Hysteria surrounding witchcraft and persecution of women have sadly gone hand in hand for centuries. The wretched 15th century publication, the “Malleus Maleficarum” was used as a justification to torment, torture, and abuse women who didn’t fall into their perceived place in society, all in the name of witchcraft.
Shudder’s latest exclusive film The Reckoning deals with the wave of witch paranoia and persecution that followed the plague outbreak of England in 1665. While not the most historically accurate period piece, the film captures the feeling and sentiment through a modern lens, and portrays it with an action/horror twist.
Hitting Close to Home
Opening in the year 1665, we see a village in the English countryside being touched by the gruesome Black Death that had been ravaging its way through London at the time. People are naturally frightening and concerned about keeping their physical distance from one another (which seems all too real to audiences right now).
Following the tragic death of her husband (who had gotten sick and committed suicide because of it), Grace (Charlotte Kirk) faces a harsh and brutal reality. Alone with her infant daughter, she must contend with a greedy landlord who insists she must pay the rent or be evicted, all while dealing with his constant unwelcome advances.
Because Grace dares to fight back against her landlord who attempts to physically force himself onto her, he convinces everyone that she is in fact a witch who caused the death of her husband. This results in her child being taken away, her house being burnt, and Grace herself being imprisoned to be tortured until she confesses.
The most tragic and infuriating aspect of all of this is that Grace’s experiences are very real and true to history for millions of women. It didn’t matter that her landlord was a disgusting creep who attempted to coerce her into relations, the sad fact was that because he held power over her, there was absolutely nothing she could do.
Historical events like the Salem Witch Trials tend to get sensationalized and almost glamorized by horror fiction. But The Reckoning (along with The Crucible and The Witch) do a great job of demonstrating the very real human cost of fanaticism and paranoia mixed with prejudice and misogyny.
While imprisoned, Grace is subject to all sorts of physical and mental abuse, in an attempt to “break” her. After seeing everything she goes through. It’s very easy to get behind her and root for her as a protagonist. Charlotte Kirk (who also co-wrote the film) does a great job of portraying someone who wishes she could just give up at every turn but knows that she can’t.
For most of the movie, she’s a passive protagonist with things merely happening to her. But by the third act, she finds her strength and really comes into her own. For some, it may take a bit too long to get to that point, but once it does, it’s very worth it.
The Devil in the Details
Throughout the movie, we see Grace experience pretty vivid nightmares, involving plague corpses, and even the devil himself. For a while, it seems like the movie wants its audience to question whether she’s losing her mind, or if the devil himself truly is involved. And without getting too much into spoilers, it is admittedly disappointing when this plot point never really goes anywhere.
Instead, The Reckoning goes full action movie by the third act, which isn’t necessarily a bad choice. It just doesn’t really fit with this earlier demonic theme. The movie tries to be a lot of things, and while it does succeed at most of them, it can’t succeed at all of them.
The Reckoning doesn’t go as far into historical realism as The Witch, nor does it delve so deeply into character drama as The Crucible. But what it does very well is giving a character so unjustly wronged, and then letting us see that character take her destiny back in a very satisfying way!
The Reckoning premieres on Shudder on Thursday, May 13, 2021