With The Reckoning, we arrive at the saddest point in the life-cycle of any once-promising film director: the point where we need to abandon hope. Almost a whole generation ago, Neil Marshall blew his way into the world with an extraordinary one-two punch of Dog Soldiers in 2003 and The Descent in 2005, a pair of low-budget horror films good enough - and more importantly, creative enough - to make a genre fan want to write him all the blank checks he'd ever need. Neither of his next two features - Doomsday in 2008 and Centurion in 2010 - were able to match that level, but they were glorious, messy failures, big on ambition and robust in their fearless world-building. And then he fell of the face of the earth for no obvious reason, dedicating most of the next decade to television; major, prestigious television, like Game of Thrones and Hannibal, but one does not move to directing episodic television because one hopes to be festooned with critical praise and fan adoration. His return to features was a dark and ugly one, the 2019 attempt to reboot Hellboy as a film franchise, and the best we can say about is that there is ample evidence that the film was taken away from him, though I suspect we're talking about the difference between a horrendous film and a bad one, not a bad film and a good one.

Even so, through absolutely all of it, I have stubbornly clung to the faith that the man behind what remains my favorite horror film of the 2000s couldn't have possibly lost all of his talent, and that is why I approached The Reckoning with bloody-minded optimism that it might at least be Centurion-level good. It was a cheap little British movie (though it was shot in Hungary), not a franchise hopeful; it was drawing upon a well-built tradition of British genre films, giving him plenty of room to do the thing he did in Doomsday and Centurion of being an effective thief of other people's good ideas, while still making the secondhand material his own. I was so stubborn, in fact, that I stayed optimistic for at least 10 minutes into The Reckoning itself, on the grounds that, while what I was watching was excruciatingly bad on almost every level, it was basically a prologue, and there was a good chance the movie would get better once it muscled through this part.

I was right about that, at least: the opening 10 or so minutes of The Reckoning are unquestionably its worst part, and bad in specific ways that the rest of the film, crummy as it might be, doesn't match. It has all of the problems that the rest of the film will demonstrate an abundance of: the script by Marshall & Charlotte Kirk & Edward Evers-Swindell is full of the loose approximation of characters who all speak in impersonal clichés that feel like JRPG dialogue; the extremely specific and detailed historical context feels like window dressing for about 90% of the running time; the acting is melodramatic piffle that attempts to compensate for the writing by attacking it with great heaving sighs and screams and mustache-twirling. But, it is in the prologue and only in the prologue that Luke Bryant's cinematography is so wholly incapable of overcoming the limitations of the digital camera, with images that are so perfectly smooth and slick and flat in their perfect representation of soft white daylight. It leaves not the slightest trace of any atmosphere, historical or otherwise, revealing the period trappings to be just so many sets and costumes like nothing I've seen since the failed experiment of The Hobbit in 48 fps.

So we get beyond that. But what we get to is hardly worth the effort. The Reckoning, as its title cards threateningly inform us, is a story about the great plague of the 17th Century and the witchfinders who punished innocent women as scapegoats for this disease, or just as a way of punishing them for being uppity. One such woman, introduced through some mystifyingly clumsy editing in that same prologue, is Grace Haverstock (the same Charlotte Kirk who wrote the film), whose husband Joseph (Joe Anderson) committed suicide after contracting the plague. Thus the couple's landlord, Squire Pendleton (Steven Waddington), has come a-leering, hoping to get Grace in his bed, or take back the land, or both if possible. When she resists, he turns her over to John Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee), a zealous persecutor of witches. Over of the course of five days, conveniently marked out in title cards, he tortures her, hoping to get a confession; she is too resolute, though she does start to have satanic visions as a result of the torture, suggesting that ironically, in the hopes of killing a witch, Moorcroft is maybe creating one instead.

That remains a suggestion, unfortunately; The Reckoning isn't cunning enough to do something that interesting for its plot. Instead, the film basically just consists of endless scenes of Pertwee hissing threats and Kirk writhing in pain, while Marshall very primly doesn't let us see anything. This is the worst of both worlds. On the one hand, it means that The Reckoning is basically just an exercise in pointless misery, barely even pretending to have a narrative for most of its deadening 110 minutes (for comparison, the 1968 Vincent Price vehicle Witchfinder General, the Rolls Royce of British witchfinder movies is all of 86 minutes long); on the other hand, it so chastely avoids actually showing us the physicality of that misery that it doesn't really get at any of the gut-churning nastiness that would at least allow the film to make some kind of visceral impact.

Really, what the film mostly feels like is Marshall's dutiful advertisement for Kirk, whom he is presently dating. I would maybe not feel compelled to make mention of that if it wasn't so blatantly obvious that this was her first and only qualification for the part: she's unbelievably fucking awful in the film, profoundly devoid of even the slightest ghost of talent or even just screen presence. Her inability to recite the dialogue that she herself wrote is slightly awe-inspiring; her disaffected vocal tones and detached reactions give the impression of a stoner who has just been roused from a nap and is irritated to have her buzz being harshed. As a big coming-out party for a new star, The Reckoning couldn't be more of a misfire, and yet Marshall just keeps lovingly gazing at Kirk, ceding every piece of blocking in every scene to her, and trusting that her expressionless face will somehow keep the movie lashed together.

Nothing even slightly close to this happens. If there's a performance worth salvaging from the ill-written sludge and drudgery of the narrative, it's Pertwee's, which is at least deliciously melodramatic and suggests a good  B-horror baddie, if only The Reckoning weren't running so hard from being B-horror. Otherwise, just about the only thing the film has to offer are good sets and costumes; it doesn't do much with its 1665 setting, but at least it persuasively argues for its physical authenticity. Beyond that, this is just a dreary shell of a movie; it's better than Hellboy (but what wouldn't be), and the little flickers of demonic energy we see at least suggest a way that this might have worked, if it had been pretty throughly re-worked from the ground up, re-cast, and maybe just made by an entirely different filmmaking team altogether, just to be safe.