October is Halloween movie month! Having been completely deprived of any kind of Halloween experience growing up, I now spend 31 days celebrating with film and TV. I like to shoot for a mix of old and new, horror and comedy, from the slightly spooky to the totally terrifying to the just plain weird. Each day of October I’ll reviewing one of these ventures in the realm of the creepy and supernatural. Some will be high quality cinema and some will require large amounts of alcohol to survive. Stock up on seasonal beer and Fireball-apple jello shots and join me! A warning, though – unless the review is of a very recent release, HERE BE SPOILERS.
Season of the Witch (2011) Not to be confused with Halloween III: Season of the Witch, which has been even more entertainly dissected here.
Starring: Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman
When I heard both the premise of this movie and the starring actors, I automatically assumed this movie had to be from the late 80’s or early 90’s. Nicholas Cage and Ron Perlman as witch-hunting medieval knights roaming around plague infested Europe? I’m guessing 1991. But no. Apparently I managed to block the release of this movie only a few short years ago out of my memory entirely, although as I watched it a few scenes from the trailer did begin to surface in my brain. Not unlike the traumatic flashbacks of our main character during the course of the movie. But other than the middling quality computer effects and the general haggard doughiness of our leads, this movie could easily be 25 years old. In fact, given some of the more regressive aspects of the story, I wish it was.
The plot is straightforward enough for the most part. Nicholas Cage, who appears to have gone through the discarded hair bin at the local Dollar Cuts and glued the results to his head, and Ron Perlman are knights in the Crusades, gleefully mowing down hundreds of Muslims at a time in battle after oversaturated CGI battle. This goes on in montage form over a period of what we are informed via titles is a period of about fifteen years. Finally, one battle with the “infidel” results in Cage’s character accidentally killing a woman. Apparently one woman’s death is far more disturbing to him than that of the literally thousands of men he has killed at this point, because he, his inconsistent accent, and Perlman (who appears to basically just have wandered on set, been stuffed into some armor, and told to be himself) promptly desert and set to wandering through the Slovenian countryside. At this point the lighting shifts from surface-of-the-sun orange to grimdark midwinter, and remains that way for the rest of the movie. Apparently the season of the witch is mid to late February.
In their travels they immediately discover two things. The land is beset by an almost comically grotesque version of the plague (not to mention an even more comically grotesque Christopher Lee) and also that the Church is not too thrilled about their sudden attack of conscience. They are quickly apprehended and imprisoned, but are told that the sickness over the land is the doing of a witch (we have previously seen three unnamed witches being hanged and drowned in order to establish that witches are real and any young woman thus accused is likely to be one) and that they will be pardoned if they agree to escort her to a monastery over a long and treacherous road so that the monks there can use their monk-magic to bind her power (and presumably kill her) and end the plague.
The remainder of the movie is largely a travel adventure, with various dangers serving to remove extraneous characters one at a time, all shown to be the doing of the girl/witch. Nicolas Cage mostly looks at her with sad eyes and she of course tries (with some temporary success) to convince him that she’s just an innocent waif, despite looking increasingly like that girl from The Ring. The plot never really leaves the viewer in doubt of her evil witch powers, though, and the only real surprise comes when we get to the monastery, where all the monks have died of plague, and it turns out she’s actual some kind of crazy male demon who can fly and burn people to ash (RIP, movie Perlman).
The climax is a simultaneous exorcism/fight scene in which what seems like an unnecessarily long incantation is read to destroy the demon, while he flies around and sends wave after wave of reanimated monk plague zombies at them. Ultimately, he is defeated and explodes, both our heroes die in the process, and for some reason that makes little to no sense, the girl (who I had thought actually never existed and was just a demon but I guess there was an actually possessed woman in there?) survives to reappear on the floor, naked and in a weird puddle of amniotic goo. Weird, out of place voice-over, and then The End.
Honestly, this wasn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen. The dialogue was simply awful, (although not awful enough to yield any ridiculously quotable lines) and Cage and Perlman were phoning it 95% of the time, but it looked good and except for the weird ending the plot made sense, the action scenes were well choreographed, and the pacing was fine. It was, unfortunately, not bad enough to be entertaining and not good enough to be enjoyable. It was actually fairly boring for all the hacking of infidels and demonic wolf attacks.
Really, the main problem I had with it was the treatment of women (the treatment of Muslims as literally nothing more than sword-fodder is so dismissive that it requires a separate discussion of the depictions of the Crusades in movies). I don’t want to get too uber-serious feminist about a stupid action movie, but Season of the Witch is easily one of the most misogynistic movies I’ve seen in a long time. The first woman we see exists only to be killed by Cage and trigger his guilt for the rest of the movie (we see her killed multiple times in his visions, and one of those times she turns seductive and licks her own blood off her fingers). Three women are killed for being witches and we are shown that this is definitely the right move because they turn evil and ugly fast. And the only woman with any significant screen time or lines remains nameless throughout the movie (credited as The Girl), acts as if she’s a witch, turns out to be a demon, and is eventually returned to to life, naked, so that Cage can feel absolution from his killing of the other nameless woman (because women are interchangeable) briefly before he dies.
In Season of the Witch women are at best props and at worst vermin to be exterminated. With the exception of The Girl, whose power is shown to be entirely from the demon possessing her, they aren’t terribly formidable really, easily killed with a hanging and an incantation, and dangerous only to the unwary. Many portrayals of women as evil witches are inherently offensive, but at least they are shown as powerful, sometimes even righteous in their quest for self-determination in an oppressive world. Even if they are just bad for the sake of being bad, at least they present an actual threat. In this movie women are killed, punished, and sexualized without even a perfunctory nod to character development. In one sense, they drive the plot but ultimately the plot steamrolls over them in favor of the main characters’ chronic yet uninteresting manpain.
Quality: One Holy Book of Solomon out of five, only because it was largely coherent.
Entertainment Value: One Ron Perlman in a hauberk out of ten, because he was really the only enjoyable thing in it.
Bonus Treehouse of Horror review: Treehouse of Horror I
The first installment of the Simpson’s yearly Halloween special was better than I remembered, featuring a murderous house so cowed by Marge’s nagging and the kids’ antics that it ultimately destroys itself rather than live with the Simpsons, a riff on the classic Twilight Zone episode “To Serve Man”, and Simpsonified version of Poe’s the Raven. It is jarring to go back so far to much choppier animation styles and an iteration of Homer’s voice that sounded more angry than buffoonish, but this special is Early Simpsons at its finest and employs parody perfectly without falling too far into simple mimicry as some later specials do.