By ROCCO THOMPSON
Set in the 1660s against the backdrop of the Great Plague, THE RECKONING tells the tale of Grace Haverstock (Charlotte Kirk), a woman reeling from the death of her husband, Joseph (Joe Anderson) who finds herself accused of consorting with the Devil after rebuffing the advances of the cruel Pendleton (Steven Waddington). Locked away and subjected to cruel torments by England’s most ruthless witch-hunter, Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee), Grace must draw upon her inner fortitude if she hopes to make it out alive.
Co-written by Kirk and directed by Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) THE RECKONING is a historical horror pic in the tradition of satanic/witch-hunter classics like Witchfinder General (1968) and Ken Russell’s The Devils (1971) that seeks to connect the dots between the persecution and terror of ages past with an all-too-real present. We sat down with Marshall and Kirk to discuss their collaboration, the potential controversies it could engender, and why the horrors at the heart of THE RECKONING may still have echoes in 2021.
The two of you wrote THE RECKONING alongside Edward Evers-Swindell. Can you tell us a bit about what inspired the project?
NM: It was a combination of things. Ed kind of came to us with this notion of doing a Carrie-esque witch film, sort of Witchfinder General meets Carrie, where she’s tortured, then finally she reveals she really is a witch, goes ballistic, and fries everybody with lightning bolts, or something like that. Myself and Charlotte were kind of like, “Well, it’s kind of half an idea but I’m not sure that we really want to do that kind of movie,” and then we did some research into it ourselves. The more research we did, the more we thought, “Well, there really is some interesting stuff here that hasn’t been covered.” Then Charlotte was the one who suggested to me: “What if we do this witch movie but there are no witches in it?”
CK: Because Neil was torn with the idea. We knew there was a germ of [something] there but we couldn’t quite put our finger on it and I didn’t want to do Hocus Pocus, people flying around on brooms. I said. “Witches aren’t true. Witches aren’t real, not in any sense of the word. So, why don’t we just make it about an ordinary woman?”
NM: I wanted to do justice to the reality of it all, really, the sheer number of women who were persecuted and tortured and executed for this crime which doesn’t really exist. It was like, we kind of have to treat it with some respect and try and tell an amalgamation of their stories.
Charlotte, THE RECKONING is your first writing credit. Was it a challenge or was it something that you found came pretty naturally to you?
CK: Oh, I loved it, I actually loved it. It helped a lot having Neil. I don’t know if I could have done it on my own. But I think the collaboration between the both of us – [having] an actor’s point of view [and] the director’s point of view, it just worked really well, didn’t it?
NM: Yeah, I think Charlotte brought stuff to the table I never would have thought of, because she’s not bringing the baggage of having been a writer before. She’s, I suppose, less versed in the horror world than I am. I think it was way more kind of left field and interesting and out of the box, and that kept me on my toes and I kept her on her toes. It was great, it just was a good collaboration.
You mentioned Witchfinder General, but how influenced were you by movies like Witchhammer or Mark of the Devil, and what did you try to bring to the conversation with your film?
NM: Well, weirdly, we didn’t actually watch Mark of the Devil until after we shot the movie.
CK: Oh, my God. It’s very, very similar.
NM: Witchfinder General I’ve known for many, many years and that was certainly an inspiration, but I was equally inspired by Western motifs, some things that were inherent in the script. We had saloons and people on horses, no shootouts, but everybody was carrying pistols around and wearing big hats and it was dusty and hot, so I totally kind of embraced that, especially for the first half of the movie. That kind of Western iconography went with it well, and it ended up being something like Once Upon a Time in the West meets Witchfinder General.
Charlotte, the role of Grace must have been a tall order. How did you prepare for the role and especially, how did you go about handling the more emotionally intense moments?
CK: It did help writing it, having that in my conscience, because, you know, I created Grace. But when it came to actually performing, I put that aside. I wanted to look at it with a fresh pair of eyes, “Right, okay, this is me looking at it as an actress for the first time.” And I had Susan Batson, who’s my acting coach in New York. She’s phenomenal, she really did help me dissect the script, looking at it, and figuring out Grace. People say, “Oh, it’s a physical role, how was that?” But really, the toughest thing to me was the emotional stuff, because it was being at that emotional 10 out of 10 every day. It was exhausting, but I wanted to make sure that I gave Grace everything she deserved.
NM: You did as much as you possibly could, [including the] fights, which you’d not really done before.
CK: Yes, I did all of that. Approaching it, the main thing really was doing a lot of research and backstory and having Susan with me beforehand, and then when I entered the set, just letting all that go and having the freedom to explore and play. It was a fun role! I know that might sound strange, but it was because it’s really rewarding when you get to those emotional levels and you get to that point and you’re really happy with the scene. That was the rewarding, fun part, actually.
