Reviewer: Charity Bishop
Even though this film was trashed by the critics upon its release, I looked forward to renting and watching it. As is somewhat the norm for such films, it is not nearly as horrible as the critics would have you believe.
Superstition runs rampant in the middle ages and with the approach of the plague in certain cities, it is believed that witches are in the midst of the common men. Thus, suspicious women are being hunted down and persecuted. Meanwhile, thousands of miles away, the knights of the realm are engaged in a Holy War, the Crusades. Best friends and fellow warriors Behmen (Nicholas Cage) and Felson (Ron Pearlman) have fought for years in the name of the Church -- but when their task turns to wanton slaughter of innocent women and children, they abandon their vows and return to Europe. Their wandering brings them to a small town where unfortunately, they are recognized. The prevailing bishop (Christopher Lee) offers them a means of escape -- to escort a witch to a monastery deep in the mountains in the hope of exorcising her influence and lifting the plague.
Neither man is interested... not even when a monk, Debelzaq (Stephen Campbell Moore), begs with them to heed the calling of the Church. But then Behmen encounters the supposed witch (Claire Foy) -- beautiful and capable of tugging at his heartstrings, she senses in him a kindness that will not allow him to permit her to be charged without proof. Thus, he agrees on the condition that she will have a fair trial upon reaching their destination. Together with the others and an ambitious, aspiring young would-be knight named Kay (Robert Sheehan), they travel into the wilderness. But to prove whether or not she is a witch, they must reach their destination... and no one realizes what lies ahead. Reading what various reviews have to say about this film you would think it's downright terrible. I won't lie to you, it's not a masterpiece by any means, but it's also quite good fun. The dialogue is witty and full of banter and many of the scenes are downright creepy, as they should be. Honestly, I think what weakened audience reactions to it is the twist in the second half, when it becomes less a supernatural medieval thriller and more like The Exorcist... but with CGI wings. I actually think it would have been scarier not to involve winged demons and merely let the actors play it out, but even so... it's entertaining.
The cast is quite good, particularly Claire Foy as she leads the audience on -- we never know whether to trust her or warn the others not to turn their back on her. She can be sweet and helpless one moment and casting a diabolical grin the next. Obviously, in a movie of this nature there is going to be manifestations of ... something. To some it might seem witchcraft but it is really demonic intervention; she appears to cause things to happen -- illusions, nightmares, even summons wolves from the wood that transform into "evil" wolves (their faces change and undertake a sinister appearance). Demons enter dead bodies and reanimate them. The purpose of toting her through the evil wood to the monastery is so she can be read to out of the Book of Solomon, which contains the "wisdom" of godly men throughout the ages -- catechisms are read and at the close of them, demons and witches are defeated. Behmen turns his back on the Church's persecution of the innocent, but not on God. There is a distinction made, and while certain behavior is questionable (it's inferred that a monk tortured her into confession), in the end the "religious" members of the traveling party are painted as heroic.
For the most part, the rating comes from extremely grotesque and frequent encounters with plague-ridden dead bodies -- festering, scabby flesh often lying in a pool of gunk. Abnormal growth distorts faces and nasty-looking puss-filled wounds gape. I'm not easily grossed out but this was disgusting. There is a fair amount of non-graphic lethal combat in the war sequences, and in order to destroy demon-possessed dead bodies, the knights slice off heads (non-graphic, although puffs of smoke indicate the demons leaving their hosts). Wolves attack in the middle of the night and many of them are killed, with some blood spatter (it's dark, so we don't see much); they take down and ravage a man, who we hear screaming for awhile before he falls silent. One man is consumed by fire and disintegrates; others are stabbed repeatedly with knives and sharp wings. A young woman is shown nude, but everything is obscured by the awkward position of her body. There are scattered profanities and vulgarities.
In my humble opinion, the first three fourths of this film are terrific -- suspenseful, misleading, and with good character development. It falters a bit toward the end when it becomes a little too incredible; it shifts gears midstride and becomes less a historical epic and more of a fantasy-horror film. It just feels awkward, but in comparison to the other film with the same basic theme (Black Death) this is a considerable improvement, with absolutely beautiful scenery and a great musical score. It may not win any awards and probably won't even be a film I will add to my collection, but it was worth a rental. And... yeah, probably even a rewatch.