It must be frightening to shoot another horror movie after “The Descent.”
The cave-dwelling shocker stands as one of the best thrillers of the 21st century. Director Neil Marshall hasn’t fully gone back to the horror well since, dabbling in period thrills (“Centurion”), HBO glory (“Game of Thrones”) and IP reboots (“Hellboy”).
“The Reckoning” finds Marshall returning to his roots, and the results are dispiriting to say the least. Marshall’s knack for stinging visuals hasn’t failed him. It’s his choice of material, a heavy-handed swipe at the patriarchy, that commits the worst sin a genre film can make.
It’s a snooze.
Charlotte Kirk stars as Grace, a woman who loses her husband in the opening moments to the Great Plague. It’s the 1600s, and the disease is ravaging England. The frightened locals believe witches have cast a tragic spell on the land, and they must be punished before it gets even worse.
That part is both frightening and true. The “witches” were innocent. The local leaders, all male, hungered for scapegoats.
The subject might make a stirring documentary. As is, Marshall and co. can’t crack history to make it suitably compelling. Instead, it’s dark, tragic and repetitive, a country mile from scary or involving.
Poor Grace gets caught up in the anti-witch frenzy, separating her from her infant daughter. The local judge (Sean Pertwee) demands she confess her sins, but she’ll do nothing of the kind. So they’ll force a mea culpa from her, yielding a quick trip through horror’s torture porn phase.
“The Reckoning” opens with a beautifully cold black and white sequence, the film’s creative high point. From there we learn how Grace’s husband (Joe Anderson) caught the plague as well as snippets from their love story. Both are bogged down by redundant story beats lacking the lived-in details to make the moments pop.
From there it’s watching Grace endure lie after lie, with her future looking bleak.
There’s an unmistakable attack on the patriarchy throughout the film, and while its rooted in historical truths it plays out in bludgeoning fashion. In case Grace’s plight wasn’t calamitous enough we meet her longtime friend who similarly endures a man’s brutish behavior.
Yes, it’s a horror movie, but even genre films can tread lightly with their messaging. The best ones do just that, letting the scares dominate the story.
That isn’t the case here.
Kirk’s performance is occasionally strong, especially during a reunion with her child. Otherwise, it meanders from overkill to mute. She looks stunning throughout the film, and her movie star glamour is an odd fit given the punishment her character endures.
It’s a minor flaw, of course, but indicative of other problems plaguing the project.
FAST FACT: Neil Marshall helmed two of the more memorable installments of “Game of Thrones” — “Blackwater” and “The Watchers on the Wall.”
Screenwriters Kirk, Marshall and Edward Evers-Swindell rely on some ham-fisted turns to reach the busy finale. That third act is ludicrous but spy, transforming a key character into an improbable warrior. It doesn’t help the film’s credibility factor, but it’s a reprieve from the laborious set up.
It’s hard to say if Marshall and co. let their feminist messaging get in the way of a rollicking horror treat. Perhaps a story with so many obvious villains needs more texture, and balance, to appease modern crowds.
HiT or Miss: “The Reckoning” is appropriately spit polished and occasionally creepy, but the sluggish pace and absurd third act do the real-life inspiration few favors.