Season of the Witch… How on earth do I review this…
Let me try to put it in perspective, but that requires a little bit of setup.
I make no secret that I play pen and paper RPG’s from time to time. Explanation for non-geeks from US: I’m talking about D&D type stuff. It’s just that D&D is merely one of many games that exist out there – and just happens to be the only one that had any kind of consistent exposure in American mainstream media, and also the one that I have never actually played. Most of these things work the same though – you get together with friends, sit around the table, roll dice and “role play”. If you have never head of this, go look it up – it’s fun.
Why do I bring this up? Because this movie reminds me of a straight up Role Playing campaign. In fact, while watching it I had a strong sense of déjà vu. I’m quite sure I have actually played something remarkably similar at least once… Or twice.
The plot is pretty much a standard medieval RP fare: an evil witch has cursed the land with a plague. The local authority have captured a young, raven haired maiden whom they suspect of being responsible for said malaise. To reverse the curse however the witch has to be taken to a remote mountaintop monastery where the monks posses the last copy of a sacred book of rituals that can help to render her powerless, and nullify all the evil she has done.
Naturally the trip to the monastery is an arduous six day journey. Our heroes however decided to cut it in half, by cutting through the Redwood Forest. Cue everyone in the room gasping in horror.
“Gasp! Wormwood Forest? But sire, one does not just “cut through” the Wormwood Forest. It is a place of great evil!”
The player characters just smirk, knowing that a forest of pure evil means only one thing: XP and loot. Ok, two things: XP, loot and maybe side quests. Three things. Whatever.
Normally, the job of escorting witches to remote monasteries is the job of local city guards, or hired soldiers from the retinue of some prominent nobleman that would like to make a nice gesture and get in good graces with the church. But, the city is ravaged by a plague and there is apparently no people to spare. So instead the task is given to a rag-tag group of misfits:
- Two former crusading knights who deserted their posts, and were passing through the city only to be conveniently arrested just in time for this mission.
- A squire hoping that this mission will gain him enough
experience points to level up and take up the Knight prestige classreputation to become a full fledged knight
- A shifty
clericpriest who knows medicine, and incantations against evil
- A crossbow wielding rogue who will act as a guide
- An NPC nobleman who gets killed in the first random encounter to establish that the mission is Serious Business
Now, a good GM would make the witch a bit ambiguous character – make her act normally, and pretend to be falsely accused, scared girl and try to convince the PC’s that they should disobey the corrupted church officials and free her. But that does not happen. When the heroes go to fetch her from the dungeon, she immediately manifests her magical powers by single handedly knocking out several guards. She only stops struggling when the NPC nobleman very loudly exclaims:
“Guise, we need to take her to the Wwhatsitsname Monastery!”
Everyone sort of looks at him and goes:
“Yeah, we know – we’ve been discussing it for the past 15 minutes. Why would you say that now?”
The witch stops struggling and asks “Wait, did you guys say Whatsitsname Monastery?”, and upon confirming that she decides to be docile. Ron Perlman’s character mumbles something about hating forced plot twists and socks her upon the head to make sure she does not make any trouble. Then they are off on their journey.
Then they have a few random encounters. First night the witch uses a charm spell to get out of her cage, and leads them to some nearby cave. There party stupidly splits up chasing shadows, and inadvertently they cut down their nobleman NPC.
Next, they find a classic RPG adventure location: an old, decrepit, hanging bridge over a chasm. They have to carefully traverse it on foot, one by one, and then devise a pulley system to get their cage cart to the other side. Naturally the bridge collapses as soon as they are on the other side, so they can’t back out. This is how the GM railroads them into traversing the dreaded Wormwood Forest.
What’s so scary about that place? Apparently it has a metric ton of wolves per square inch. Tho make things worse the witch has some sort of “Wolf Call” spell she keeps casting. The party hacks trough wave after wave of these animals until they are all low on hit points, and realize the GM will just keep piling on more wolves until they move. So they make a mad dash through the forest.
