On its face, The Reckoning seems like a strange follow-up for director Neil Marshall, after last year’s mid-budget Hellboy reset. Then again, given the critical drubbing and box office crickets that met that film, The Reckoning’s evidently modest origins and demon-centric preoccupations begin to make sense, offering the director something of his own reset. That’s about all that makes sense, though. On paper, Marshall’s latest is a feminist revenge tale set within the 17th century’s reinvigorated witch-hunt culture. Specifically, it’s the story of Evelyn (Charlotte Kirk), whose husband is murdered by a scheming landlord (Steven Waddington) who then brands her a witch and attempts to take possession of her land after she refuses his sexual overtures. For good measure, a famed, ruthless witch-hunter (Sean Pertwee) is brought in to draw out some righteous confession before her inevitable burning at the stake. Familiar stuff, but not without clear tonal and thematic potential.
The Reckoning’s first problem, then, is that it’s pitched at a remarkably self-serious register even as its unintentional camp overwhelms. The score alternates between anonymous, gloomy swells and an ominous, half-minute organ piece that’s distractingly similar to DJ Shadow’s “Organ.” Local conspirators, Evelyn’s neighbors and supposed friends, at one point attempt to kidnap her while donning the kind of long-beaked bird masks once used to protect against the plague, as well as top hats for good measure. There’s certainly potential to startle modern audiences by employing this bizarre costuming to craft dread imagery, but it comes off more as a moment of ridiculous pageantry, as nothing else in the film conforms to this mode of visual extravagance — most of the proceedings occur within the unadorned confines of dusty stone walls and set to the flickering of candlelight, so a brief interlude that invokes the cover art of Shane Jones’ novel Light Boxes is a more distracting than frightening.
Elsewhere, a few instances of dissonant gore, a dog whistle for horror extremists, contrast with what is otherwise an intended exercise in slow burn menace; even the film’s practical makeup effects, so often used in service of gruesome body horror, are here integrated more for hellfire imagery than for bloodletting or body obliteration. Meanwhile, horror’s most overused technique — the injection of dream sequences in an effort to realize visuals that would be intrusive otherwise — falls even flatter than usual, in no small part because they mostly detail Evelyn being fondled by some Satan figure who looks remarkably like a skinny, fully-horned Hellboy. While on paper this might bring to mind Rosemary’s Baby, where such sequences served a specific function, any demonism in The Reckoning is established only as a coercive fiction used against women, and the dreams here have little meaning beyond acting as garden-variety data dumps of the damnation rhetoric with which Evelyn has been inundated.
But what really damns the film is its refusal to meaningfully engage with the material’s fertile history. Religion is the patriarchy’s oldest friend and witch-hunting was one of its appallingly imaginative tools of oppression, but that pathology is left entirely unexplored; Marshall is content only to engage the gruesome viscera of its consequences. Pertwee, a genuinely unnerving presence who was elsewhere so menacing in one of Skins’ most surreal episodes, is here given little more to do than snarl religious platitudes and project empty conviction. Marshall occasionally stumbles onto intriguing material — like when a husband browbeats his wife with the threat of an accusation of witchcraft or when the asset-minded landlord realizes the witch-hunter’s genuine spiritual fervor — but he always retreats to safer, less interesting ground. Unable to accrue any real tonal or intellectual force, The Reckoning doesn’t merit even the barest comparison to obvious touchstones like The Witch or The Crucible. The film’s suggestions of female empowerment are entirely superficial, and Marshall forgoes any attempts to explore the religious, patriarchal oppression of women in favor of base brutalism. In the end, Marshall is just another man who doesn’t get it. Luke Gorham
Time of Moulting
Beyond the star-studded premieres, the red carpets, the haute couture, and the million dollar acquisition deals, film festivals (ideally) exist to give a platform to the kinds of movies otherwise neglected (or actively shunned) by the monoculture. Time of Moulting is one of those films — a small, quiet, discomforting gem destined to be ignored by all but the most intrepid filmgoer, forever threatening to fall through the cracks of our collective film culture. It feels like a precious object, something unique and in need of special handling. It’s also, it must be noted, an absolutely terrifying film. Written and directed by Sabrina Martens, with beautiful, sun-dappled cinematography by Jan Fabi, Time of Moulting begins as a kind of oblique portraiture, a series of static shots that very gradually sketch the life of Stephanie (Zelda Espenschied), a precocious young girl who looks to be 7 or 8 years old. She’s curious and full of energy, as most young children are. It’s a curious formal strategy that demands a viewer’s patience and requires one to give into the rhythms of this day-to-day existence. But soon, Martens begins to chart the cracks in this familial foundation: the house is cramped and in some disrepair; father Reinhardt (Bernd Wolf) is quick to temper, casting a quiet pall over the film whenever he appears onscreen. Stephanie’s mother (Freya Kreutzkam) is kind and loving, but also stricken with some unknown ailment that requires her to rest frequently. Stephanie complains about bullies at school, while her mother bestows cryptic warnings about avoiding the dangers outside. At some point, it also becomes clear that the camera is not leaving the home, never traveling further than the backyard. What at first feels cozy, as Stephanie and her mother read books in bed or sit on the couch together, becomes increasingly claustrophobic.
