England. 1665. Year of the Great Plague...
...Writer/director Neil Marshall, a filmmaker with at least two recent horror classics (The Descent, Dog Soldiers) and a memorable job as a recurring director for Game of Thrones, is back with co-writers Edward Evers-Swindell and Charlotte Kirk for The Reckoning: a 17th century thriller set during the Great Plague. Witch hunts are the latest fad, and Grace (Charlotte Kirk) becomes the newest victim of the unjustified killings. During the time of the Great Plague (not to be confused with our current plague) people died without warning (or because they did not know science) and looked for anyone to blame. Based on very real events, The Reckoning follows the Witch Finders, people desperate to lay blame on someone for the rising death toll. At the time, women disproportionately earned the most attention from the Finders as the slightest act could deem someone a witch (ex: red hair, intelligence, or just pissing off the village incel).
Grace recently lost her husband Joseph (Joe Anderson, The Crazies) due to a suspicious interaction with the landlord. Now a single parent, Grace struggles to feed her infant and tend to the crops. The shady landlord (Steven Waddington) previously mentioned, offers to forgive her rent in exchange for sexual favors, but Grace refuses and therefore seals her fate. The landlord declares Grace a witch and the woman immediately becomes imprisoned. Now, the Witch Finder Moorcroft, played by Sean Pertwee (Event Horizon), steps in with the intention of finding Grace guilty of witchcraft. Moorcroft's ability as a Witch Finder comes with the description of being cruel, brutal, and even invasive, as his methods rely on torturing the accused until death becomes the preferred option. However, Moorcroft meets his match with Grace.
Accustomed to dealing with monsters and creatures in his previous films, here Marshall approaches horror in its most frightening form: how humans treat each other. The heinous acts committed against Grace in the name of God are filled with terror. Visually, the film works very well. Photography and set design are impactful, culminating after a couple of very lengthy first acts in a nerve wracking third act. Relying on sleep deprived dreams and painful flashbacks, Grace envisions her dead husband and Satan himself, which both frighten and embolden her. While in the dungeon, Kirk plays an abused woman refusing to give up on herself and her daughter, and we see some solid effects in relation to her mental and physical torture. I don’t know if I will go as far as to use the horrid phrase of ‘torture porn’, but certain scenes will have you squirming in your seat. On the topic of Kirk, some reviewers have become really hung up on the hair and make-up of the lead actress and believe Grace’s appearance does not fit the time, nor the conditions. All movies require some level of suspension of disbelief, so if you are having trouble believing in a witch’s appearance, just go ahead and assume magic is involved.
Witch hunts have been seen countless times in film, and The Reckoning does not add anything new to this familiar narrative, but it makes up for its flaws with the in-depth exploration of the protagonist’s pain and suffering. Some aspects of history required rendering for the sake of modern audiences, but a few interesting tidbits of plague trivia slip in. For example, the strong association cats hold with witches means these poor felines were murdered by the hundreds to stop the plague. Which obviously backfired because the true plague-carriers were rats, now free to run amok with the lack of natural predators.
Despite some heavy influences from Marshall’s time with Game of Thrones and some intense nightmare sequences, the film doesn’t reach the director’s capabilities showcased in The Descent and Dog Soldiers. We do see quite a bit of action mixed in with the horror and placed in a historical drama context, as was common to Marshall's previous films. The film shows a good portrayal of the unfair persecution of the time with a cathartic little revenge storyline. The Reckoning has flaws, but it will leave you satisfied, with the ambiguousness of Grace's abilities providing discussion for months to come.
RLJE Films and Shudder will release The Reckoning In Theaters, On Demand and Digital February 5th.
By Amylou Ahava