Nicolas Cage is capable of making brilliant films. Last year's Bad Lieutenant: Port of Call - New Orleans was magnificent, and Kick-Ass was great, too, so it's not like he's given up on trying to make good movies. But he seems to be bizarrely determined to destroy any goodwill generated by those performances by appearing in crap like Season of the Witch. It's frustrating.
Season of the Witch lays its cards on the table early. We open on a witch trial, where three women are found guilty of witchcraft by virtue of, basically, being female, and are promptly killed. For a moment, it looks like the film might be condemning their prosecutors for their cruelty, but then - aha! - it turns out the women really were witches after all, and through the power of shitty CGI they come back to life to claim their revenge. The film immediately marks itself out as stupid, ugly, and deeply offensive, all before Cage even appears onscreen.
But it doesn't get any better when he does. Cage plays Behmen, a seasoned soldier in the Crusades who suddenly decides he doesn't want to kill any more people. He and his best mate Felson (played by Ron Perlman) become deserters, riding round half the world on their trusty horses before arriving at a creepy-looking town where everyone's dying of the plague. Because no-one understood germs back then, they hang around until a member of the clergy spots them and has them thrown into jail. They're offered only one way out: the Cardinal believes that the plague was caused by a witch, and the only way to cure it is to take the witch to a monastery miles away, where the monks have a special plague-curing witch-killing book of some kind.
It's all a very, very complicated way of setting up a quest, basically: Behmen and Felson, along with a ragtag assortment of untrustworthy locals, must accompany a young girl who may or may not be a witch through a series of Tolkien-esque obstacles to get to Mordor, where the monks will use their magic ring to cure the plague. Or something.
Already, the script is being pulled in a number of different directions. Behmen is apparently the hero, even though we know he's massacred hundreds of people, so we're supposed to invest in him and share his disapproval of the Catholic church and its methods. The Cardinal certainly doesn't appear to be a sympathetic figure, and there's something suspicious about the priest who goes along on the mission; it's implied that he's been mistreating the girl/witch, possibly sexually abusing her. The Church is wrong about the Crusades, and since we, the audience, know that the plague wasn't caused by witches, we think they're wrong about that, too, and logically should assume that the girl is innocent. Except that we've just seen that this is a film in which magic and witchcraft exist, because we just saw an old woman come back to life.
Season of the Witch can't seem to make up its mind whether it wants to be a serious movie about the ways in which religion can lead people to do awful things to each other, or whether it wants to be a swords 'n' sorcery style epic about brave men fighting monsters. That first scene kills all the film's attempts at ambiguity, and renders them merely confusing instead. Any attempts to build dramatic attention are skewered by that first scene; we know the girl's going to turn out to be a supernatural entity, otherwise the first appearance of a CGI witch doesn't make any sense.
But the film's too stupid to realise that it has already shown its hand. Its wobbly internal logic collapses completely when the travellers arrive at the monastery to find that all the monks have died of the plague. And when the priest tries to exorcise the witch using the Big Book of MacGuffin, two entirely separate endings attempt to happen at once: the girl initially starts speaking out against the cruelties of the Catholic church, and then reveals herself to be a demon. There's a possibility the film could resolve its problems by making her a demon that's come to punish the Church for its sins, in a be-careful-what-you-wish-for kind of a way, but it doesn't even do that. No, instead, it turns out that the girl has been possessed by a devil the whole time, and the trek to the monastery was so that it could kill the monks and destroy all the remaining copies of the magic book that could defeat it. The demon takes on its true form - a bat-like gargoyle thing - and starts killing everyone in the hope the audience won't notice that none of that makes any sense: why would the demon need anyone to transport it anywhere, if it had wings? Why would it need to go to the monastery to kill everyone when they were all already dead from the plague? Why bother with the whole 'witch' disguise in the first place? And why kill so many of its entourage along the way if what it wanted was for them to take it to the monastery? Either this is the stupidest demon ever committed to celluloid, or someone started rewriting this movie halfway through.
To add one final insult to injury, when the battle is finally over, the vanquished demon turns back into a girl - so apparently it was a demon possessing a girl, rather than a demon disguised as a girl - who's completely innocent and remembers none of what happened. As she and her one remaining knight ride off into the sunset, there's a voiceover in which she tells us she wants to tell the story of all the brave men who died to rescue her. Except that they didn't, they were trying to kill her, and she just said, right in that scene, that she doesn't remember anything that happened. It's like there are two, or maybe three or four, movies running simultaneously here, and all of them are terrible.
Without Nicolas Cage, this movie would never have seen the inside of a cinema. There isn't a single part of it that's well-made, and its stupidity is offensive. Hundreds of women really have been murdered throughout the ages because someone accused them of being witches. None of them were actually demons. The Crusades actually happened, and people really got killed. Making a film in which all of it comes down to a giant CGI bat is about as insensitive as you can get.