Season of the Witch isn’t the kind of movie I would usually waste my time on. It’s taking a well-deserved shellacking from critics, but what else is there to talk about in the middle of a cinematically barren January? It’s a bad movie – really bad. We get everything we would expect from an uninspired thriller: the characters are one-dimensional, the dialogue silly, the direction lackluster, the special effects cheap, and the story laughably obvious. (I kept waiting for the big twist, but it never came. I guess the filmmakers were content being obvious.) Something, though, nagged at me as I kept checking my watch, something that told me the movie was worse than I thought. It struck me, as the priest was saving the day, (or trying to anyway), that the movie wasn’t just historically inaccurate, something I don’t demand from my movies despite my degrees in the field, but so dishonest, insulting, and distasteful by making heroes out of villains and martyrs out of murderers that it unintentionally ranks as one of the worst movies I’ve seen in a long time.
The witch hunts of the Middle Ages (though they were actually much more prevalent and brutal during the religious turmoil of the Renaissance) were brutal manifestations of the intersections between mass hysteria, greed, and fanaticism. Accusations of witchcraft resulted in gruesomely elaborate tortures designed to elicit confessions and more accusations. Of course, under torture confessions and new names came easily. The fact that witches don’t exist (and I mean pact-with-the-devil witches, not Wiccans) illustrates the insanity and inhumanity of that hysterical era. It is criminal to elevate perpetrators of terror and murder, often for their own material gain, as leaders in a holy fight against the devil. What do we make of the first scene in which three women are being prepared to be hanged as witches. They beg for their lives, one denies being a witch, another confesses thinking it will save her life. They are of course hanged, but the priest doesn’t have enough time to say a prayer over their bodies and one comes back to life in the form of a demon, killing the priest. They were really witches?
And the witch hunters weren’t monsters? They were really protecting the poor, defenseless people of Europe from the actual horrors of demons and witches? Yes, I know this is a cheap entertainment, not meant to be taken seriously, but that’s the problem I have. Even in a movie like this I don’t think it’s appropriate to valorize people who perpetuated evil acts in the name of God, who tortured and repressed women, who stole their property or took outrageous fees for their “work.” I couldn’t believe that I was seeing a depiction of the past in which one of the greatest mass murders of history is presented to us as a good. .
If you still think I’m overreacting I’d like you think of it another way. Imagine 700 years in the future, much like Season of the Witch is about 700 years behind us. Now, imagine a 700 year-from-now movie (or whatever people have to deliver narrative fiction to them). This will be an action-adventure movie, but no robots, or holographic images, or telepathic communication, or whatever will be all the rage in the twenty-eighth century. No, this will be a movie about the distant past of the twentieth century. This will be a movie that adopts all the vile and anti-Semitic Elders of Zion-style lies that Nazis perpetuated and present them as fact. Then we will follow a scrappy band of young Nazis – Hitler Youth maybe – who go on a quest to foil an especially perfidious plot that would undermine all of Western civilization and deliver control of the world to Jews. Future historically-minded individuals might balk at such a storyline, but the vast majority of people, just out for an entertaining time, are just going to shrug their shoulders and ask what it matters. It was so long ago, after all, who does it really hurt?
This is essentially what the horrendous Season of the Witch does except, instead of Jews it uses the thousands of (mostly) women accused of witchcraft and tells us the witch hunts, torturing, and executions were more than justified. We shouldn’t balk at the horrors history books describe to us, instead we should cheer for them. Will the Spanish Inquisition get the same treatment next? Will we see the brave Torquemada expelling agents of evil (Muslims and Jews) from Spain? The idea that someone could wrap a story like that in the cloth of “unserious,” action-adventure storytelling is chilling to me.
To make matters worse, telling the story in this way isn’t even necessary. All the pain and suffering man inflicted on their victims is much more gruesome and horrible than anything a hack writer can come up with involving actual witches and demons. This is territory Ken Russell slyly explored in The Devils (1971) and, for a more art house approach, Carl Dreyer tackled it in his remarkable Day of Wrath (1943). Neither of these are thrillers, but they both show how the realities of human cruelty and ignorance are much more terrifying than CGI-ed demons.
Beyond the offensive and insensitive portrayal of witch hunting, the movie is plain terrible. I’m sure other critics have taken the film to task for its narrative and aesthetic incompetence, so I’ll only touch on a few of its problems. The story of a ragtag group of knights and priests transporting a suspected witch to a monastery for trial is ludicrous. It is never explained why she isn’t tried and executed right where she is; it isn’t as if church official were all that squeamish about putting accused witches to death and a concept like due process would have been foreign to them.
What’s worse is the journey could have been tinged with mystery and suspense but there is no effort to conceal the young girl’s guilt. Why not, at the very least, shade the narrative with some doubt? The witch that Nicholas Cage and Company are transporting through a menacing forest is so obviously a witch or some kind of supernatural agent of evil with her menacing stares, knowing laughs, and an oddly uncommented upon ability to extinguish and reignite fire. Her guilt is so obvious that we can never credit the doubts any of Cage’s party express and it becomes easier and easier to write them off as idiots. If we were presented a more ambiguous characterization, less malevolent, we could understand their hesitation.
Movies help shape how we remember the past – even movies meant to be a thoughtless good time which, whether one wants to admit it or not, do shape the way we think about the past. Don’t you think The Birth of a Nation reconfigured how many white Americans thoughts about Reconstruction? The same can be said for the less inflammatory, but no less racist, Gone with the Wind. True, Season of the Witch does not aspire to either of these films’ levels, but I don’t think we can dismiss its lazy and insulting portrait of the past just because it didn’t have ambition. It’s more important to remind people how superstition, hate, and fear create a culture of hysteria and violence, rather than legitimizing and valorizing one of the worst instances of this phenomenon in human history.