Dir: Neil Marshall. Cast: Charlotte Kirk, Steven Waddington, Sean Pertwee, Joe Anderson, Emma Campbell-Jones. 15 cert, 111 mins
As the closing captions of The Reckoning reveal, the last woman to be executed for witchcraft in the British Isles was Janet Horne, who was convicted in 1727 on the hearsay of her neighbours, stripped, tarred and burned alive. She’s mentioned here as a footnote to lend this bloody thriller, set during the Great Plague of 1665–6, some ballast – an aspect in which it’s otherwise found wanting.
The history of witch-hunts has inspired some of the greatest achievements in British horror – especially Witchfinder General (1968), Michael Reeves’s extraordinary treatment of sadism and hysteria during the English Civil War. It’s a tall order for any new film to live up to that, and Neil Marshall’s torrid tale of a plague widow’s persecution keeps falling short. But if you’re angling for present-day relevance, The Reckoning does have a heap of weird serendipity on its side.
It stars and is co-written by Charlotte Kirk, the British-Australian actress who has launched suits against a number of high-level Hollywood studio executives, alleging mistreatment and the extortion of sexual favours to advance her career. Watching Kirk grapple with the role of Grace Haverstock, who falls prey to misogynistic male power at its most leering and calculated, it’s hard not to read the film on some level as her own fable of revenge.
Grace begins the film contentedly married to Joseph (Joe Anderson), with a newborn baby and a cosy-looking thatched homestead, but finds all three ripped away. Her husband is deliberately poisoned with plague by their burly landlord, Squire Pendleton (Steven Waddington), who assumes he’ll be able to extract rent from Grace in, as he puts it, “other ways”. When she furiously resists, he plays the “witch” card – and before long, a notorious witchfinder called Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee) has ridden in with all his favourite torture implements to try her case.
The Reckoning was shot in Hungary, on a standing medieval-town set where scenes such as Grace’s public flaying in the square must seem relatively old hat by now. Marshall, who became engaged to Kirk after shooting it, has kept himself busy in recent years with episodes of high-end American television, including Westworld, Game of Thrones and Hannibal. This is a return to his low-budget horror roots, following the critical and commercial failure of his 2018 Hellboy reboot.
The strangest corollary to this production is how Marshall himself has been dragged into the drama surrounding Kirk’s alleged gagging orders in Hollywood, and counter-allegations of blackmail against the CEOs concerned (which the men, who were named in Los Angeles court filings last year, have denied). “What we have here is a witch-hunt… perpetrated by overprivileged men in positions of power,” the director said in a statement last August. Rallying to that cause, this script has a stab at making all Grace’s enemies out to be moral hypocrites and victim-blamers in time-honoured fashion. Pendleton, mid-attempted-rape, accuses her of “flaunting [her] tender body like meat on a fish-hook”.
Unfortunately, much of the writing verges on laughable – “different or not, I’d do her,” chips in a prison guard – and a lot of the tavern scuttlebutt about who’s getting witch-bashed next has a whiff of EastEnders. The acting’s perilous, too: Kirk’s Aussie accent keeps slipping out, and her styling has an FHM salaciousness even in moments of profound torment. Waddington is too hail-fellow-well-met to project real menace. Better value is Marshall’s old Dog Soldiers stalwart Pertwee, with his trademark husky whisper, as a villain whose façade of reasonableness gives him a certain clout.
Despite a spirited score and a few other redeeming features, The Reckoning is too clumsy, overlong and generally miscalculated to add up to an intelligent commentary on misogyny, or a satisfying riposte to it. Grace, chained to a rack for long stretches, doesn’t evolve as a character, and the horrors are almost too literal to be interesting.
To beef up the imagery, Marshall besieges her with a string of nightmares, including her husband’s mottled ghost and a horned demon rising from a dungeon latrine. The power she musters to fight back is meant to be wholly physical, nothing to do with any dark art. But by binning all ambiguity in that direction, the film denies itself outlets for ecstatic female rage. All this cruel suffering, and not so much as a Monty-Python-style flotation test? Pshaw.
Available on Shudder (via Amazon Prime) from tomorrow