Cornish folk horror Enys Men will reward those with patience, but frustrate the majority of audiences, especially if they go looking for mainstream horror scares.
Set in 1973 on an unspecified remote island, the Volunteer (Mary Woodvine) spends each of her days in monotony. Every day she makes the hike from her vine-covered house to a mound of dirt and flowers along the outcropping of a craggy coast. She notes in her journal “no change” after weeks of observation.
There isn’t much shifting in filmmaker Mark Jenkin’s vision either. Edited together in an unchanging and repetitive rhythm, the Volunteer’s days are marked with close-ups of boots crunching over the island, the crash of waves on the rocks, blue skies, dropping rocks down an old mine shaft, and the mysterious flowers of her unknown environmental study. Nothing in Enys Men is explained in either its visuals or in its dialogue, which is quite limited.
Plagued with visions, sometimes we see a young girl sleeping in the house or on the roof and a moustachioed boatman who appears at random. The lines of past and present, real and imaginary, blur among a juxtaposition of recurring visuals.
To say Enys Men is a slow burn is an understatement. It is more of a mood board, asking viewers to decide for themselves what the film is about. Is the creeping lichen on the plants a symbol of grief permeating the Volunteer’s waking hours? Is the young girl a deceased child or the Volunteer in her youth? Is a floating corpse the Volunteer, a vision, or a doppelgänger? Are the ghostly dancing children looking for a police sergeant to sacrifice to their wicker god? There are no concrete answers to be found.
The 1973 aesthetics that recall movies like Don’t Look Now and The Wicker Man works for what Jenkin is attempting to accomplish, and his time warp vibes play out like ghostly messages intercepted on a wireless radio. Using ’70s-era camera zoom techniques and an audio track of nature sounds and unnatural clangs, it feels as though the movie could have been spliced together from 50-year-old found footage.
While Enys Men may not have worked for me, I can appreciate the effort to pull off something that is so beautiful. Those looking for a mainstream horror flick won’t find much to go on here and even as someone who appreciates the strange and experimental, Enys Men was ultimately too slow for this horror fan.
Enys Men opens in theatres on March 31.