FrightFest Halloween film review: The Banishing, The Reckoning, Slaxx
Anton Bitel | On 25, Oct 2020
A haunted house. A woman accused of witchery. A pair of killer jeans. We catch up with three Shudder films which screened at FrightFest Halloween, each deeply political in their own way.
1938. A time of great uncertainty. Lines are being drawn and sides are being taken. As the Spanish Civil War rages, and the British Prime Minister seeks to appease Adolf Hitler, a vicar, his wife and her daughter move into a large estate in a small parish near Colchester, and are confronted with the errant patriarchy, oppressive fascism and malicious misogyny that haunt its interiors. Wallpapered with a claustrophobic mood and menace, Chris Smith’s hallucinatory prewar Gothic combines the children’s games (and buried history) of JA Bayona’s The Orphanage, the weak, unraveling father of Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining and the paranormal looking glass of Mike Flanagan’s Oculus. The Banishing presents itself as a classic haunted house movie – yet in unfolding on the eve of the Second World War, it allows its resident evils to mirror the geopolitical situation beyond its walls, both then and now. “History will be rewritten,” promises the vicar’s fallen wife – and heroine – Marianne (Jessica Brown Findlay) near the film’s end. Yet as an ambiguous coda – and the viewer’s real-world experience – suggest, authoritarian oppression has a habit of returning from the shadows.
Similarly dealing in the horrors of patriarchy and misogyny, Neil Marshall’s The Reckoning is set in England in 1665, the “year of the Great Plague” and the “time of the witchfinders”. As recently widowed young mother Grace Haverstock (Charlotte Kirk, who also co-wrote) finds herself maliciously accused of witchcraft, she must endure days of horrific torture at the hands of Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee). Refusing to confess, she is physically and psychologically racked, and the film too becomes stretched this way and that, uncertain whether it is earnest period drama, jolly romp, bawdy torture porn or full Hammer horror – even as its heroine vacillates between passive Joan of Arc and kick-ass avenger. The film is certainly riffing on classic witchfinder films such as Michael Reeves’ Witchfinder General and Ken Russell’s The Devils, but it comes closer to the cruel camp of Michael Armstrong’s Mark of the Devil, or even the absurdity of Monty Python. These wild tonal shifts – from serious feminist cri de cœur to saucy pantomime – suggest a certain incoherence of vision, although they might also just be what wins the film an audience.
The Reckoning will be released on Shudder UK on 5th February 2021