong. Instead of a well-proportioned Greek figure, you get a bobble-head. Even with its flaws, the film is entertaining and certainly worth the price of a matinee ticket. Fans of stories with supernatural elements should give it a try.

Similar Posts: Being Human Season 2 § Archie Plans New Sabrina the Teenage Witch Animated Series § Sabrina the Teenage Witch Considered for Movie § Sabrina the Teenage Witch #76 § The New Adventures of Wonder Woman Season 1

12 Responses  
Hisui writes:  

How much is the Cage being the Cage on a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is the Cage on Valium and 10 is full on freak out?

Other than that it made me interesting in going to see the movie just to see where they went right and where they went wrong.

 
Ed Sizemore writes:  

On that scale I’m going to say 5, maybe 6. He’s pretty subdued in this. You actually won’t mind sitting down and having a chat with him.

 
TWWK writes:  

Terrific review, Ed! I really liked your section about how you would have adjusted the film. I think you’re absolutely right about using the audience’s preconceptions about church authorities and the supernatural against them – that would help make for an exciting film.

I really enjoy reading your reviews. They’re always well-organized and well-thought-out. I’m reading a book related to Japan and Christianity and am planning to review it on my blog sometime in the future, and I’ll be sure to look at your reviews to help me develop some outline for mine. I’m no reviewer. :P

Oh, and just a note – I read Roger Ebert’s review of the same film today or yesterday. He also mentioned that the early scenes went on too long.

 
Grant writes:  

hasn’t this movie had numerous release dates and false starts? I can remember seeing a trailer for this almost two years ago.

 
Ed Sizemore writes:  

Grant,

Wikipedia says it was scheduled for a March 2010 release. It got moved to January 2011 because Relativity Media decided to release the film directly instead of through Lionsgate.

 
Hsifeng writes:  

Ed Sizemore Says:

“…Let me suggest my version of the same film. First, an American audience is already prejudiced to disbelieve both the reality of the supernatural and the authoritative pronouncement of religious authorities. When a priest starts accusing a women of being a witch, the natural response of the audience is to believe the woman is a victim of superstition and prejudice…”

In the context of witchcraft trials, that’s not prejudice – it’s postjudice.

Ed Sizemore Says:

“…At the moment of the big reveal, the audience should first be shocked to find out that the woman is actually a witch. This leads into the second half of the combo, that the Church was right. This would be a bigger and worse blow to a modern American audience. I would love to see a film with the boldness to do that…”

Just curious, would you love to see a film with the “boldness” to challenge modern American “prejudices” against 12th century English community traditions by having it turn out that the Jew is actually baking Christian children’s blood into matzoh for Passover and that the pogrom leaders were right?

 
Ed Sizemore writes:  

Hsifeng,

Actually, the history of witch hunts in England is complicated and has more to do with changing social and economic realities than with religion. I’ll just say, Englamd has never been as blood thirsty as the rest of Europe.

The boldness comes from a work of fiction what would suggest religious leaders aren’t the power hungry men we often portray them to be, but may be men with true insight into realities that we would like to pretend don’t exist. This isn’t denying the reality that there are some men who use their religious authority for personal gain. It’s a suggestion that these are the exception not the rule. You’re reaction is exactly what I expect from most American movie goers. My version of the film would have it’s desired effect on you.

I think it’s also bold to offer up a work of fiction where the plagues were a result of supernatural intervention and where women were cutting deals with the Devil. It touches on a lot of sensitive subjects and has the potential from some good debate. Yes, there will be hurt feelings and senseless screaming too. However, one aspect of art is to touch on topics like this to help us examine our beliefs and why we hold them.

 
Hsifeng writes:  

On second thought I wouldn’t be surprised if some segments of modern American audiences would be thrilled, instead of shocked and challenged, in the first place by a “what if the ones accusing people of witchcraft and killing them for it are the good guys?” story. IRL some segments of modern American audiences are already thrilled, instead of shocked and challenged, by “what if the gangsters are the good guys?”, “what if the assassins are the good guys?”, “what if the vampires are the good guys?”, etc. stories.

Ed Sizemore Says:

“…Actually, the history of witch hunts in England is complicated and has more to do with changing social and economic realities than with religion. I’ll just say, Englamd has never been as blood thirsty as the rest of Europe…”

Yes, that’s true. Meanwhile, the question actually isn’t about the history of witch hunts in England, and I’ll add some emphasis this time to clarify the relevance:

“…Just curious, would you love to see a film with the ‘boldness’ to challenge modern American ‘prejudices’ against 12th century English community traditions by having it turn out that the Jew is actually baking Christian children’s blood into matzoh for Passover and that the pogrom leaders were right?”

After all, when a 12th century English character starts accusing a Jewish character of baking Christian child characters’ blood into matzoh for Passover, the natural response of the audience is to believe the Jew is a victim of superstition and prejudice. It’s just like how “[w]hen a priest starts accusing a women of being a witch, the natural response of the audience is to believe the woman is a victim of superstition and prejudice”…

Ed Sizemore Says:

“…The boldness comes from a work of fiction what would suggest religious leaders aren’t the power hungry men we often portray them to be, but may be men with true insight into realities that we would like to pretend don’t exist. This isn’t denying the reality that there are some men who use their religious authority for personal gain. It’s a suggestion that these are the exception not the rule…”

You specified in this blog post:

Ed Sizemore Says:

“…What the filmmakers should have gone for in this film is an old-fashioned, one-two punch. At the moment of the big reveal, the audience should first be shocked to find out that the woman is actually a witch. This leads into the second half of the combo, that the Church was right. This would be a bigger and worse blow to a modern American audience. I would love to see a film with the boldness to do that…”

I agree with you that it wouldn’t deny the reality that there are some men [and some women] who use their religious authority for personal gain.

