Home Horror Entertainment News Fantasia 2020: Neil Marshall’s ‘The Reckoning’ is Frighteningly Familiar

Fantasia 2020: Neil Marshall’s ‘The Reckoning’ is Frighteningly Familiar

by Kelly McNeely
The Reckoning

Neil Marshall’s The Reckoning is accidentally one of the most timely films to come out of 2020. Though it was filmed well before COVID-19 shook the world, it’s set in 1665, right in the midst of the bubonic plague and Europe’s witch hunts. Based on (obviously) true events, the film uses chaotic hatred and fear to tell a vengeful tale that still hits close to home.  

In the film, Grace Haverstock (Charlotte Kirk) is mourning the all-too-recent death of her husband, Joseph (Joe Anderson). Stuck raising their infant daughter on her own (during a deadly pandemic) she is soon visited by her landlord, Squire Pendleton (Steve Waddington), who demands rent despite her delicate living situation. When she spurns his grossly inappropriate and wholly unwelcome advances for an alternative arrangement, he sparks the fires of suspicion amongst the townsfolk, now certain that she must be a witch. 

For those not familiar with the Malleus Maleficarum, one of the supposed signs of bewitchment was erotic temptation (and also impotence, but that’s a whole other story). That’s right, if you made a man horny, you were most likely a witch. Naturally, once Squire was denied that which he disgustingly believed he was owed, witchcraft was a natural accusation. Grace is taken and tortured for several days in an attempt to gain a confession for her supernatural sins. 

Anyone who has been paying attention during the last several months will notice parallels between the events of the film and what’s going on currently. Self-quarantining and rent freezing are uncomfortably relevant, and much of what makes the first half of the film so effective is this relatable recognition.

Again, The Reckoning was written and filmed long before COVID-19, but perhaps the film suffers from how timely it has unintentionally become. The plot shifts from the grim presence of the plague (complete with plague doctors decked out in fashionably terrifying skeletal masks) and over to the horrific torture of the witch hunts, and the transition is obvious (literally identified by a title card).

The plague is more of a plot device to get Grace into the hands of Britain’s most ruthless Witchfinder, which ends up dividing the film into two distinct acts. One half is a plague film, the other a witch hunt revenge tale. It seems like two films stitched together somewhere in the middle; the plague is acknowledged through the film — to varying degrees of relevance — but there’s no real payoff.

Were this to be released during any other pandemic-free time, this wouldn’t be noticeable, but because we’re suddenly so mindful of it, it becomes hard to let go. With today’s context, the minor details become major, the historical nuances hold more weight; when they’re set aside, it feels like an important element is dropped. 

For a film that is firmly focused on the atrocities committed by the Witchfinder, there’s surprisingly little torture. Obviously there’s a fine line between appropriately bloody and gratuitously gory, but The Reckoning seems to fall on the tamer side. Throughout all her trials and tribulations, Grace remains relatively glamorous. After dragging the leading ladies of The Descent through literal pools of blood and muck, it’s somewhat surprising to see such restraint from Marshall. 

That said, the technical elements are all there. Christopher Drake’s musical score has a powerful drive that pushes emotion and sets a stark, dark mood. Luke Bryant’s cinematography uses lighting and framing to build some beautiful shots. The practical effects are visceral. It’s undeniably a well made film. 

Medieval horror — as a whole — is a relatively stagnant subgenre and it’s admittedly hard to bring something new to the table. The Reckoning starts on a high (and, again, unintentionally on-the-nose) note, but there doesn’t seem to be enough escalation to make it stand out as spectacular. Marshall is a genre favourite for his work on modern horror classics The Descent and Dog Soldiers, so The Reckoning came with high expectations. But it feels a tad disjointed, with a passable yet overall underwhelming climax. 

It is a fairly effective film with solid performances and a thoughtfully constructed, historically relevant story that rings a bit too true at the present moment. But in the grander scheme of Marshall’s work, it may get left in isolation.