Movie Review: The Prayer Witch Project

Film: Season Of The Witch (an adventure for 4-6 characters, levels 8-10)
Starring: Nicholas Cage, Ron Perlman, Claire Foy
Written by: Bragi F. Schut
Directed by: Dominic Sena
Genre: Fantasy, Action, LARPers-Gone-Wild
Rating: 4 out of 10 / C-


During the Crusades, the knights Behmen (Nicholas Cage, Fighter 10, NG) and Felson (Ron Perlman, Barbarian 10, CG), become disillusioned by the Church-sanctioned bloodshed and desert the army. When they return to Europe, they find it consumed by the Black Plague. When they are arrested for desertion by the religious authorities, they are pressed into service as escorts to a Girl accused of witchcraft (Claire Foy, Sorcerer 8/Rogue 3, ???). The Church is convinced that she is behind the plague, and are sending her to a nearby monastery for a “trial.” Joining the knights is a young warrior trying to prove himself (Ranger 7/Cleric 1, NG), a priest unsure of his faith (Cleric 9, LN), a swordsman who lost his family to the plague (Fighter 8, LG) and a thief who knows the fastest way to the monastery (Rogue 9, CN). As the party gets closer to their destination, the supernatural events begin to surround their travels as darkness shrouds the land and blah blah blah doom doom roll for initiative-cakes.

Tired of all the Dungeons & Dragons references yet? That’s really too bad, because the film comes off as little more than watching a live-action re-enactment of your friend’s “totally cool” D&D game. You can practically see the skill checks and saving throws being rolled on screen, and there’s even an appearance by that most reliable of RPG villains: a pack of monstrous wolves. By halfway through the film, I’d figured out most of the feats Felson had taken (Cleave for certain). All that’s missing is a meeting in a tavern and someone asking where the Cheetos and Mountain Dew are.

The film comes off as a strange hybrid of The Name Of The Rose, Resident Evil and ye olde Event Horizon, all helmed by a poor man’s Dario Argento. Of course, if Argento HAD directed it, the effects would have been more memorable, Asia Argento would have played the witch, and it might have been funny on purpose. To say that director Dominic Sena‘s ambition is bigger than his ability is a massive understatement. The eastern European scenery is gorgeous and the opening battle scenes of the Crusades are fantastic, but that’s about where the good stuff ends. The rest of the combat scenes look like they were edited with a battle axe, and the film never establishes a solid tone or direction. It fails as a mystery, since it’s clear from very early on that the Girl is much more than she seems. It fails as an examination of religious authority, since it only flirts with condemning the violence and hypocrisy of the early Catholic Church. It even fails as an exciting fantasy adventure, with its bargain-basement CGI, woolen-looking chain mail, and it’s “only a model” castles. It’s too self-important to be a campy pleasure, and it’s too silly to be a serious action film.

Not all of this is Sena’s fault. Bragi Schut‘s script isn’t horrible. It’s strictly B-movie all the way, but that wouldn’t have been so bad if the lead actor had given a damn. Nicholas Cage is so deep in debt, he’ll practically sign any contract in front of him as long as it promises him a paycheck. He’s on autopilot the entire time, with most of his readings bordering on the Shatner-esque. No one will ever make a Wicker Man-style “highlight reel” out of his performance, since he never even feels compelled to pull out the crazy. The supporting cast is adequate, doing well enough for the material, but lost in a sea of muddled and inconsistent accents straight out the casting offices of Xena: Warrior Princess. Claire Foy actually comes off fairly well, and she’s quite good at portraying the manipulative, chameleonic nature of the Girl.

What saves the picture is the manly, oddly attractive charms of Ron Perlman. Perlman knows schlock when he sees it. He’s made his fortune on it, in fact. He gives the anachronistic one-liners the zing and humor that Cage can’t (or won’t), and unlike the rest of the cast, he never takes his role too seriously. He has a strange, semi-brutish charm to him that makes him instantly likable. Personally, I have what I always call an “inexplicable crush” on Perlman. I’ll watch him in almost anything, even horrible dreck like The Mutant Chronicles. He’s as welcome a genre presence as John Rhys-Davies or Christopher Lee. Lee does show up in this film as well, as a plague-stricken cardinal, but he’s under so much make-up that he looks more like an animatronic double than anything else.

On a personal note, I had just seen Dogville, a brilliant and revolutionary movie, for the first time two days prior to seeing this film. Part of my dislike of it might be because Dogville was still in my head. It’s kind of like having Wolfgang Puck personally cook you lunch and then having to eat dinner at White Castle. At 2 AM. But this still isn’t a good film in any sense of the word. However, it also isn’t entirely a bad film. It could have been a campy, but interesting fantasy adventure if the director knew what he was doing, or if the lead had been Sean Bean, Hugh Jackman or really anybody but Nicholas Cage, who failed his saving throw against back taxes. Instead, it’s just boring and tedious.

Someone obviously rolled a 1 on their d20.

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