At some point one of the PC’s have an argument about killing the girl. The crusader played by Nicholas Cage is really tempted, but then he remembers he rolled a Lawful Good character, and this would totally violate his alignment. Stephen Gragam’s rogue points out that his character is Chaotic Neutral so he can totally do it without repercussions. Ron Perlman looks up the rules, and realizes that as Lawful Good knight he would be forced to stop him so they shelve the idea.
Eventually they get to the monastery, only to find out a pile of dead monks who succumbed to the plague. The girl just smiles and goes:
“Ha! I have fooled you. I’m not a witch. I’m actually a demon and I wanted to be taken to this monastery so I could destroy that sacred book that has the incantation which can banish me.”
Before she can even finish the sentence, and before everyone else can roll their eyes and mouth “no shit, we knew this since the dungeon fight” the priest yells out:
“I read the book out loud. How many XP we get for banishing a daemon?”
The GM surprised by such quick reaction makes the daemon raise all the dead monks as zombies in an effort to stop the incantation. So there is lots of fighting. It’s a near TPK, but in the end the daemon is banished and everything ends well.
Does Season of the Witch work as a RPG scenario? Yup. Definitely. For one, the extended intro does a really good job of bringing the rag-tag group together. Most character start with clear motives and reasons to undertake the quest: the deserters want to be redeemed in the eyes of the church, the squire wants to prove himself, the priest wants to make sure the plague is ended while the rogue wants his freedom. It is much better than the usual “y’all meet in a tavern, and some guy hires you” routine. The actual scenario mixes up random encounters – some are environmental (bridge), some are pure combat (wolves, zombie monks) and some are tricks and illusions (the cave). Plus the entire idea of escorting, and protecting the final boss to the place where you are going to fight him, is a fun spin on an old and tired adventure formula. Not a new one, mind you, but a rather under-used one.
Does Season of the Witch work as a movie? No, not really. Its simplistic, un-imaginative and sort of dull. You know that you are in trouble as a writer, if your script can be adopted as a medieval RPG adventure with almost no changes. I’ll be frank – if I didn’t know better, I would be convinced that this film was a direct-to-dvd adaptation of a popular a video game. That’s about the quality you get when you watch it.
None of the characters are particularly likeable. Nicholas Cage is once again out of his element. I honestly have no clue why people keep casting him in these classic action hero roles which are obviously not his strong suite. Ron Perlman has surprisingly few lines, and mostly plays the role of the stoic, silent sidekick. Claire Foy hasn’t got a lick of subtlety playing the possessed girl telegraphing creepy, shifty smiles at every occasion – though I probably ought to blame the director for this.
The final twist is not even a twist. Not in a movie at least. In an RPG, logistics of fighting a daemon are different than those of fighting a witch, and so are the rewards. So the players may be pleasantly surprised by the turn of events, suddenly making their adventure more epic. But in a movie this just does not work. The girl was evil to begin with. She manifested magical powers before. To find out she is possessed by an evil thing is just not a big reveal – at least not such a shattering realization as they set it up to be.
I really wish I could re-cut this movie, adding another layer to it: modern day geeks playing an RPG at a table. Every once in a while we would cut away from the action, and show the players discussing strategies, bickering about the rules and quoting Monty Python. Now that would be an interesting film – because as far as I can tell, a straight-up portrayal of an RPG session (not a pastiche or parody) was never actually done by Hollywood. Actually, this would even work as an independent project – with regular people playing the real-world counterparts of Nicholas Cage, Ron Perlman and etc.. After all, when you play, your character never really looks like you. He looks like that picture of a knight/wizard you downloaded from the internet, and pasted onto your character sheet.
Sadly, we would have to wait about a 100 years or more to be able to do such a thing. US copyright law ensures that anything that is published during your lifetime does not slip into public domain until many decades after your death.