Neil Marshall’s The Descent holds special weight in my mind. I can recall being extraordinarily tense throughout watching that film, cementing it in my head as a distinctly effective horror film. That film is an intensely close-quarters survival thriller turned creature feature that has its cult fanbase, of which I guess I am a part. But after watching The Reckoning, I question whether it was simply a claustrophobia I did not know I had that made that film so effective.
The Reckoning, Marshall’s follow-up to the similar dud Hellboy, is a substantial disappointment. The premise of the film holds promise: during the time of the Great Plague, a woman is accused of dealing with the devil while trying to save her homestead following the untimely death of her husband. Setting a witch trial narrative on the backdrop of the Plague is intriguing. The Witch by way of Contagion, perhaps? Not quite.
The truth of the matter is, the Plague aspect of the plot is tertiary to a half-composed Satanic plot, which itself is secondary to a persecution narrative rife with empty displays of physical and mental torture. The closest this narrative comes to meaningful substance is a surface level discussion of who has the power to determine the truth and cliche statements about how Hell holds less meaning when the earthly realm already resembles Hell. Beyond this, the plot unfurls itself toward a revenge movie payoff that utterly fails to pay off.
Otherwise, The Reckoning continually bathes in gratuitous sequences of medieval torture levied against its protagonist, Grace Haverstock (Charlotte Kirk). Kirk’s character is beaten, whipped, stabbed, stripped naked, and degraded in other ways I will not describe here. Within the right contexts, these disturbing acts can be grotesquely effective on film. But in a turgid and thematically underdeveloped film like The Reckoning, it rings emotionally hollow and, to the right eyes, exploitative.
Perhaps a period piece meets exploitation horror is what Marshall was going for, and perhaps this is up some viewers’ alleys. As a fan of certain brands of period piece and exploitation film, I cannot say I enjoy walking down alleys resembling The Reckoning.
It is also, to continue stretching the analogy to its breaking point, a fairly flat looking alley. The film begins on a rustic country home, an environment which does an adequate job establishing the period setting. But after a superbly edited yet belabored opening sequence, much of the movie takes place in a dank dungeon and a room mostly empty save for torture devices. The closest the film gets to exercising visual flourishes are with clunky push-ins and poorly staged, hallucinatory jump scares.
These scares are as tedious as they are ineffective. The drama surrounding these scares is fairly limp. And the rinse-repeat approach to the persecution of Kirk’s Haverstock is tiresome. Add to this an unremarkable visual style and an overbearing organ score, and The Reckoning is more of a headache than it is an unsettling psychological drama.
The Reckoning: D+