Contagion, hysteria, conspiracy and the patriarchy – you can’t accuse British horror film The Reckoning of not being on the money, even though it was shot in Hungary in 2019 while the Sars-Cov2 virus was still getting its boots on.
Patriarchy is its biggest concern, though, or one 17th-century woman’s plucky fight against it. Charlotte Kirk both co-wrote and stars as Grace, the hot widow whose looks earn her the unwelcome attention of the local squire (Steven Waddington), who’s already dispatched her husband with plague-spiked ale and now – out of bitter spite at being sexually rebuffed – has accused her of being a witch.
Visually and tonally we’re in the realm of the Hammer horror movie, hence Grace’s low-cut outfits emphasising her breasts, her make-up (lots), and the general lack of certainty about which class she belongs to – Grace seems short of money, but owns a horse and a gun. On top of that there is the tendency for dialogue to lapse into the present-day vernacular – “Sorry for your loss,” the innkeeper says to Grace à propos her dead husband. And the soundtrack’s insistent tendency to reinforce what the screenplay has already told us is very Hammer too, while crowd scenes have that lumpen quality memorably spoofed by the Monty Python crew in The Holy Grail.
The other studio blundering about in the undergrowth is British Tigon, maker of Witchfinder General, the 1968 movie directed by wunderkind Michael Reeves and starring Vincent Price.
But for the most part director Neil Marshall (he of Dog Soldiers fame) weaves guttering candles, dry ice, smoke machines, looming apparitions and gibbering madmen into a Hammer pastiche for the fans, though he is noticeably reluctant to include heaving bosoms in his cataloguing. You can’t exactly diss the patriarchy and be peering down your lead actress’s top at the same time (though he wouldn’t be the first to have tried).
Just at the point when I was wondering how long Marshall could keep this tribute act going, Grace is taken into custody and witchfinder John Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee) enters the frame. As Moorcroft finally gets his moment, things improve enormously for the audience as they become much worse for Grace.
The torture goes from the grim (a flogging) to the horrific (a metal contraption inserted into the vagina and then cranked open), which Moorcroft’s witchfinder justifies in terms of souls being saved from eternal damnation. The logic throughout is of male control of female bodies, whether through arcane instruments of torture or a simple fist to the face. Moorcroft also controls the narrative, of course.
Perversely, the film really picks up once it starts getting nasty, with Pertwee particularly good as the witchfinder, doing his damnedest to underact lest he be compared to Vincent Price (who was also underacting in Witchfinder General – only two slices of ham rather than the usual 12).
Charlotte Kirk also starts having something to do rather than just stand around looking sexy, with the last third of the film marking a decisive shift from passive to active female characters – Grace’s friend Kate (Sarah Lambie) also manages to do something spectacularly brutal to her weak bullying husband (Leon Ockendon, rather good).
Marshall’s love of the butcher’s shop shots – who can forget that pound of sausages (sorry, entrails) in Dog Soldiers? – is kept largely in check, save for a couple of whoa moments. He’s much more interested in the fickleness of the crowd, how easily swayed an ignorant mob can be by a silken word. Conspiracy, populism, irrational voting behaviour, fill your boots.
None of it really makes any sense as a slice of reality – Grace running around athletically after only moments before having been unstrapped from the torturer’s trestle – but as a Hammer/Tigon (though much more the former than the latter) homage with a fuck-the-patriarchy angle The Reckoning does have something to say.
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© Steve Morrissey 2021