The latest film by filmmaker Neil Marshall (Dog Soldiers, The Descent) places its horrors smack in the middle of a plague-afflicted England in 1665. It stars co-writer and executive producer Charlotte Kirk as Grace Haverstock, a recent widow thanks to the plague. Her loss leaves her vulnerable to predator Judge Moorcroft (Sean Pertwee), England’s most notorious witch-hunter. Grace gets unjustly accused of witchcraft and placed into custody, where she’s subjected to physical and emotional torment. She’ll have to face her demons if she hopes to survive.
Horror teaches many things, but chief among them is humanity’s limitless propensity for evil that makes them the most loathsome monster of all. That holds particularly true in history’s darkest days. That theme often appears when it comes to period-set horror. In The Reckoning, the tumultuous and paranoid setting of a plague-torn land leaves its inhabitants vulnerable to those that would exploit it.
RLJE Films brings The Reckoning to physical media on April 6, 2021. Ahead of its release, we’re looking back at some of the genre’s most terrifying human villains in period-set horror.
Witchfinder General – Matthew Hopkins
Vincent Price’s startling turn as the ruthless witchfinder general Matthew Hopkins marks a significant career highlight. During the 1645 English Civil War, Hopkins take full advantage of the chaos, riding into towns to assault and torture witchcraft confessions out of citizens before moving on to the next. His reign of terror gets challenged when Hopkins executes the father of a young soldier’s fiancée after she’s raped. Hopkins exemplifies the evils of unchecked power, leaving endless tragedy in his wake. Hopkins deserves every bit of karmic comeuppance coming his way, but the toll it takes on those who pursue it is heartbreaking.
Black Death – Langiva
During the first outbreak of bubonic plague in medieval England, a group of men embarks on a journey to find a hidden village untouched by the plague, rumored to be led by a necromancer. There they find Langiva (Carice van Houten), the village leader that’s amassed a devout following to her Pagan ways. She orders brutal acts of torture and death upon the men, reveling in their pain as her power within the community grows. None of that holds a candle to her devious manipulations that transform an innocent searching for his love into a stone-cold killer by film’s end.
Pan’s Labyrinth – Captain Vidal
Pick any Guillermo del Toro feature, and you’ll find endless sympathy for its monsters. The actual monsters are always of the human variety, and most of them terrifyingly memorable. None quite achieve the same lows of cruel Captain Vidal (Sergi López), one of horror’s most vicious stepfathers of all time. For the most part, he’s too preoccupied with hunting down rebels to pay much mind to young Ofelia (Ivana Baquero), but she draws his ire when she attempts to heal her sick mother through superstitious means. That ire turns downright violent when mom dies. Captain Vidal’s cold-bloodedness toward the adult rebels is chilling enough, but he takes it many steps too far with his cruelty and violence toward Ofelia.
The Devils – Baron de Laubardemont
For flawed protagonist Urbain Grandier (Oliver Reed), nearly everyone around him could count as a villain. The scene-stealing and unhinged Sister Jeanne des Agnes (Vanessa Redgrave) accused him of bewitching the convent and being in league with the Devil. Witchhunter Father Pierre Barre (Michael Gothard) seized the opportunity to conduct exorcisms and torturous trials to cleanse the village of its witchcraft. Both, however, were mere tools in the machinations of Laubardemont (Dudley Sutton), who proves willing to do whatever it takes to carry out his orders to demolish the town.
Apostle – Quinn
In 1905, Thomas Richardson (Dan Stevens) covertly traveled to a remote Welsh island and assimilated into the secret cult community to locate his kidnapped sister. It becomes clear that something supernatural guides the cult and its leaders. The true villain here is the leader’s second in command, former convict Quinn (Mark Lewis Jones). Early on, Quinn’s overbearing nature toward his daughter seems creepy, but it eventually gives way to filicide. That marks the turning point in which Quinn goes from reliable enforcer to merciless monster, leaving a trail of bodies in his wake.
The Nightingale – Hawkins
Jennifer Kent’s 1825-set sophomore effort packs a visceral punch in terms of disturbing, historical horror. Irish convict Clare (Aisling Franciosi) endures traumatic pain and suffering inflicted by British officer Hawkins (Sam Claflin). After she’s assaulted, Hawkins escalates the violence in such a harrowing way that it sparks an insatiable drive for Clare’s vengeance. She treks across the land, following in pursuit of Hawkins and his party, for retribution. It’s not just the repulsive inciting event that makes Hawkins so terrifying, but the continued callousness and ruthless acts committed along his journey. Hawkins ranks among the worst human beings in cinema, and that’s a high bar.
Look for The Reckoning on DVD and Blu-ray on April 6, 2021.