You would be hard pressed to find a better backdrop for a horror movie — and particularly one being released in the current climate — than the Great Plague. With The Reckoning, Neil Marshall, the indie filmmaker responsible for Dog Soldiers and The Descent, doesn’t merely use the pestilence as a backdrop, however. Every pustule oozes, every desecrated corpse stinks and every violently bloody eruption splatters with sickening efficacy. Marshall has long proven himself a maestro of gore, but he makes a compelling case in his latest film for showing the after-effects of horrific acts rather than ruminating on the acts themselves. The Reckoning is gooey and disgusting, but it’s not gratuitous. Hell, the film is borderline feminist.
The Reckoning’s heroine is Evelyn (Charlotte Kirk, who also co-wrote the screenplay alongside Marshall and Edward Evers-Swindell), a young mother who has just lost her husband (Joe Anderson, seen mostly in flashback and hallucinatory visions) to “the sickness.” Left to raise their daughter alone, Evelyn is forced to barter the couple’s wedding rings to money-grabbing landlord Pendleton (Steven Waddington), who would much rather trade sex in exchange for the rent. After Evelyn rebuffs his advances, Pendleton tells the entire town she’s a witch. The young woman is swiftly captured, her baby ripped from her arms, and thus begins the legally dubious process of extracting her “confession.”
Comparisons to Robert Eggers’ celebrated horror story The Witch are unavoidable, but The Reckoning actually shares more DNA with another British, female-led story of personal hardship — William McGregor’s highly underrated Gwen. Although set during the industrial revolution, McGregor’s film crackles with the same supernatural sensation that a woman’s spirit cannot be broken no matter how much her body might be. In The Reckoning, though, Evelyn is put through the ringer in a very literal sense. The arrival of witchfinder Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee) and his great, big pointy hat signals that the protagonist is about to be strapped into variously horrifying-looking wooden instruments.
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Although Evelyn is indeed poked, prodded and even has tools inserted into her, Marshall doesn’t fixate on her suffering. When instruments of torture are gleefully introduced, the camera cuts to the protagonist’s stoicism-turned-unbridled anguish and then quickly cuts again to show only the aftermath of her ordeal — typically, bloodied body parts and clothing. It wasn’t too long ago that so-called “torture porn” was being heralded as the next big thing in horror. To see somebody like Marshall, a gore aficionado through and through, staking a claim for what’s seldom seen being more horrifying is a major step forward. And, crucially, it works like gangbusters.
The decision not to delight, and by extension asking the audience to delight in Evelyn’s pain, also speaks to The Reckoning’s unsteady position as a low-key feminist picture. Aside from Kirk making mincemeat of the lead role and having a defining hand in the at-times uneven script, the whole movie stems from one man’s rejection by a woman he feels is beneath him. The central conflict emerges from his bruised ego chafing against Evelyn’s unbreakable resolve. The decision to put a female helper alongside Moorcroft, who’s been taken in by his delusions of grandeur, is similarly progressive and provides an interesting wrinkle in the greater narrative.
Through this glassy-eyed devotee, The Reckoning makes a sharp point about the complicity of women, or more accurately white women, in the destruction of other women. Moorcroft’s helper dedicates herself to the greater cause like a devout parishioner, imploring Evelyn to give in by offering her an apple in a clever nod to their stringent Christian beliefs. She’s introduced showing only her eyes, like a samurai, and later proves that there’s some serious fight in her — provided it’s directed, of course, at misbehaving females rather than the menfolk. Too often women are let off the hook in girl power style stories, but everybody is guilty here.
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The Reckoning could similarly be read as a rumination on fundamentalist religion, particularly in how it presents Evelyn’s crisis of faith as she’s tempted by Satan himself. The representation of the Devil is awe-inspiringly gruesome, equal parts horned beast and horny dude. A shot of him slowly crawling out of a pool is one for the ages, recalling The Descent’s subterranean nightmare. Maybe the Devil looks this good as penance for the widely, and unfairly, derided Hellboy, but who’s to say? Regardless, this is an ingenious representation, one that stands apart from others in popular culture while staying true to the beast’s origins.
On the other side of the fence, the kindly Edwin (Callum Goulden) represents the angel on Evelyn’s shoulder as she struggles with the weight of her convictions, his round face beatific. Happily, Marshall and his co-writers don’t rely on the woman’s faith to justify her actions. Evelyn’s resolve is almost otherworldly at times, but it’s clear that she believes first and foremost in being a good person, rather than serving any kind of male, godly or otherwise. Although the old-timey language frequently feels slightly stilted and stagey, Kirk sells it so confidently that it hardly matters when The Reckoning starts to sound like a trip to the London Dungeons.
Humor is sparsely used throughout in The Reckoning, which is a smart move considering the next step up from “Cor blimey” Dungeons-style setups is Horrible Histories, where fart jokes abound. Ye olden times are plenty scary anyway, but this period is downright chilling — the plague doctor getups alone are enough to provoke nightmares. Marshall’s film certainly flirts with ripeness, but the chosen setting allows for some stunning indoor sequences lit entirely by candlelight, while the opening moments are presented in atmospheric monochrome. Christopher Drake’s score, meanwhile, transitions from choirs of screaming women to a swell of aching organs.
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Despite the period detailing and looming castles, The Reckoning is unavoidably topical. When Evelyn is warned not to venture into town, it momentarily feels like she’s going to head back for her mask. Releasing a movie about a deadly plague taking down an entire town’s worth of people right now is a clever move, but what makes Marshall’s latest so special is his leading lady and co-writer. Kirk turns The Reckoning into a rallying cry for women everywhere to refuse to bend to the will of men, which might be the most surprising thing about this fantastically gruesome and highly entertaining horror movie.
Joey Keogh (@JoeyLDG) is a writer from Dublin, Ireland with an unhealthy appetite for horror movies and Judge Judy. In stark contrast with every other Irish person ever, she’s straight edge. Hello to Jason Isaacs.