Neil Marshall’s name is synonymous with the horror genre and for good reason. For many, his previous works Dog Soldiers and The Descent sit proudly in the pantheon of the best British horror films of the century. In 2019, Marshall was given the opportunity to flex his muscles with a larger budget and helmed the ill-fated Hellboy reboot, an experience that he described as “miserable.” On the surface, The Reckoning appears like Marshall returning to his safe space, a low budget horror film over which he has complete creative control. It’s a grand shame therefore that Marshall’s return to the genre does not bring with it a return to past glories.
Set in 1665 against the backdrop of the Great Plague, The Reckoning follows the trials and tribulations of the recently widowed Grace (Charlotte Kirk). As one sickness runs rampant over England, another has already begun to raise its ugly head. The country finds itself submerged in a wave of mass hysteria surrounding witchcraft and devilry. When Grace falls behind on rent payments on her farm and refuses to pay her rent by “other means”, she finds herself at the mercy of the wounded ego of her Landlord (Steven Waddington) and his baying mob. After her capture, she is transported to the nearby town to stand trial for witchcraft, a trial that includes several days of prolonged and painful torture at the hands of the infamous Witch Hunter Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee).
It begins deeply entrenched in melodrama with a ten minute sequence following the very recently widowed Grace and a lot of the film’s problems can be seen on display early on. The editing is jarring and feels like it’s jostling for your attention rather than moving the narrative forward effectively. The score, whilst effective in places, is overbearing to the point of distracting. The endless and lazy use of ineffective jump scares, dream sequences, slow motion and flashbacks is incessant. It’s a messy concoction that lays the groundwork of everything that is to come. Another of the films big issues also exhibits itself early on, that of our leading lady.
The film is co-written and co-produced by Marshall’s fiancé Charlotte Kirk, who also stars in the leading role of Grace. The film feels, uncomfortably so, like a deliberate and explicit attempt by Marshall to make sure that everyone knows how beautiful his leading lady is, to the point where it completely undermines itself and whatever story it is trying to tell. For the vast majority of the film, Kirk’s character looks like she belongs on a Victoria’s Secret catwalk rather than the plague-ridden seventeenth century whilst those around her are covered in sweat, mud and tears.
Despite enduring days of endless torture and starvation, Kirk’s make-up and curled golden hair remain flawless at all times. It’s a move that completely undercuts the severity of Grace’s situation and breaks any possible illusion that the film is trying to achieve and instead makes the film feels like it’s verging on soap opera territory rather than hard-hitting historical horror. I’m also adding my two cents to the recent “sex scenes don’t advance film plots” debate that seems to rage on Twitter every week or so. Here, that is certainly the case and these scenes seem highly gratuitous and unnecessary, simply existing to give Marshall the opportunity to shine a light (literally) on Kirk’s naked buttocks time and again.
The film strangely stops short of explicitly showing the violence that Grace suffers at the hands of Moorcroft. It’s a move that works on one level, as it just about stops matters from descending into uncomfortable and distasteful torture porn territory, but it also hinders the film as Kirk is ineffective in conveying the suffering that Grace is experiencing. Her performance flips from bland and uninspiring to chaotic and over-acted in the blink of an eye. Sean Pertwee is, however, on great form here, proving yet again that he can elevate any scene that he finds himself in. It helps that he’s given some of the most interesting and engaging dialogue to work with, something which is not afforded to literally anyone else in the film, but it becomes obvious very early on after his introduction that he’s operating in a different stratosphere to those around him. The less said about the rest of the supporting cast the better.
The film is not completely without merit. There’s some beautiful looking shots of the English landscape. There’s effective use of light and shadow. The devil design is okay and there was one shot in particular of the devil and Grace entwined that was probably the most striking of the entire film. The costume design is pretty good. Sean Pertwee’s hat is kinda cool. It coaxed an unintentional laugh out of me as we saw men continue to sit in a pub during the middle of the pandemic, in total blissful ignorance. There’s also a great story festering somewhere, amongst the masses of mediocrity, but overall this feels like an incredible waste of such a potentially rich and fruitful historical setting.
We have been spoiled in recent times with well-executed, historical female revenge tales, The Nightingale and Judy & Punch to name but two. These films are so successful because they feel authentic in their portrayal of the female experience, they have an engaging lead character and performance and when they hit hard, they hit hard. The Reckoning has none and does none of these things and completely fails in its attempts to shine a light on the plight suffered by thousands of innocent women. This is clearly outlined as the film’s intention, because it is bookended by scrolling text to tell us everything about the dark period in history…that the actual film fails to tell us. It’s hard to imagine there being a more pertinent film to watch right now than one about pandemics and witch hunts, but there’s nothing to be learned from this. In fact the overwhelming message that is left behind is that women can indeed get their revenge, but they have to be sexy in doing so.
RLJE Films and Shudder will release the action / horror THE RECKONING in Theatres, On Demand and Digital February 5, 2021.