Film Review: Neil Marshall’s Witch Trial Horror ‘The Reckoning’

There’s an esteemed catalogue of films centred on the subject of witch trials from gems of the past including Witchfinder General, Witchhammer and Mark of the Devil to more contemporary witch-centred classic The Witch. Neil Marshall and partner Charlotte Kirk attempt create another classic of the subgenre with their co-write The Reckoning, with Marshall directing and Kirk leading the project. Unfortunately The Reckoning can’t escape its shallow writing, stilted lead turn, and cheap-looking visual polish.

Set in the late 17th Century, The Reckoning sees young widow Grace (Kirk) attempting to cope after her husband’s death of the plague. After rejecting her brutish landlord’s advances Grace is accused of being a witch, facing imprisonment and torture at the hands of Witchfinder Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee).

Marshall’s cinematic back-catalogue makes him the perfect candidate to direct a film of this subject matter. The grimy, brutal and earthy style of his previous horrors such as Dog Soldiers, The Descent, Centurion and Doomsday could handsomely replicate onto a film centred on the witch trials, yet unfortunately there is little of Marshall’s style evident within the project other than one or two minorly effective jump scares. Instead, The Reckoning feels over-polished with a digital sheen that hampers the overall aesthetic of this potentially grisly tale. This also gives much of Ian Bailie’s production design and the film’s sets a stagey quality meaning we can never fully get lost in the visual world of 1665 puritanical England.

The Reckoning never escapes the frustratingly shallow depths of its narrative. From an overlong build-up to Grace’s imprisonment (heavily centred on flashbacks to life with her gruff husband and his desire to suppress his plague-symptoms from her), Kirk, Marshall and co-writer Edward Evers-Swindell then centre The Reckoning on drawn-out scenes of torture and satanic visions. Unfortunately there is the sense that The Reckoning is setting out to position itself as a feminist text on the strength of female victims of the witch trials – channelled in stark messages about the sheer number of women who lost their lives to the ’cause’ – yet there is nothing within the narrative to promote this or honour them. Instead there’s as little feminist depth here as you would expect from a sixties Hammer heaving-bodice vampire picture. Unfortunately whilst these films benefit from a sixties class and Gothic atmosphere, The Reckoning mainly has torture porn set pieces on offer with Grace subjected to numerous humiliating and invasive practises with the film lingering on these spectacles of unpleasant torture near salivating.

This is not horror by the way of supernatural, The Reckoning sets its sight on capturing the unpleasantries of male privilege and dominance over women – yet the narrative does little to critique this, simply showcasing the tortures on display. There’s a somewhat leering stylistic tone as the camera lingers over Kirk in these scenes, whilst misjudged hallucinogenic moments of near-copulation with a prosthetic-heavy Devil leave a foul taste. To add further misfortune to The Reckoning, Kirk never quite gets to the heart of our protagonist, there is a sense of distance between the viewers and Grace with viewers never quite getting to who the woman she is outside of her torture. There’s something of a forced delivery when it comes to much of the dialogue too, further damaging any sense of authenticity or conviction that The Reckoning might have.

The Reckoning does have some redeeming features in the efficient action spectacle that it crafts (particularly in the scene which sees Grace’s home raided), some striking imagery of plague masks, and Pertwee’s Witchfinder General inspired turn as Judge Moorcroft.

The Reckoning is a curious piece. Lacking the aesthetic grime of classics of the genre, yet unpleasantly voyeuristic and shallow in its documentation of female torture at the hands of male conspirators – this is an overwrought and unconvincing glimpse into the the world of the witch trials.

The Reckoning – In Cinemas & On Digital 16th April