Nicolas Cage has long been notorious for accepting roles in terrible movies. At this point legendary is a better term for his willingness to leap into the maw of howling banshees like “Season of the Witch,” a sword-and-sorcery mess about a couple of crusaders during the Middle Ages who escort a suspected witch (Claire Foy) to an abbey. Unfortunately this isn't the kind of Nick Cage movie that can be remembered fondly for an over-the-top performance. “Witch” is a slog through a medieval swamp of bad dialogue, boring story and cheap visual effects.
The movie begins in the holy land, where Behmen Blybrick (Cage) — I think that's his last name; all that's certain is that there's too many B's involved — is chopping and thrusting through computer-generated armies of Muslims during one of the crusades. It must be one of the crusades that was happening at the same time as the black death, because upon leaving the army to return home, Behmen and his sidekick, Felson (Ron Perlman), come upon a city afflicted with plague severe enough to fell three-fourths of the population. The cardinal (Christopher Lee), himself stricken, suspects witchcraft, and sends Behmen and Felson with his monk (Stephen Campbell Moore), another swordsman (Ulrich Thomsen) and a guide (Stephen Graham) to a distant abbey where the suspected witch can be tried and dispatched.
Mixing history isn't the movie's only challenge. “Season” is a seesaw of quality too, mostly tilting to the abysmally shoddy while infrequently alighting on some spot of intelligence and creativity. Very infrequently. The early scenes in the Middle East look alternately like sand being blown around a studio and cut scenes from the latest “Civilization.” Later there are a few wide compositions of medieval Europe that are nice, although at some point the setting looks like it was transposed to Tennessee. Images of peasants dying of plague are powerfully grotesque if a little comical. Anachronisms? Surely ye jest. “Let's get the hell out of here!” and “We're going to need more holy water” are constructions, methinks, that wouldn't have been invented until at least the Renaissance.
The plot is as ill-fitting as Behmen's crooked helmet. Writer Bragi Shut Jr. has cobbled together the hoariest of sagas, wherein a band of adventurers travels through the foreboding forest, past the howling werewolves and over the rickety bridge. The pleasures along the way tend to be unintentional. The early montage displaying crusade battles, for example, will leave you wondering if any were truly fought in the driving snow. In another scene a bit of throwaway dialogue refers to giving the prisoner “a sedative.” A what? You mean, like, a draught to make the poor wretch sleep? A potion, maybe? Don't you need a wizard's prescription and a village HMO plan for that sort of thing?
Hopefully this outing is the poison apple for director Dominic Sena, whose previous efforts include “Gone in 60 Seconds,” “Swordfish” and “Whiteout.” Why does this guy make movies, anyway? He must really think the awards for Janet Jackson videos and Nike shoe ads meant the public is clamoring for him to take his place as the next Quentin Tarantino. He even manages to slip a sedative to his leading man, undermining the one thing many ticket buyers probably came to see.
Cage has been so heedlessly bombastic in so many other bad movies that the notoriety inspired a recent YouTube video that made its way around social networking sites. Titled “Cage Rage,” the montage memorialized some of his greatest worst moments. Those looking for a fine example of Cage in a supernatural movie treated with the right kind of silliness should take a look at “Vampire's Kiss,” which makes up a great portion of “Cage Rage.” Sena has toned him down to a barely audible mumble of Sir Walter Scottisms (“nay!”), occasionally betrayed by his signature So Cal surfer speak. The result sounds less like a valiant knight and more like a malfunctioning robot.
Hopefully none of this is making “Season of the Witch” sound cooler than it really is. Mostly it's a bad omen. Box office fare this poorly done usually doesn't come around until about February. “Season of the Witch” bodes for a long winter filled with the wrong kind of frights. (PG-13) 98 min.