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.
Published as part of Fantasia Fest 2020 — Dispatch 4.