I’m a sucker for a film about witchcraft, so when I got the opportunity to screen the new Shudder Exclusive, The Reckoning, from director Neil Marshall, I jumped at the chance. You may remember Neil Marshall from such movies as The Descent, Dog Soldiers, and Game of Thrones, so he has an impressive resume.
The Reckoning is purportedly based on a true story and begins with a little history of the witch trials in both Europe and America. The plot centers around Grace Haverstock (Charlotte Kirk), who has recently become widowed after her husband contracts the plague and commits suicide so that he won’t spread the sickness to her and their daughter. Grace immediately has to find her strength to cut her husband down and bury him…and that’s just the beginning.
Let me step back a second and take a deeper look at the plague. As we now know, the bubonic plague, otherwise known as the Black Death, struck Europe in 1347 and reportedly killed approximately 20 million people—nearly a third of the continent. Through science, we know that the plague was spread through bacillus by air from person to person and also through the bite of infected fleas and rats.
The Great Plague of London took place in 1665 and was the largest epidemic of bubonic plague in Europe. Congruently, the European witch hunts took place from 1450 through 1750, so it would seem that the epidemic faced in this movie would be the Great Plague of London as opposed to the Black Death, although it is never really specified.
What is specified is that, much like today’s COVID-19 pandemic, there were some science deniers who thought that this plague was brought on by the Devil, which led witch hunters to prowl the streets and kill anyone suspected of witchcraft. And as you probably know, it didn’t take much to be a suspect.
After her husband’s death, Grace is faced with the fact that she is now the sole provider of the house, and she is forced to go to town to beg a friend of her husband for a loan to pay her rent. On her way, she is exposed to just how devastating the plague has become as she rides by sick people, animals feasting on the dead and dying, and plague doctors cleaning up after them.
While at the pub seeking help, she inquires about her husband’s last day alive. She’s told by his friend that he simply stopped there for a drink after working. A man from outside the village was there, and he was ill. Her husband drank out of the wrong mug and contracted the sickness. However, there seems to be some question as to if his drinking from the wrong cup was truly an accident, but sadly, this is never revisited in the film.
The trouble really begins when Grace’s landlord comes to collect his rent and Grace doesn’t have the money. She tries to negotiate and ends up buying some time by giving him her and her husband’s wedding rings in exchange for six months’ rent. He accepts but also decides he is entitled to take more than she is willing to give, and he attacks her. Grace thwarts his advancements, and he flees under shotgun fire. Thus begins the downfall of the male ego. The landlord immediately heads to the pub and begins planting seeds that Grace is a witch (because what other excuse could she have for not giving him what he wants?). Of course, the rest of the townies pile on with their “evidence,” and she is convicted in the court of public opinion.
The audience is then privy to some information surrounding Grace’s childhood in the form of flashback memories of her mother. Her mother also was accused of witchcraft and burned at the stake, leaving Grace and her father alone to pick up the pieces as she would leave her daughter if the town folk have their way. Of course, it is at about this time that witch hunters, led by her landlord, assail her, burn down her house, and arrest her.
Here the director sends Grace into some dark places and brings out her inner Buffy as she digs deep to find her empowerment and the courage to stand up to her captors. She is subjected to some serious torture but refuses to confess to witchcraft. During this time, she is visited by visions of her husband and her mother, who give her strength but also visions of the Devil. This is where things get a little questionable for me.
We’re clued into some pretty intense moments between Grace and the Devil, some that are downright…dare I say…romantic. The question for me became, is she having these visions because she is in the midst of torture and sleep deprivation, or is she actually a witch? Does it run in the family like Sabrina Spellman? Again, this question is never fully answered.
All in all, the cinematography and atmosphere in this film work very well. The atmosphere is dark, dank, and dreary, lending to the tone of the film and the medieval timeframe. There are a good number of jump scares and creepy warnings from the dead as Grace moves along on her journey and begins finding her courage and footing in maintaining her integrity while fighting for her and her daughter’s lives.
For me as a fan of the occult, there seemed to be some opportunities missed for further exploration of the witchcraft theme, and it seems to fade to the background to focus more on Grace’s growth as a heroine, which is totally in line with the story. I simply would have liked to see the director delve into witchcraft further.
For horror lovers, there is some interesting gore, creative torture, and solid kills, but again, I would have liked to see the director go a little deeper in this area—especially when Grace begins getting her revenge on her captors and finding her legacy of strength and empowerment. Overall, you’ll enjoy this film as much as I did. Who doesn’t want to see a once-meek woman overcome some serious jerks to find her inner warrior?
The Reckoning premieres on May 13 on Shudder.