At the same time, it would not suggest “that these are the exception not the rule.” Instead of holding up any of the the charitable, educational, loving, etc. behavior done IRL by good religious leaders as an example…it would specifically hold up behavior done IRL by “some men [and some women] who use their religious authority for personal gain” (accusing people of witchcraft and killing them for it) as the example of the characters doing the behavior supposedly not being “the power hungry men we often portray them to be.”

Think about it: would you really expect anyone to buy both “In general As actually aren’t bad because the ones who do X are the exception” and “Here’s an A doing X and A is right for it” at the same time (no matter what A and X are)?

Ed Sizemore Says:

“…I think it’s also bold to offer up a work of fiction where the plagues were a result of supernatural intervention and where women were cutting deals with the Devil. It touches on a lot of sensitive subjects and has the potential from some good debate. Yes, there will be hurt feelings and senseless screaming too. However, one aspect of art is to touch on topics like this to help us examine our beliefs and why we hold them.”

Hey, I just remembered some works of art that already did that (although they’re comics instead of DVDs and they’re not specifically about plagues, women, and devils). How much did these “bold” works of art help you examine those of your beliefs that disagree with some community leaders out there?

p.s. To anyone else reading the post and comments on this page, who doesn’t claim to love that kind of what-if-the-brutal-stereotypes-are-right “boldness” and may even have a bad taste left in your mouth now, I recommend the book Where God Was Born : A Journey by Land to the Roots of Religion by Bruce S. Feiler and the movie musical Bran Nue Dae (including two priest characters who do some good stuff including atonement and reconciliation) to cleanse and refresh your palate.

 
Johanna writes:  

I think you and Ed are talking past each other at this point. Ed isn’t asking for historical revisionism, as I see it — he’s saying that he would like to see a story that showed Christians as right and evil to have a real presence. (One that validated his beliefs, in other words, not one that rewrote history, since in his version, the persecuted would really be witches, and the Satanic kind.) Since, from your links, you seem to be tending anti-established religion (as seen by your comparison of Christian religious leaders to vampires and gangsters), I’m not sure how much agreement you’re going to be able to come to, since you seem to be close to attacking his faith as wrong.

 
Ed Sizemore writes:  

Johanna,

As always, you’ve seen to the heart of the matter. Thanks for putting our discussion in the proper perspective. I think it’s best to close the discussion on that note.

 
Hsifeng writes:  

Johanna Says:

“…Ed isn’t asking for historical revisionism, as I see it — he’s saying that he would like to see a story that showed Christians as right and evil to have a real presence…”

He got more specific than that – he’s saying that he would like to see a story that showed Christians who accused people of witchcraft and killed them for it as right:

Ed Sizemore Says:

“…What the filmmakers should have gone for in this film is an old-fashioned, one-two punch. At the moment of the big reveal, the audience should first be shocked to find out that the woman is actually a witch. This leads into the second half of the combo, that the Church was right. This would be a bigger and worse blow to a modern American audience. I would love to see a film with the boldness to do that…”

There’s nothing in that (or in the rest of the original post it comes from) about loving to see a film showing it was right to do other stuff that many Christian clergy, monks, nuns, and lay leaders do IRL like feed the hungry, shelter the homeless, heal the sick, teach the illiterate, etc. It’s about loving to see a film showing it was right to accuse a character of witchcraft and kill her for it.

Johanna Says:

“…Since, from your links, you seem to be tending anti-established religion (as seen by your comparison of Christian religious leaders to vampires and gangsters)…”

No, I specifically compared people who accuse other people of witchcraft and kill them for it to vampires and gangsters:

Hsifeng Says:

“On second thought I wouldn’t be surprised if some segments of modern American audiences would be thrilled, instead of shocked and challenged, in the first place by a “what if the ones accusing people of witchcraft and killing them for it are the good guys?” story. IRL some segments of modern American audiences are already thrilled, instead of shocked and challenged, by ‘what if the gangsters are the good guys?’, ‘what if the assassins are the good guys?’, ‘what if the vampires are the good guys?’, etc. stories…”

Obviously the vast majority of Christian religious leaders did not and do not accuse people of witchcraft and kill them for it, and that some of the people who did and do accuse people of witchcraft and kill them for it are neither religious leaders nor Christians.

Meanwhile, you might like some of my other links:

Hsifeng Says:

“the charitable, educational, loving, etc. behavior done IRL by good religious leaders…”

:)

Johanna Says:

“…Since you seem to be close to attacking his faith as wrong…”

If his faith is that the people who accuse people of witchcraft and kill them for it are correct, then I’m attacking his faith as wrong, otherwise I’m not.

 
Johanna writes:  

No, he’s saying that he wants to see a movie where the witches were real, so people who identified them as such were right. You’re focusing on the accusation; Ed is focusing on a portrayal of the conflict between good and evil. Think of his proposal as a kind of alternate-universe-history story. That clarified, I think that’s enough on this subject — bowing to Ed’s wishes, I’m closing the comments.

 

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