#Review: Enys Men

#Review: Enys Men
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As subgenres go, folk horror is usually one of the most appealing to true afficionados. The rural settings of folk horror offer ripe ground in which to sow suspicion and fear, as the buzz of the city gives way to the long dark of the unlit plains and hills. From Häxan, through The Wicker Man, right on to The Witch, the isolated countryside is a perfect playground for the things that go bump in the night, usually exposing the darkest impulses of those that venture into this landscape. The problem with Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men is that it does little that’s new to justify the obvious effort that has gone into making it. Once you know the tropes that come with folk horror, too much of this well-rendered jaunt to the Scilly Isles (or thereabouts) is predictable, a fact that the film seems to recognize in itself, and which it tries so ardently to overcome.

For as far back as folk horror on film goes, Jenkin takes inspiration from one of its most notable recent examples, Robert Eggers’ The Lighthouse. Like that monochrome mindbender, Enys Men pits its characters against their own memories and wits on an isolated island. In 1973, a volunteer botanist (Mary Woodvine, one of the stars of Jenkin’s acclaimed debut Bait) is sent to a rocky island off the coast of Cornwall to study a new and unusual species of flower that’s sprouted there. The white and red of the flower pops off the screen, as does the blood red of the volunteer’s rain mac. As with Bait, the apparent simplicity of Jenkin’s filmmaking becomes its main asset. The grainy textures and saturated colours of 16mm film contribute immensely to establishing a sense of time, and adds a spooky feel to the events that are about to transpire. Likewise, the ADR heavy soundscape seeks to evoke the charmingly rudimentary feel of older horrors. However, there is also a risk of such methods becoming a parody of themselves. Jenkin could doubtlessly have upgraded to digital (or at least larger film stock) than he used on Bait, but he consciously chose not to. This would be fine if used in service of a stronger narrative, but instead Enys Men ends up feeling like something Toby Jones’ guileless sound designer would have worked on in Berberian Sound Studio; it’s got some very noticeable craft on display, but suffers from the same pretensions to depth as too many modern horrors.

The volunteer is assigned to the island alone for two weeks to study the plant’s growth, but surely as one day leads to another, things will slowly but surely turn creepy. There is a false sense of security in how the daily routine unfolds (Turn on your generator, go check on the plant, make tea, etc.), but this starts to grate before it starts getting upended. Things gradually becoming more ghostly, but the emotional framework on which all this hangs is flimsy at best, undermining any efforts at pathos. With no named characters and little in the way of narrative thrust, the already brief Enys Men threatens to outstay its welcome. Furthermore, the film is suffering from a severe case of ‘A24-itis’, as yet another lead in a horror movie learns that what she really fears is the trauma of her own past. This trope could be considered a spoiler if it hadn’t lapsed into the realm of cliché long ago. Jenkin knows the filmmaking is the star of the show, and it’s a move of a confident filmmaker to display his talent so readily, even when the story being told isn’t worthy of those efforts. Make an appointment with The Wicker Man instead.