The Reckoning, 2020.
Directed by Neil Marshall.
Starring Charlotte Kirk, Sean Pertwee, Steven Waddington, Suzanne Magowan and Sarah Lambie.
Grieving the death of her husband due to the Great Plague, a woman is tortured in the wake of accusations that she is a witch.
There’s a big spectre which looms ominously over any British horror movie about witch trials. Michael Reeves’s 60s classic Witchfinder General stands as the lynchpin of a sub-genre which continues to fascinate filmmakers today, whether it’s Ben Wheatley’s A Field in England or a second series episode of twisty TV anthology Inside No. 9. The latest to step up to the plate is The Descent director Neil Marshall, returning to horror after spending the last decade or so working in TV and helming the disastrous Hellboy reboot.
Sadly, this isn’t the return to form Marshall’s fans will be hoping to see. Despite being punctuated by flashes of visceral horror and some delightfully grotesque gore, this is a rather limp, clichéd take on this brand of period horror. Arriving just a few months after the braver and more complex 17th century tale Fanny Lye Deliver’d, it looks like even more of a trudge.
We meet protagonist Grace (Charlotte Kirk) in the midst of an odd montage-cum-flashback in which she buries the hanged body of her husband, who committed suicide after catching the bubonic plague. Living alone with her infant child, she is menaced by the tyrannical Squire Pendleton (Steven Waddington) and, when she fights back against his attempt to rape her, he retaliates by accusing her of witchcraft. He calls in renowned witch-hunter Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee) and his assistant Ursula (Suzanne Magowan) – a badly-burned, “reformed” witch – to extract a confession by any means necessary.
There are the seeds of intrigue scattered throughout the first half of The Reckoning, which unfolds in a world in which a whispered rumour of suspicion spreads even faster than the pestilence infecting the streets. As one morally conflicted character says, “all it takes is a word” for a life to crumble amid paranoia and condemnatory groupthink. But the second half tosses all of this aside for scenes of prolonged torture – say hello to the quite possibly fictional pear of anguish – and hallucinogenic dream sequences which appear to feature a growling manifestation of the devil incarnate.
Kirk’s central performance lacks the intensity to keep the movie on the tracks, with her accent seemingly morphing from BBC-esque RP to an attempted Northern twang. She is not helped by the script, which she co-wrote along with Marshall and Edward Evers-Swindell. It’s a soup of overwrought proclamations and trite stabs at emotion, with only Sean Pertwee delivering the amped-up theatricality required to make the writing land. Even the usually reliable Steven Waddington – veteran of many Northern scumbags on big and small screens – struggles to add any shades to his sleazy power player.
It’s ultimately a rather under-powered addition to the witchy cinema canon, lacking the bite of the best of these movies while wallowing in the torture of Kirk’s character. The script occasionally threatens to critique the misogyny of the period, but there’s ultimately very little meat on those bones – a tantalising hint of what the movie could’ve been with a better script and a more nuanced take on violence and paranoia in Plague-era Britain. What we do get is empty, lacking in palpable grime and desperately in need of an injection of real black magic. This particular cauldron doesn’t bubble. It barely simmers.
Flickering Myth Rating – Film: ★ ★ / Movie: ★ ★
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.