Following the misfire of 2019’s “Hellboy” reboot, “The Descent” director Neil Marshall returns to his traditional horror roots with “The Reckoning,” an uneven melodrama about an innocent young widow accused of witchcraft during the Great Plague of London, 1665. Striving to be a rousing tale of female empowerment in the face of brutal patriarchy and religious extremism, “The Reckoning” has some powerful moments but relies too heavily on fantasy sequences to deliver scares, and its credibility is significantly compromised by the heroine consistently emerging from extreme torture sessions with barely a hair out of place or a smudge on her makeup. Dedicated horror hounds will be the main takers when this well-produced item hits U.S. theaters and VOD on February 5.
A world apart from arty contemporary folk-horrors such as “The Witch” and “Hagazussa: A Heathen’s Curse,” Marshall’s new film is more closely related to hellfire European exploitation titles of the past like “Mark of the Devil” (1970), “Blood on Satan’s Claw” (1971) and Michael Reeves’s 1968 cult favorite “Witchfinder General,” starring a non-hammy Vincent Price in one of his best roles.
Though written and filmed before COVID-19, there are strong parallels with recent events in vivid opening scenes showing pestilence and death sweeping across England. After contracting the plague at a city tavern, young farmer Joseph Haverstock (Joe Anderson) hangs himself rather than expose wife Grace (Charlotte Kirk) and their baby daughter to the deadly infection.
It’s not long before sleazy landlord Pendleton (Steve Waddington) comes calling for the rent. Despite Grace offering the couple’s wedding rings as payment for the next six months, Pendleton suggests she give him sexual favors instead. When Grace fends off the lecherous landlord’s advances, he publicly accuses her of witchcraft. In a short scene reflecting current concerns about mob mentality and the pernicious power of misinformation, it takes about 30 seconds for everyone in earshot to enthusiastically agree with Pendleton.
Thus far an engaging depiction of chaotic social and religious behavior during a public health catastrophe, “The Reckoning” all but forgets the plague once Grace is thrown into a filthy cell with the usual assortment of miscreants and weirdos, and Pendleton calls for the assistance of Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee, excellent). A religious fanatic and self-flagellator regarded as England’s leading witch-hunter, Moorcroft specializes in extracting confessions from even the most defiant of women, such as Grace. From this moment, the story is firmly focused on torture, resistance and revenge.
It’s a long slog through the four days Moorcroft has Grace at his mercy. Viewers are spared explicit visuals of the appalling pain he inflicts, but therein lies one of the film’s main problems. Even after the unspeakable injuries Grace sustains from the infamous Pear of Anguish internal torture device, her unblemished face and shiny golden hair bear no relation to the off-screen suffering she has endured. Many viewers simply won’t believe that Grace could possibly be well enough to run around and wield a hefty sword once she breaks free and the grim drama morphs into an action-packed female revenge movie.
Though clearly wanting to hit the mark as a #MeToo-aware indictment of toxic male behavior, the script by Marshall, Kirk and Edward Evers-Swindell offers only a superficial examination of why powerful men used witchcraft as a lever to victimize, brutalize and control women. Interesting characters such as Grace’s best friend Kate (Sarah Lambie), who is saddled with an abusive husband, and Moorcroft’s hideously scarred assistant, Ursula (Suzanna Magowan), initially promise to shed light on the subject but their roles are too brief to make a meaningful impact.
Also not helping matters are too-frequent fantasy sequences in which Grace is visited by the ghost of her late husband and makes love to none other than the Devil himself (Ian Whyte). Though stylishly executed and delivering a decent quota of frights, these diversions into dreamland and the occult contribute very little to the story.
Filmed on Hungarian locations that stand in convincingly for 17th-century England, “The Reckoning” is atmospherically shot by DP Luke Bryant and impeccably decorated by production designer Ian Bailie and art director Vanessa O’Connor. The film’s impressive technical package is dominated by a huge, booming orchestral score by Christopher Drake that’s a little overused but sounds great when deployed at the right moments.