I am a long-time fan of Neil Marshall’s 2005 cave-dwelling horror The Descent. Pretty much since I first saw it over 15 years ago, it has stayed on as one of my all-time favourites and is still a film that I re-visit on a regular basis. As someone who suffers from claustrophobia, it offers the perfect horror setting and mixed with creepy man-eating monsters and intensifying drama between the characters, it is one perfect little package or terror. I just love it.
So, hearing that Marshall has returned back to the horror genre and not only that, taken on a revenge drama set in the middle of England’s witch hunts, my curiosity was naturally aroused. A story with such a setting assuredly has all the potential to be something intriguing. And it does, but unfortunately, The Reckoning does not live up to that potential. Instead of the powerful story of female empowerment that it should be, Marshall has delivered an uneven period drama that lacks focus and results in a lukewarm mess.
The story centres around young widow Grace (Charlotte Kirk) who has recently lost her husband to the plague. Making ends meet as a single mother in 1665 is no easy task and things are not made any easier by a creepy and greedy landlord Pendleton (Steven Waddington), whose idea of showing a grieving young woman compassion, is to suggest a more carnal arrangement for her to pay the rent. Naturally, when this suggestion is bluntly and violently declined by Grace, Pendleton does what any reasonable man in his position would: accuses her of being a witch. Grace is captured and taken to be interrogated and her baby daughter is kidnapped by Pendleton, under the guise of giving her a better life. A renowned witch-hunter Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee) and his assistant Ursula (Suzanne Magowan) are summoned to get the confession that Pendleton himself is too cowardly to get. The torture that ensues starts Grace on a journey of defiance, rebellion and ultimately, revenge.
On paper, The Reckoning has all the makings for a semi-decent witch-hunt horror. Admittedly, a story of a falsely accused woman, especially one who has refused the advances of a man in a powerful position, is a tale as old as time and certainly something we have all seen before. It is nothing ground-breaking but could in the right hands offer an interesting framework for a revenge story. Unfortunately, that is not quite what we get here. While there is definitely revenge, with quite satisfying results I might add, it is not enough to redeem the otherwise very uneven nature of the film.
The major issue is that there seems to be at least three different story ideas mixed together, but none of them is fully realised. The first is the obvious tale of torture that we are all so familiar from films such as Mark of the Devil (1970) and Witchfinder General (1968), with the horror stemming from the reign of terror the witch-hunters inflicted upon people and the horrendous miscarriage of justice that followed. The second is a tale of the supernatural: a real witch amongst the wrongly accused. The third, a straightforward tale of revenge with a side order of female empowerment. When executed in the right manner, all these ideas can make a decent witch hunt themed horror. They can work perfectly well on their own, or as a combination and indeed, I hoped that The Reckoning would ultimately deliver a mixture between the last two. The fantasy scenes where Grace encounters the devil himself (Ian Whyte), seem to indicate a connection between the two, be it conscious or unconscious, and the fact that Grace’s own mother was also tortured and burned at the stake as a witch (by none other than Moorcroft), does its part to reinforce this possible narrative. As the torture and Grace’s fantastical visions intensify (with Grace seemingly unfazed by all of it), some kind of unholy intervention seems to be taking place and a lengthy family connection to the Prince of Darkness appears like the most logical conclusion. Now mix in some well-deserved gory revenge and add a bit more girl power, and you should have something quite entertaining in your hands. After all, Grace is not the only strong female character in the story. There is also Ursula; Moorcroft’s mysterious assistant who herself was burned at a stake, survived and was taken under Moorcroft’s wing. Equally a side story following Grace’s friend Kate (Sarah Lambie) and her struggles with a brute of a husband offers an interesting avenue for exploring these themes. After all, two is company, three is a coven, and seeing these three witches get together and take their revenge on those who hurt them could have been immensely enjoyable.
But alas, it is not to be. The revenge part does materialise, but the supernatural elements are very quickly forgotten in favour of an action-packed revenge drama, with Ursula staying on the wrong side of history and Kate as an irrelevant side story. This sudden change of pace is no doubt an attempt to change the tone and turn the power dynamics of the film upside down, but there is a severe problem with the credibility of this move. From the very first minutes, there is a little detail that will in no doubt irritate most viewers, myself included, and that same detail keeps on getting more noticeable and more irritating as the story progresses. I am of course talking about Grace’s Hair and make-up. It might seem like a completely trivial thing to be complaining about, but it is also such an easy mistake to avoid that getting the styling of the main character this wrong just feels incredibly lazy. At the end of the day, the year is 1665 and the woman we are following a simple farmer’s wife living in the middle of nowhere on a dingy little farm. Somehow, as if through magic, this woman of simple means has clean, shiny, perfectly styled hair and full-face make-up. Not just a bit of mascara, a full-on smoky eye that even in modern times would be ever so slightly over the top for simply getting through your everyday farm chores. What makes it worse is that the level of grooming does not change as Grace is dragged to a dirty dungeon and tortured for days on end. Even after being subjected to the infamous Pear of Anguish, she comes out of it with her meticulous make-up perfectly intact and long luxurious locks still at a perfect wave. It is incredibly frustrating and impossible to ignore, try as you might (and I certainly did).
What does work for the film’s benefit is the atmospheric cinematography by Luke Bryant that is perfectly suited for a period drama of this sort. The special effects, including the Devil and a few quite graphic kills scenes, are also well executed and bring a shock or two to the otherwise somewhat repetitive story. Unfortunately, neither of these is enough to save the rest of the film. The fact that The Reckoning has the potential to be something much better makes it that much more frustrating to watch. A bit more focus (and some severe changes to the hair and make-up) could have made a world of difference. As it is, I am left disappointed and disheartened by Marshall’s tepid take on things and shall wait for the next time he takes on the horror genre.Those of you who want to make up your own mind about The Reckoning can find it on DVD and Blu-ray by RLJE Films on April 6.