In a year when all the buzziest horror titles are slow-cinema abstractions, it feels nice to finally have one stab me squarely in the brain stem after so many near-misses. I greatly enjoyed the experience of parsing my way through The Outwaters & Skinamarink, but my response to both of those microbudget crowd-displeasers was more intellectual than emotional. Yes, Skinamarink left me tense & unnerved, but it also left me with lingering questions about how its modern digital filters interacted with or clashed against its vintage analog setting. The Outwaters is, by design, much more traditionally satisfying, delivering recognizable scares in its found footage freak-out finale, but it also leaves plenty of free time to question whether the deliberate boredom of its opening acts is worth the journey to that finale. I had no such doubts or hesitations about Mark Jenkin’s slow-cinema nightmare Enys Men. In many ways, Enys Men is even more inscrutable & disjointed than both of those digital-age D.I.Y. abstractions, since its dream-logic “plotting” makes it impossible to fully interpret in any clean, clear terms. And yet I had full confidence that Jenkin thoroughly, thoughtfully considered each of his formal & narrative choices so that instead of picking apart its eerie psychedelic imagery I was instead fully submerged in it, eventually gasping for air as the resulting tension became unbearable. When defining the effects & methods of slow cinema as a young film critic, Paul Schrader coined the term “transcendental style” as an easy go-to marker for what it could achieve. It’s immensely satisfying to finally know what that transcendence feels like, at least when it’s deployed for a purely horrific effect.
It’s a little dishonest for me to link Enys Men so closely with smaller, modernist works that just happen to terrorize audiences at the same slow-drip tempo. This Cornish folk horror about a Stone Henge-like monument to sailors drowned at sea is part of a long English filmmaking tradition, as recently documented in the folk horror compendium Wooodlands Dark and Days Bewitched. Its vintage 16mm camera equipment & 1970s setting threaten to dip into kitschy folk-horror pastiche, but instead it feels like a genuine marriage of form & content that projects a timeless, eerie familiarity rather than cutesy nostalgia. Even its version of “transcendental style” owes a lot to slow cinema giants of the distant past, with its science researcher protagonist repeating her daily field work in a distinct, methodical Jeanne Dielman rhythm (before her own fixed routine unravels to resemble the seaside ghost story of John Carpenter’s The Fog). Slow cinema has only gotten more extreme in the half-century since Chantal Akerman made The Greatest Film of All Time, though, and Enys Men‘s underlying modernity eventually shines through in the volatility of its editing style once its nameless researcher loses grip. It’s remarkable how Jenkin dredges up something that feels at once familiar yet cutting edge – a Skinamarinkian slow-cinema shocker rendered in a vintage Don’t Look Now color palette. More important, its traditionalist imagery is useful in establishing a false sense of comfort & safety among a jaded horror audience who’ve seen it all before, so that when we’re plunged into the unfamiliar in the final hour, the effect is much scarier than it would’ve been under a layer of modern digital grain.
Mary Woodvine stars as the nameless volunteer scientist who studies a small cluster of flowers on the cliffs of the titular Enys Men (a Cornish name that translates to “Stone Island”). After several lonely weeks observing “No changes” in those flowers, she notices lichen growing on their pedals, an intrusion that has an instant hallucinatory effect on her psyche. Initially isolated with only her field research and a few dog-eared paperbacks to fill her days, she’s joined by the presence of ghostly figures from both the history of Enys Men and from the history of her own life. It’s unclear where the young girl who resembles her fits into her own past (a lost daughter? a younger version of herself?), but it is clear that the drowned miners & seamen memorialized by the stone monument outside her cottage door still linger around the island as lost spirits. Or at least that’s what little sense my brain could make of the loopy, looping images Jenkin floods the screen with; there’s ultimately too little information to confidently assign any linear story to the emotional, hallucinatory journey our researcher in distress travels. Enys Men is a pure psychedelic meltdown of id at the bottom of a deep well of communal grief, one where running out of your monthly supply of tea is just as devastating as losing a boatful of loved ones at sea. Like Akerman before him, Jenkin makes his troubled protagonist’s world so small & regimented that the tiniest changes in her routine mean the world in the moment. Only, assigning any logical meaning to those changes is a fool’s mission in this case, as her downfall is staged entirely inside her own mind, with the titular island serving mostly as spooky Old World set dressing.
Hesitations about individual examples aside, you have to respect that the innate marketability of the horror genre is starting to import experimental filmmaking tactics into the mainstream. Enys Men immediately picked up North American distribution after it premiered at last year’s Cannes, likely because its traditionalist folk horror aesthetic was such an easy sell. Meanwhile, Jenkin’s previous feature Bait has yet to reach wide domestic distribution despite its years of fanatic endorsement from major British critic Mark Kermode and its similar vintage visual panache. It’s likely no coincidence that Bait is a real-world drama about gentrification in a small Cornwall fishing village, which can’t help sounding like homework even if it’s just as freely, weirdly expressive as Jenkin’s follow-up. The joy of seeing movies as difficult as The Outwaters & Skinamarink break through as unlikely hits earlier this year only highlights how horror has become one of the only viable mediums where artists can Trojan Horse actual Art into mainstream venues, since the genre’s popularity is seemingly eternal. Since Skinamarink was the biggest hit of the three, it turns out that a little grassroots buzz & viral marketing on TikTok also help. It’s a shame that Enys Men missed the boat on TikTok’s momentary obsession with sea shanties a few years ago, when it was best primed to be a cult-circuit hit. It’s still wonderful that it was nationally distributed at all, though, since it’s the exact kind of sensory nightmare that requires theatrical immersion to fully work its dark, hypnotic magic.
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