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.
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.
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.