Last year, news broke that the horror auteur Neil Marshall was set to direct a film titled The Reckoning for WWE Studios and Lionsgate. The project was Marshall’s first non-TV effort in five years, and there hasn’t been much of an update after news broke that the film would be a supernatural thriller inspired by the real-life Black Death plague. Now, we know a little bit more: the movie stars Game of Thrones’ Sean Bean as a knight tasked with protecting a monastery from a mysterious plague.

Marshall’s horror roots first surfaced in the wake of “The Descent” in 2006 with his directorial debut “The Descent: Part 2,” and he’s since dabbled in fantasy (“Doomsday”) and VFX-heavy blockbuster territory (“Game of Thrones”) in between a wealth of smaller-scale projects, including some episodes of the “Doctor Who” spin-off “Torchwood.” Next up is “The Reckoning,” Marshall’s first feature since his 2010 found footage horror effort “Doomsday,” which stars a “Doctor Who” veteran herself, the late Elisabeth Sladen.

The plague was even less fun

The Great Plague of 1665 engulfed England in a deadly wave, killing tens of thousands and destabilizing a country still recovering from the civil war of a decade earlier. Amid the confusion, all sorts of irrational beliefs could spread and develop, and people clung to them as they desperately sought a way to make sense of the overwhelming situation.

One of the worst beliefs (approved by James I himself) was witchcraft. Many horrible men have made a lot of money by exerting power over vulnerable women. So, definitely not like these days.

Against this backdrop, the plot of Payback centers on Grace Haverstock (Charlotte Kirk), a young mother who has lost her husband to the plague. Unfortunately, this makes her vulnerable to the local laird (Stephen Waddington) who, when he confronts her, arrests her for witchcraft.

Witch hunter General

The main part of the film begins with the Squire summoning the wizard John Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee). At this point, the film goes from an unintentional bully drama (Payback was written and shot long before The Crown was anything more than a beer in The Fast and the Furious) to a revenge tale of a witch hunter.

There is torture, but thankfully the horror is more implied than in a film like What the Hell Is Wrong With You. The level of torture porn in, say, Hostel II. It shows terrible things without showing them directly in his face. It’s a hard balance to strike, you don’t want to hide the reality of the situation, real people have suffered terribly. You don’t want to wallow in it either. It’s a terrible part of the story, no one wants to dwell on it.

Pertwee plays a man who regrets what he does, but he firmly believes he is right. He is assisted by the charming character Ursula (Suzanne Magowan). A former victim of the witch hunter Haverstock, saved by one chance in a thousand, she now firmly believes in the validity of the witch hunt. Which, given the 17th century mentality. The century makes sense. At least in the 21st century. In the twentieth century, no one takes seriously the idea that there is a God who changes time according to human morality.

It’s a strange contrast to the squire, because he’s downright bad. He knows Grace is not a witch. We don’t know if he believes in witches, certainly not with as much sincerity and fervor as Haverstock and Ursula. He doesn’t torment, he only asks questions, but he is quite willing to use the gullible faith of others and the power of his wealth to further his selfish agenda. No need for an awkward monkey here, reality trumps jokes.

Vengeance is mine, says the girl

The film’s conclusion is well-deserved, given Grace’s ordeal, not least the threat of losing her young daughter to the madness under Ursula’s control. Great escape mission where Grace uses multiple weapons to defeat anyone who stands between her and freedom (I think more movies need muskets). Anyone who’s seen Marshall’s previous work knows he’s a master of practical effects, and there’s enough blood and prosthetics here to satiate any gorehound. After Doomsday and his work on Game of Thrones, he became an expert in castle navigation.

Final provisions

There are some obvious problems with the movie Payback. It could have been a bit tighter, the middle sags a bit, it’s not as thin as Marshall’s previous films. There are dreams in the film that are elegantly reminiscent of Hammer horror, but they are not entirely appropriate in a film about the evils of the witch hunters of the time. You can’t include the devil in your story about the folly of witchcraft and devil worship. There’s also a problem with Kirk’s unnatural ability to look like he just came out of a barbershop. Sympathy for the offended party diminishes when she doesn’t lose hair or her (surprisingly modern) makeup stays in place.

Still, it’s a welcome return to the little horror Marshall made his name with. The construction of the film is solid, the villains avoid the temptation to chew the scenery, and the resolution is gripping.

So it’s not really a return to form, but it’s enough to make one hope that the director gets another chance to return to his best.

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