There is a genre of fiction which has a small but intense following which came to be known as “Dark Fantasy” during a sort of a renaissance which the genre went through in the late 70s and early 80s. It is often associated with other sub-genres of fantasy fiction like “Swords and Sorcery,” but it is distinguished by lacking the heroic characters and one-dimensional villains of that genre and its focus on the combination of relatively realistic and complex characters in historical settings with a strong element of supernatural horror. Swords and Sorcery is heroic characters versus evil wizards. Dark Fantasy pits flawed and desperate characters against dark gods, demons and unearthly forces of evil.
The distinction may seem subtle, but when reading stories in the genre you immediately know that they are different from anything else. Dark Fantasy fiction had its first success in the pages of magazines like Weird Tales in the 1930s in some of the stories of Robert E. Howard and H. P. Lovecraft and especially the stories of Clark Ashton Smith. In the late 1970s the genre was revived in a series of anthologies called Swords Against Darkness and in the pages of magazines like Hortasy and Dark Fantasy, featuring early work by writers like Adrian Cole, David Drake and Karl Edward Waggoner.
Dark Fantasy has rarely made its way onto the screen, except in a few odd small budget efforts, but for some reason this year we have been offered two films which fit squarely in the genre. The first was the much anticipated Solomon Kane movie, based on Robert E. Howard’s seminal stories about a half-mad puritan witch hunter. Sadly it opened in very limited release in Europe and has yet to make it to the US, even on DVD. The second is Season of the Witch which came out of nowhere with very little notice, and is also a surprisingly successful blending of horror and fantasy which is very reminiscent of the work of Clark Ashton Smith.
Season of the Witch has left many critics puzzled, but to someone who cut their teeth reading Dark Fantasy fiction it is very exciting to see the genre realized so well on the movie screen. Admittedly, the casting is a bit strange, it defies a number of cinematic conventions, and it’s relentlessly dark and grim, but that’s the heart of the genre.
Without giving away the plot, imagine a film which is a cross between The Name of the Rose, The Conqueror Worm and The Exorcist. If that combination seems appealing to you then you’ll like the film. The story centers on two disillusioned knights who have deserted the very disillusioning later Crusades against the Turks and the Tatars and return to Europe to find that the plague has preceded them. There is a bit of license taken with the timeline to make the end of those crusades coincide with the start of the Black Death, plus our two heroes have the insignia of Knights of the Dragon and of Knights of Jerusalem, but it’s 70 years before the founding of the first order and 100 years too late for the second. Plus they also go into battle with Knights Templars 30 years after that order was disbanded. All trivial stuff which probably won’t bother you unless you’re a medieval historian.
So these two knights (played by Nicholas Cage and Ron Perlman) are headed back to eastern Europe and end up being persuaded by a dying cardinal (Christopher Lee) in a plague-ridden city to escort a witch to a far off monestary to be tried and disposed of by a group of monks. The main action of the film concerns the problems on their trip through the beautiful Carpathian mountains in the early winter (filmed beautifully on location in Hungary) and what they discover when they arrive at their destination.
It would be wrong to reveal more of the plot than that, but there’s a good twist at the end, some creative special effects and a believable combination of realistic elements and the supernatural. You know a medieval film is doing something right when comparisons to Jaberwocky spring to mind. The historical facts may be out of order, but the medieval feel of the film is dead on and the use of real Hungarian castles and dramatic mountain settings is very effective.
If you go to the film expecting Conan the Barbarian or some elevated historical drama, you’re going to be disappointed. But for those of us familiar with the Dark Fantasy genre and who like a film full of foul acts and fouler magic, Season of the Witch is quite satisfying. The only let-down was that the classic Donovan song of the same name never shows up in the movie, not even over the closing credits.