Neil Marshall has had a patchy career. From his riotous debut “Dog Soldiers” (re-issued in 2020) to his claustrophobic caving classic “The Descent,” his filmography sunk (or descended) into the highly derivative and uneven “Centurion” and “Doomsday,” before he applied his talents to television with “Game of Thrones” and “Hannibal,” among others. After the disastrous “Hellboy,” Marshall returns to traditional horror with The Reckoning, a collaboration between Marshall and writing partner Charlotte Kirk, who also stars.
Set in 1665 England during the twin terrors of the plague and witch hunts, Kirk (“Ocean’s 8”) plays Grace, widowed after the death of her husband Joseph (Joe Anderson, “Bleeding Heart”) from plague. Grace struggles to pay the rent and runs afoul of the local squire Pendleton (Steven Waddington, “The Imitation Game”), who seeks an alternative form of payment. As a woman alone whose husband died when she and her infant daughter survived, it’s not long before Grace is accused of witchcraft, imprisoned, and tortured. To assist with her confession, Pendleton calls in Witchfinder Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee, “The Magnificent Eleven”) and his malevolent associate Ursula (Suzanne Magowan), and things get steadily gorier.
Despite the promising material, The Reckoning is, sadly, a disappointment. This is largely because it’s a mess, both in terms of genre and style. The setting is obviously historical, a point underscored by the opening and closing supertext. Ian Bailie’s production design is sumptuous and handsome, from the wooden hut of Grace to Pendleton’s stone castle, complete with dungeon and well. The plague makeup is also effectively icky from a body horror perspective, especially in lingering shots of pustules. However, makeup also proves to be a problem as Grace herself looks too good. Her eyeshadow is jarring from the beginning, and her perpetually pristine golden locks and unblemished face undercut the realism suggested by the mud and blood around her. It may seem like a minor quibble, but if the arc of the film is to be Grace’s suffering, she needs to look like she is actually suffering in order for it to convince.
Perhaps the makeup would be less of an issue if there were a greater sense of pain. While Grace is subjected to various torments and Kirk screams quite well, the sense of torture is incomplete. Marshall pays slightly fetishistic attention to Moorcroft’s large apparatus as well as the various metal instruments used to inflict pain upon Grace. Despite this attention, the film seems unwilling to commit to the nastiness of what it presents, suggesting gore but omitting suffering. As a result, torture remains a rather empty spectacle rather than something that unsettles or horrifies.
Speaking of horror, The Reckoning combines aspects of folk and occult horror. The first appears through the town that accuses Grace, although there is a little sense of a menacing community such as in “The Wicker Man” or the recent “Death of Me.” What we get of the town is a tavern and square, with some rather gurning faces peering into the camera as they speak their accusations. The other aspect is Moorcroft the Witchfinder. Sean Pertwee channels Vincent Price’s iconic performance as Michael Hopkins, but like the rest of the film, the campiness overwhelms the potentially horrific subject matter and Pertwee often seems one step away from twirling his moustache. As he twirls, Grace defies, as rather than focusing on suffering or oppression, the film turns into a battle of wills between Moorcroft and Grace who, wouldn’t you know it, have a history!
The occult horror side of things make the film even more overwrought as ghostly and demonic energies arise. Maybe they are dreams, maybe not, but Grace’s encounters with supernatural forces are so overdone as to be silly more than anything else. These scenes might have worked in a full-on fantasy campfest like 2011’s “Season of the Witch” or 2009’s “Solomon Kane,” but set against the historical backdrop of the plague and witch hunts, it feels underdeveloped and discordant. Discordancy also afflicts the film’s editing, which is at times as jarring as Grace’s makeup. Marshall seems to have decided on an overtly melodramatic style, with crosscutting between different times and locations as well as distracting inserts (hey look, they had hot sex in olden times!).
The melodramatic style does start to fit in the film’s final act as The Reckoning morphs into a sort of period revenge action movie. Torture instruments are turned about, bedpans and stools are swung as weapons alongside swords. During this act, the film becomes slightly reminiscent of “Django Unchained,” offering a fantasy retribution for historical wrongs. There are some satisfying moments, one involving a cart, but also some unnecessary twists that add little in the way of suspense or surprise, while a mirrored device of a sword cutting a rope adds no weight to the proceedings. The film’s politics are progressive, since as a post #MeToo horror, The Reckoning takes some swings at the patriarchy, but the condemnation of female oppression is clumsily handled and ultimately unconvincing. The supertext that provides statistics at the end feels like an attempt to give the film weight, but the juxtaposition with the final image undermines this. Indeed, undermining and contradiction are the overall feeling of The Reckoning, resulting in an intermittently enjoyable but uneven mishmash of narrative, generic and stylistic features.