Season of the Witch Blu-ray Disc Review
Studio: 20th Century Fox
Disc/Transfer Information: 1080p High Definition 1.78:1 Aspect Ratio; Region 1 (U.S.) Release
Video Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
MPAA Rating: PG-13
Tested Audio Track: English DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1
Director: Dominic Sena
Starring: Nicolas Cage, Ron Pearlman
From a distance, the trailers and marketing materials announcing Dominic Sena's Season of the Witch indeed looked promising and perhaps beyond mildly entertaining – sure, the title shared the subhead of the 1980s franchise-breaker Halloween III: Season of the Witch, starring the great character actor Tom Atkins, but the clips of the film from pre-release shots and teasers suggested hyper-aggressive demons, CGI-endowed werewolves a la Van Helsing and some butt-kickin’ crusaders from the middle ages era doing justice the only way they know how. A couple of issues abounded, though – first of all, I didn’t see Nicolas Cage in this kind of film or role, but from what I gathered, he needed a quick payday due to some personal and financial issues. Alas, his performance in this justifies my reservations, as his dialogue delivery and overall presence just seems way out of place (I’ll get into that). Second, 20th Century Fox, responsible for the ultimate marketing and release of the film, would have been wise to release it theatrically – or, on Blu-ray/DVD for that matter – around Halloween season, as this would have made a perfect fit. I said the exact same thing about the excitingly anticipated Captain America – that it should have been released theatrically for the Fourth of July holiday – but I understand there are sometimes studio or budgetary constraints.
It almost seemed like Season of the Witch simply came and went, slipping under the theatrical radar with a short run and subsequently arriving on home video before we even knew what hit us; as one of the many titles I was intrigued to see in theaters but just couldn’t make it, the concept behind Season of the Witch was indeed interesting, yet at the end of the viewing, one can’t help but think that the script and story just fell flat somewhere. Taking place during the times of the Crusades, Cage and Ron Pearlman star as superhero-like knights, slaying hordes of armies in “the name of God.” The opening battle sequences are replete with CGI-coated trickery in the fashion of 300 or Exorcist: The Beginning, attempting to explore this era beyond the way The Messenger: The Story of Joan of Arc did, but the antics of Cage and Pearlman’s characters are just ridiculous, the two of them speaking in almost current day tongue against the backdrop of the Crusades. The way the two of them slay their “enemies” was cheesy at best; the whole thing just felt amateurish and unrealistic for the time period being portrayed. Eventually, Cage decides to turn his back on the army he is serving after taking in the carnage of women and children in one village they have fought in, ultimately declaring that this battle isn’t being fought or won for God. He and Pearlman turn their back on the order of the knights, thus turning them into deserters – a crime for which there is a brooding penalty.
There’s also a beginning sequence which explores the witchcraft element of the film, but ultimately makes the conclusion a bit more confusing – it seems a trio of women are being accused of witchcraft, and although begging for mercy, are hung and thrown off a bridge into a body of water. The priest doing the ritual drags the bodies up from the water afterwards, but as you can guess, one of these accused witches isn’t really dead.
Cage and Pearlman, meanwhile, agree to bring a young girl accused of being a witch to a monastery where her fate will be decided, but their journey is going to be frought with hungry werewolves and other obstacles. Further, it is believed that this witch is the cause of a terrible plague that has crippled the lands... So powerful, it deforms the face of whomever it afflicts before killing the individual. The belief is that if the girl can be rid of the force inside her – or killed, if worse comes to worse as always – this will break the plague and end the spread of it. The sheer differences between the performance styles with regard to Pearlman and Cage are on full display here. Cage, as I suspected, simply does not fit the role of a greasy and long-haired crusader from this era, what with his blatant non-medieval-like dialogue delivery and overall acting. Pearlman, on the other hand, had total fun with his role, you can tell – seemingly the slightly stronger of the two knights, physically, he slices, dices and butts heads with aplomb, taking out supernatural forces and anti-crusaders alike. But Cage’s attempt to portray a castle-era knight simply wasn’t believable; I mean, it was like I was watching him in Con Air or The Rock, just set against a more ancient backdrop.
At any rate, Cage and Pearlman begin their journey with their accused girl in tow, confined within a caged carriage and pulled by horse, along with a priest, a young wannabe knight-in-training and another fellow the knights saved from a beheading back in the village they started in. Along the way, the question of whether or not this girl is really a witch is constantly on the table, as she routinely plays mind games with the group – at times, her eyes change color and shape, while her voice gets menacing, while other times she appeals to Cage to free her from her unjustified captivity. The group battles the aforementioned super wolves and other road blocks – including a tension inducing sequence involving a creaky, broken bridge that the convoy must cross – and Season of the Witch begins to feel like Van Helsing in its bleak, wet forest environments and CGI-assisted creature attacks. Eventually making it to the monastery, the group discovers the plague has reached this far, killing all the monks and priests in a very unfashionable way – but the real kicker of Season of the Witch comes when we discover exactly what was inside the girl all the time; was she really a witch? If not, what exactly had control of her? And how does this all connect to the beginning sequence depicting the three witches who were hung and dumped in the river? You’ll have to rent Season of the Witch to find out. I will say that the film gets a bit convoluted in its conclusion, making one wonder exactly what the point of that aforementioned opening scene with the witches was.