At roughly the halfway point, there’s a fade to black that ruptures the film and reveals Martens’ design: a subtitle appears that simply states ‘ten years later,’ and Time of Moulting becomes a bifurcated narrative, each half now in conversation with the other. Stephanie is now a sullen teenager, played by Miriam Schiweck, angry at her parents and exploring bizarre, potentially dangerous sexual urges. All of the small warning signs present in the first half have now blossomed into a disquieting portrait of a damaged young woman. Fabi’s cinematography also undergoes changes, using less natural light and utilizing a wider angle lens to slightly exaggerate space. The house, already cluttered, is now, ten years later, overflowing with junk, a decade’s worth of detritus crammed into this already small space. There’s no shocking violence or murder on display here, no dark revelations of family secrets or historical atrocities. Martens works in more subtle ways, instead suggesting that neglect can, over time, manifest in more mundane, but no less damaging, ways. Time of Moulting is horror of a unique but palpable variety, capturing every parent’s nightmare: the fear that wrong choices can doom a child to a life of emotional turmoil. Daniel Gorman
Labyrinth of Cinema
Nobuhiko Obayashi, who passed away earlier this year, on April 10, was until recently relegated to the periphery of cinematic discussions of legacy. His status as a master filmmaker — he humbly preferred to be called a ‘film artist’ or a ‘cinematic magician’ — was taken for granted, and his career, which spanned nearly sixty years, is to this day defined to casual filmgoers largely by his uncategorizable, psychedelic ghost tale of sorts, House, which found new fans through its Criterion release. It’s surprising enough that Obayashi’s swansong, Labyrinth of Cinema, was made after he was diagnosed with cancer in 2017 and given only three months to live, but that he delayed death and completed a final brilliant work that goes beyond his own established brand of experimentalism and unleashes the wildest recesses of imagination is something approaching miraculous. In Labyrinth of Cinema Obayashi casts on the screen the potentiality of filmic language as he envisions it, a three-hour, madcap anti-war odyssey through the deliriums of Japanese cinema, history, and poetry and weaving these threads with (semi-autobiographical) memories, nightmares, and dreams. Fittingly, it’s a deeply personal cinematic journey, its story set in Obayashi’s childhood hometown of Onomichi, and it revolves around a cinephile schoolgirl named Noriko and a cohort of three young guys — Mario Baba, a movie geek who’s in love with Noriko, his two pals, one a nerdy film historian, the other a wannabe yakuza. The quartet soon find themselves on the silver screen, omnipresent within an unending stream of Japanese war films and period dramas, that take place during an all-nighter acting as a farewell to the oldest movie theater in town.
Undoubtedly, many of Obayashi’s cinematic and historical references here will be difficult to grasp, but they are far from the film’s central concern. Instead, the director employs brisk editing, fast-paced camera angle shifts, trippy color saturation, and his familiar chaotic imagery and cartoonish tonal atmosphere to immerse us in his final creation in much the same way that his teenaged protagonists here find themselves absorbed within the horrors and absurdities of the past. Labyrinth of Cinema suggests it’s through these cycles that we can “build the future,” but Noriko also states that it’s an effort “to find ourselves.” Obayashi likely thinks the answer is both, and in that spirit he never tries to conceal his visual gimmicks, instead proving eager to reveal cinema’s artifice as not just a method for reclaiming imagination in a despairing world but also as a means to effect our realities from within. It’s what Obayashi always sought to accomplish with film, and so it’s fitting that in his final work he has chosen to depict himself as the strange old pianist who decides to live in the movie forever, crouching over a piano, playing the music of peace toward eternity. Ayeen Forootan
Writer-director Sidharth Srinivasan’s Kriya intelligently inhabits two familiar horror setups: first, the unease of a mysterious seduction; and second, the narrative of the hapless outsider venturing into an unknown world (whose horrors, ultimately, turn out not to be so unfamiliar after all). The story kicks into motion when the protagonist, a DJ named Neel, hooks up with a mysterious woman named Sitara after he finishes his nightclub set. Sitara brings him to her family mansion under the auspices of offering a private place to have sex, but she has other intentions — she wants him to fill the patriarchally customary male role of performing her dying father’s last rites.