I imagine it’s a bit different having your collaborator hat on as well in addition to being an actor.
CK: Yeah, I mean, it really wasn’t walking on to someone else’s set, it was like, “Wow, I helped create this.” It was really our baby, wasn’t it? It still is.
NM: Then we lay it on when you have the costumes, and the mud and the rain, and the smells of the set, and the smoke from the fires. Stuff like that allows you to immerse yourself into that world.
CK: I’ve never done a horror film before. Stepping onto the set, I said, “Oh, my God. Neil, am I going to be scared? I haven’t done this before.” But it was a lot of fun. The makeup and blood, that was really fascinating.
“The riots and attacking the Capitol building? All they were missing is pitchforks.”
Though you’ve both stated that THE RECKONING wasn’t intended to be a supernatural film, there are some supernatural elements onscreen. Could you tell us a bit about your thought process behind that?
MN: My thought process was to kind of keep things a little bit ambiguous. The way that people read the script, they would read different things into it, as to whether the Devil was real, whether it was purely a figment of her going out of her mind, that the torture was having a psychological effect on her, not to mention a spiritual effect on her. It all depends on, I suppose, what you bring to the table.
CK: [For some people] the Devil’s real and it’s all literal.
NM: Yeah, a lot of people read it [that way]. I’d rather just leave it kind of ambiguous and let the audience make their own choice rather than say one way or another.
CK: We’re not saying she isn’t a witch. We’re leaving it open.
NM: Yeah, but it’s kind of raising the question of, “What is a witch?” because the reasons that these women were persecuted were bizarre. It could be the way they looked or the way they walked, or they could have had red hair or because they had a mole on their face or something, like any excuse. But mainly, it was because a bunch of men would say, like, “We want rid of this woman.”
There are a few moments of inspired gore in this thing. A scene with a horse carriage, in particular, made me gasp aloud…
NM: Thank you!
Which of the effects were the most challenging to pull off?
NM: The Devil himself was quite challenging. The horse cart was difficult because you’ve got to try…it’s hard enough trying any of these kind of things without bringing a horse into the equation. That was probably the trickiest one, I think.
CK: The logistical stuff.
CK: He likes to do things practical. We [worked with] as much practical stuff as possible, didn’t we?
NM: Always. We had some real fire effects, which is always dangerous when you’re on a set. We did two full-body burns which is kind of terrifying but it looks amazing on film. We had incredible stunt people.
Speaking as a viewer, we definitely appreciate your use of practical effects, it just gives things an extra touch of magic.
NM: Absolutely, that’s why I do it. Because I’m as much of a fan as anything and I love those practical effects in movies. It just looks better. It looks better and lasts.
Witch-hunter films have always caused controversy, and THE RECKONING is no different. Some might say it’s anti-male, others could say it’s too violent towards women. What would you say to those viewers?
NM: I’d say it’s all based on historical truth. You can’t really get around that. This shit happened. And if it’s anti-male, she gets her revenge, okay, maybe we took a few fictitious liberties with that, but the audience deserves that.
CK: We didn’t really want to make every male to be a bad guy, right? But even Sean Pertwee’s character, he’s not a nice guy but he’s not a sadist like Pendleton [Steven Waddington], right? I think that he’s just a really bad guy, Pendleton, but I think Moorcroft’s a little bit more complicated than that.
NM: He’s a bit more complicated. I love that between the two bad guys, they have different bad guy ethics. Like, one is a believer and the other one is just a sadist, and even they don’t necessarily match up in their ethics.
CK: And again, with the violence, [Neil] made it very clear – [he] didn’t want to do a torture movie. If people say it’s too violent or too violent against women, every torture that’s in this movie is what really happened. And it was really difficult finding one where [the women] actually survived because the trials were lethal.
NM: Yeah, these tortures were no-win scenarios. Things like the Pear of Anguish and witch pricking are all real. They happened. There’s a Pear of Anguish in the Tower of London, I believe. Some sick mind came up with it, I’m guessing it was probably a man. It’s historical but it’s also entirely relevant with what’s going on today with witch hunts of a different sort. The riots and attacking the Capitol building? All they were missing is pitchforks. That whole QAnon thing – believing that people are worshipping Satan and stuff like that – it’s no different. We haven’t moved on in hundreds of years.
CK: Well, I think that the most relevant one was a woman saying, “I’m not wearing a mask. It’s the work of the Devil.” Something someone would say in 1665. [How far] have we come?
THE RECKONING is in Theaters, On Demand and Digital February 5th, 2021 from Shudder and RLJE Films.