OK. I already know that most critics hated this movie. I went to see it because I’m a sucker for occult horror films – witches, werewolves, vampires, demons, et cetera. This movie should have been released near Halloween, and might have drawn more sympathy from viewers and critics if it had.
The obvious flaws of this film are the miscasting of Ron Perlman and Nicolas Cage as 14th Century crusaders charged with delivering a village girl to a monastery, where she’s to be placed on trial for witchcraft. Yes. I know Mr. Perlman did a good job with Hellboy and Mr. Cage with Sorceror’s Apprentice, but both were set in modern times and these two guys strutting machismo and fliply bantering 21st Century style just doesn’t quite it in the 14th Century. It’s a departure from the obligatory British-accented costumed adventure, but here’s a time when actors with Shakespearean training and sufficient gravitas might have helped to elevate the material a bit.
A less obvious flaw was the lack of friction between their characters, Behman (Cage) and Felson (Perlman) when the psychological weaknesses of various characters were being explored during the supposed witch’s brief escape and the band’s sojourn through the forest- conveniently named Wormwood. If there was ever a time to develop tension between this pair, and have the accused witch pit one against the other; that was the (missed) opportunity.
Also less obvious are the ways the film touches, perhaps too lightly, upon feministic ideas about power and condemnation by male authority. Superior physical strength has long been cited as a reason why men should have a dominant position over women, but our accused witch has physical strength far greater than her stature would suggest and nearly kills several males who try to subdue and entrap her. Her ability to see clearly into the secret fears and misgivings of the men around her also mark her a threat – particularly in the eyes of the male-dominated church. The ultimate reveal towards the end of the film, that the accused witch is really a demonically possessed person is an interesting twist, and raises questions about innocence and the lengths one should go to save the innocent.
The scares are also relatively few and far between, and mostly predictable. It was scariest at the beginning when a priest condemns three women to die by hanging, and one refuses to stay dead. Next scariest are when the CGI enhanced wolves attack. (The extra large teeth and fierce snarls might have worked better had we learned that these weren’t ordinarily wolves, but werewolves instead). We know right away that at least one of our intrepid band will be roadkill.
The depiction of the effects of the Black Plague on the human body are far more effective as giving the audience a genuinely creepy feeling, since human ailments never go out of fashion and still pack a punch in 2011.
Strengths of this film are Clair Foy as Anna, who is by turns ominous, slatternly and vulnerable and Stephen Campbell Moore, who as Debelzaq is believable as a put-upon cleric, trying to defend his faith and his life.
Overall, I’d have to rate this film a B- and say that it’s most suitable for genre fans who can’t get enough weirdness and witchcraft.