Dominic Sena, perhaps also needing a quick payday like Cage, attempted to fuse a supernatural thriller a la Warlock/Leprechaun/et al with Van Helsing like action overtones, with some demonic elements sprinkled on top for good measure, in creating Season of the Witch. In the end, I am uncertain exactly what he created. Cage was absolutely out of place in his rendition of a crusader-turned-deserter and Pearlman, while effective enough as a badass knight, also seemed odd at times in terms of character; I think in better filmmaker hands this could have been somewhat more effective, especially if the studio would have released this as a kind of Halloween thriller during the fall season. Released the way it was, it just feels out of place and "irrelevant". Perhaps in the context of Halloween, it would have worked given the “feel” of that time of year, and the great little films that pop up during that period like Trick ‘r Treat, for example. In fact, I think this would have been a buy for me – if I found it cheap enough – if this would have debuted around Halloween time, as it definitely fits the film watching schedule for that season. As it stands, I think Season of the Witch is merely a semi-entertaining rental for one evening; perhaps look for it cheap when Halloween rolls around.
Video Quality: How Did the Disc Look?
There were truly polarizing elements in terms of the audio and video presentations on Season of the Witch’s Blu-ray transfer from Fox. In terms of the video transfer, the 1080p encode was absolutely stunning – I cannot recall the last time a Blu-ray exhibited this kind of detail and depth to the image, complete with eye-popping and jaw-dropping characteristics jumping right out of the gate from the first frame. When facial close ups of characters are rendered onscreen, the 1080p transfer sizzled with remarkable detail and dimensionality that made characters appear to almost come off the screen – adding to this effect was the screen-filling aspect ratio of Season of the Witch, squeezing every pixel of high definition eye candy from my particular rear projection display.
The film’s color temperature switches from hot, bronzed browns and beiges during the crusader battle sequences in the beginning to cold, steely blues and cool hues when the plot shifts to the journey of bringing the witch girl to the monastery – in the forest scenes, moonlight casts cold blues and non-warm overtones to the picture, but these are rendered cleanly on Season of the Witch's Blu-ray transfer. Likewise, shadow detail was solid, as sequences within the confines of dark castles or the girl’s caged carriage exhibited excellent black gradients, exposing details just slightly above black in backgrounds. This was refreshing, compared to the many titles that are released which showcase crushed blacks in many difficult dark scenes.
Overall, a very nice looking, solid and effective video transfer which borders on reference.
Audio Quality and Analysis: How Did the Disc Sound?
The DTS-HD Master Audio track in an English 5.1 configuration (for the Region 1 releases) was another story altogether – I have not yet experienced such a low-mastered audio track since demoing Blu-ray titles, especially given the action/supernatural subject matter on display. What’s curious is that I have viewed other fellow reviewers’ takes on Season of the Witch, and nearly all of them have reported stellar results from the Master Audio soundtrack, leading me to believe something was off with my particular system. All settings checked out fine. The first thing I noticed was a lack of sheer volume, or power, from this mix, requiring me to turn up my master volume way beyond what I normally listen at. Usually, comedies or love stories exhibit these kinds of characteristics in terms of soundtrack quality, but this was simply unforgivable for the kind of film we’re dealing with here. All around the spectrum, the audio disappointed me – from a clear, distinct lack of bass in the LFE channel to noticeable but unsatisfying activity in the surround channels.
I am very curious to know if this was just a "defective" copy of the disc I was given to review, or an error in the mastering, or if perhaps it was simply the result of a decision made by the engineers and the track was supposed to sound this way – the contradicting results by the aforementioned reviewers leads me to believe it’s something I’m just not hearing, but I’d like to get some feedback from others who have seen this and run it through their systems.
Honestly, this mix let me down from so many different perspectives; the main issue, as I stated, was the blatant lack of tactile heft and volume in the track, causing me to raise the master volume way beyond what would be considered a normal range for my system and room.
Beyond what I’ve already expressed in terms of my “on-the-fence-ness” about Season of the Witch, there’s not much more I can add. It was a decently entertaining rental, and I still haven’t gotten around to purchasing it on Blu-ray, which leads me to believe I probably never will unless I come across it in a bargain sale bin somewhere – still, it would make for a cool Halloween party film if you’re doing a horror marathon in the home theater.