It is not a surprise that the first new movie of 2011 should be a bad one - good movies do not premiere in January unless it is by accident - nor a surprise that the particular movie to hold that honor, Season of the Witch, should specifically be bad, whenever it was released (as indeed it was supposed to be in March, 2010, and by a different distributor). It is, after all, a film in which Nicolas Cage plays a former knight of the Crusades, escorting a suspected witch through a plague-ravaged Austria.

The surprise is that Season of the Witch isn't remotely bad enough: quite lousy altogether, no two ways about it, but doesn't have that *umph* you know, that mad demented energy of, say, the 2006 remake of The Wicker Man, where Cage was dialed up to 11 and the whole thing was a shrieking disaster so giddy in its miscalculation that you just can't help but laugh. Season of the Witch is assuredly miscalculated; but it is not giddy. On the contrary, it's as dour as a Victorian debtor's prison, crucially lacking the balls-out weirdness that Cage has never so badly needed to bring to the table as he does here, instead playing the role with a solemnity and seriousness that proves to be the worst strike against a movie that needed all the help it could get. But more on that shortly.

Bragi F. Schut's script, which was kicking around in development for ages before it finally got produced, opens several times before it gets started. First comes a prologue in 1250, in which we see three accused witches hung and drowned, though since two of them are actual, legitimate witches, they manage to cause some horrible problems for the officiating priest after they've died (this scene appears, for most of the running time, to be completely disconnected from the rest of the movie in any way whatsoever; but it all sort of does come together in a very half-assed way, and frankly I'd have probably been happier if it hadn't). We then jump forward several decades, to find a pair of knights, Behmen (Cage) and Felson (Ron Perlman) fighting in the Crusades - it's not at all clear which Crusades, but geography does not at any point prove to be the film's strong suit - and then two years later it's still the Crusades, and two years later it's still the Crusades, and we get a few more two-year jumps until Behmen and Felson decide that they can no longer kill innocents in the name of the Church, so they desert.

A month later - it broke my heart that it wasn't two years - they stumble across a town in Styria, which I presume to be the Styria in Austria, though all of the names we hear sound unmistakably French. The plague is in full force, and the local cardinal (Christopher Lee, hiding his shame* behind some ambitious but distinctly cheap "rotting face" makeup) extends the deal that he'll let these two blasphemous knights off the hook if they accompany a priest, Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore) to a distant monastery where he hopes to have a mysterious young woman (Claire Foy) tried for witchcraft. They agree, and finally the movie actually begins after what feels like a third of it has already gone by.

What follows as the knights, priest, local charlatan and guide Hagamar (Stephen Graham), earnest young altar boy-turned-squire Kay (Robert Sheehan), and Eckhart (Ulrich Thomsen), whose purpose I couldn't quite make out, all travel through the decrepit medieval fields and woods will surprise you not at all, though I have to admit that I wasn't expecting the undue speed with which the film abandoned any pretense that the young woman might actually just be a poor innocent, wronged by an over-eager and venal Church. People die, forests that look exactly like soundstages are filled with foreboding mists, and evil man-eating wolves turn into even more evil, man-eating CGI wolves because of something. Witchery, I s'pose.

None of this is inherently unforgivable, though Schut's dialogue is pretty rough, and his narrative structure thoroughly imbalanced away from the second act, or as it's known in professional circles, "the act where shit actually happens". Still he's not the chief villain of the piece: for Dominic Sena directs all this stuff and nonsense with a paucity of fun unbecoming a loopy tale of medieval witches starring Nicolas Cage and Ron Perlman. Apparently unable to decide if it's a horror film with adventure elements or an adventure film with horrific elements, Sena splits the difference and goes for a brutally serious look at the tortured conscience of a war-ravaged Crusader trying to do good in a mad world, a presentation that the script only marginally supports and Cage's performance is woefully ill-equipped to handle. But nevertheless, it's all meaningful stares and hushed line deliveries and so much fucking gloomy lighting that walking out of the theater into a Chicago snowstorm still felt like a relief from all the greyish browns and brownish greys.

Taking their cues from the director, presumably, the actors all plunge head-first into funereal solemnity, which doesn't matter since most of their characters are mostly just set dressing; but Cage is a definite problem. Speaking Schut's self-consciously Olde Tyme Dialogge with an accent that certainly isn't British but isn't quite American, Cage tries so hard to act the part of a beleagued medieval warrior, but undone by his own lack of gravitas, and weird anachronisms peppered throughout the script, he comes across as an unusually old, desperately sad LARP-er. It's much worse given that Perlman is actually giving the performance Cage had to, one that absolutely gives up on the archaism of the writing and instead embraces the dude comedy vibe always threatening to break out. It is a perfectly, blandly modern spin on the material, that in context is as jarring as an earthquake. When Perlman speaks, Season of the Witch is almost bearable; when he is silent, it gets even worse for his absence.

By the time it gets to its hectic, indifferently-staged CGI-gasmic finale, it's hard not to have completely given up hope that the film will offer anything of even slight entertainment value; and it doesn't disappoint. Even the sudden turn to overwrought voiceover in the last seconds can't add camp to Season of the Witch, which proves to be so bad that it's intensely boring, on top of being ugly and contrived and so historically flaky that it's not even worth mentioning it (but hey, gotta love a movie that's so resolutely pro-killing witches). It's the worst kind of terrible movie, a thorough waste of the Bad Movie credentials of its deranged star.