Structurally disorienting and mystifying, the film wades from there into a densely-plotted nightmare whose dealings with familial secrets, sexuality, and mortality almost invoke a riff on nineteenth century English Gothic conventions. This is no standard Gothic entry, though. Srinivasan’s interests are pointed and culturally specific: the director mines fear from his contentions with Hindu fundamentalism and religiously-situated misogyny, ultimately locating horror within the protagonist’s own repressed anteriority. Srinivasan’s impressive aesthetic intuitions support these tonal and thematic foundations, beginning by immediately showcasing a vibrantly strobe-lit and colour-soaked club seduction sequence between Neel and Sitara. Cinematographers Lakshman Anand and Karan Thapliyal maximize atmospheric locations, drawing first on the ominous nighttime setup before finding unsettling potential in the brightly daylit final act. The images are haunting and gorgeous.
Srinivasan engages thoughtfully with the interplay between sex and death, one of the horror genre’s most deeply-seated fixations. The writer-director amplifies the tension of Neel and Sitara’s prematurely canceled tryst, and he simultaneously imbues the family death rituals with beautiful mysticism and terribly sexist subjugation. The emphasis here, on repression and relief, overlays the film’s erotic/morbid undercurrent. Unlike too many contemporary films in the genre, Kriya does not pull all its punches. This is, in itself, a novelty: a contemporary horror film that generally opts against bluffing and vague gesturing, aiming instead for a frank and socially confrontational approach. Shot on a limited budget and schedule, Kriya presents an ambitious filmmaker with impressive instincts, delivering an excitingly unique vision. Mike Thorn
“That uniform doesn’t give you the right to kill whoever you want.” It’s hard to think of a more incendiary line being uttered in any 2020 film than this one from Survival Skills, the feature-length debut from writer-director Quinn Armstrong. What starts as a pitch-black comedy slowly morphs into devastating social commentary, made sharper simply by the moment in history at which it arrives. Armstrong is certainly fully committed to his vision, the tale of a 30-year-old man from Any Town — well, make that Middletown — USA and his first year as an officer on the local police force in the late 1980s. Armstrong presents his film as a police training video, filmed almost entirely on era-appropriate VHS tape, with the expected static and tracking issues that would accompany such a format. (Bonus points to the sound design here, which utilizes the fuzz of said static to create a pulsating atmosphere of menace and dread.)
Jim Williams (Vayu O’Donnell) is a white, Christian man, and he lives his life according to “the rules.” Almost instantly, he is forced to reconsider everything he believes after encountering a mother and daughter involved in a domestic violence case. The more he tries to help, the worse things get — both officers and citizens are affected by a broken system that fails to protect and serve. Jim possesses a certain heartbreaking idealism, the belief that one good man can make a difference, but this is contrasted sharply by Jim’s partner, Allison (Ericka Kreutz), a grizzled veteran who has become disillusioned by the very people she is supposed to defend. After one particularly brutal diatribe, Jim intones to her, “I don’t think you should be a police officer.” Moments like this welcomingly complicate and make more palatable the film’s otherwise questionable message, as does Armstrong’s decision to keep his attention on Jim’s specific course rather than any comprehensive assessment.
An argument could be made that blaming a corrupt system for the actions of one individual is both reductive and ignorant — and rightfully so — but Armstrong has an ace up his sleeve in the film’s final ten minutes, removing a lot of the inherent, palate-deadening bitterness in the process. It’s too bad, then, that he couldn’t get a better handle on the film’s tone, which veers wildly from broad comedy to kitchen sink drama to something akin to a Lynchian affect. That inconsistency extends to the film’s character work: nabbing Stacy Keach to narrate was a particular boon to the production, as his menacing growl adds a level of consistency to the proceedings that most certainly was not present on the page, but it’s tough to tell what the hell is going on with Jim’s wife, a Stepford-esque cipher who seems to be visiting from another planet — and another film — altogether. Even worse, Armstrong’s choice to essentially ignore anything related to race seems like, pardon the pun, a cop-out. Despite these obvious problems, Survival Skills remains a bolder film than it at first appears, and could at the very least provoke a few enlightening conversations at a time when they are deeply needed. That’s worth something, even if it’s not a lot. Steven Warner