Director Neil Marshall is responsible for one of my top 5 favorite horror films of all time, The Descent, which only served to set an impossibly high standard for witchy horror thriller, The Reckoning. Set in England, amidst the 1665 backdrop of the Great Plague (and inspired by actual events!), the film seeps us in tragedy from early on. Joseph (Joe Anderson) gets sick accidentally, and hangs himself to protect his wife and their unborn child. This leaves Grace (Charlotte Kirk) widowed and alone; her horny landlord (Steven Waddington) tries to make moves on the vulnerable woman, but she abruptly rejects him. Naturally, he does what all prominent scorned men of the time turned to: he accuses Grace of witchcraft. With zero evidence to prove her innocence, Grace is captured, following the destruction of her home in a blazing fire. Brought to a dastardly and cruel witch-hunter (Gotham’s Sean Perwee) who immediately imprisons her and captures her child, Grace must endure endless emotional and physical torture to have any hope of making it out alive.
Co-written by lead actress Charlotte Kirk and Edward Evers-Swindell, The Reckoning eschews period accuracy for character study. When the witch-hunter discovers a small mark on the nape of Grace’s neck, he takes it as “the mark of the beast” and becomes completely convinced of her guilt. Grace’s harrowing story puts Kirk through all manner of awful situations, including signature torture sequences that are uncomfortable to watch. Grace sees Joseph’s ghost quite frequently. This not only serves to give Joe Anderson stronger impact on the narrative, but also adds a weird Pet Sematary atmosphere to those scenes in particular. The creepiest of all is the devil himself, who begins appearing to Grace and even seems to rape her at one point with his allure. It’s a devil with large horns, with horrifying practical creature design that reminded me of the creatures from The Descent. Neil Marshall wisely plays with the idea that all of this could be manifesting in Grace’s head, thanks to her terrible conditions.
The costuming and aesthetic is a mix of tones that fills in notes of light fantasy. Some of the sequences, particularly those with characters sitting around sipping wine, are very reminiscent of Game of Thrones, which Marshall also worked on. Furthermore, like much of Marshall’s work, this film refuses to back down from its gory blood-soaked machinations. The violence is nasty and unforgiving; a late scene where a man’s head explodes after being run over by a wagon wheel is gleefully over-the-top. Text at both the beginning and the denouement reminds us about just how prevalent and unforgiving it was to spout nonsense about witchcraft and “making unholy covenant with the devil” could be back in the day. With devilish imagery, a difficult journey of torment and endurance, the detailed eye of Neil Marshall, and a vanity-free performance from Charlotte Kirk, The Reckoning is disturbing slow-burn horror.
The Reckoning flies to Shudder on Thursday, May 13th.