The era of witch-hunting has long been a fascinating well from which horror directors have drawn inspiration. Michael Reeves’ seminal Witchfinder General might be the primary example of this, a supremely dark film that perfectly captures both the prevalence of superstition, and the mercurial nature of the witchfinders themselves. More recently A Field In England, Black Death and even Inside No.9 have found original ideas around this, and with John Hillcoat‘s Witchfinder set for a 2021 release date, it looks like there is still an interest in the subject.
The Reckoning aims to emulate Witchfinder General, but it lacks the depth and the darkness that surrounds the “Witchfinders” who were really sinister conmen / psychopaths. Even something like Black Death – for the most part a fairly generic action horror – has a better grasp on what motivates these figures than The Reckoning.
Neil Marshall made his name on the back of The Descent, one of the most purely entertaining, terrifying British horror films ever made, and subsequently directed a handful of the best episodes of Game Of Thrones, so I was genuinely excited at the prospect of him directing a Witchfinder type film. Which makes the outcome even more disappointing.
It all starts promisingly, with beautiful black and white cinematography over the title sequence, but it quickly goes downhill. Charlotte Kirk (who also co-wrote the film) plays Grace, the widow of a plague victim who has hanged himself. When she refuses the advances of the sleazy squire (Steven Waddington) she finds herself accused of witchcraft, and quickly brought before the Witchfinder Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee).
The Reckoning has bafflingly drawn comparisons with The Nightingale, but aside from the most superficial similarities they are completely different films. The Nightingale is an incredibly tough viewing experience, but took its subject seriously and never sensationalised the trauma it put the lead character through. The Reckoning, by contrast, has disturbing scenes, but they feel exploitational rather than disturbing (with one exceptionally gory moment rendered unintentionally hilarious) and unfortunately Kirk can’t compete with Aisling Franciosi‘s dynamo performance.
It’s unfortunate that Kirk has to carry the film pretty much on her own for the first half, as in a supporting role her shortcomings as an actress might have gone unnoticed. As it is, she comes across as incredibly wooden but it’s not entirely her fault – the character is needlessly complicated, and just a bit boring. That being said the flashback scenes with her deceased husband (Joe Anderson) are woven neatly into the otherwise plodding narrative, and their relationship is painfully believable, and one of the film’s few redeeming features.
Kirk is not alone though, as all the performances are very one note. Nobody talks like a real person, and everyone is just impossibly stupid. The characters in The Descent and Dog Soldiers feel vital and alive, with personalities that jump off the screen, and the casts have an easy camaraderie that feels authentic. In The Reckoning, only Sean Pertwee appears to be enjoying himself. He clearly relishes the opportunity to play such a sinister character, even if he is contending with a very silly hat. The problem is that his character seems to genuinely believe in what he’s doing, which is completely at odds with the reality (or even Vincent Price’s iconic performance as Matthew Hopkins) and also makes him seem less villainous.
There are some beautiful shots of the English countryside and Marshall clearly know how to way around shot composition, as some of the cinematography looks stunning. However the shaky cam is distracting, and the direction often feels muddled – the use of a nightmarish devil figure goes nowhere interesting and seems crowbarred in to attract a more overtly horror audience.
The Reckoning starts promisingly, but quickly loses its way, turning into a hodgepodge of clichés and a derivative story. It’s always sad seeing a once great director fall on hard times, but there’s really not very much to commend here. There was a lot of much potential, but the acting is terrible, and the story plods to the point of standing still.
The Reckoning is available to Stream on Digital now.
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