Enys Men‘s Abstract, Dawdling British Folk Horror Is Weak Tea

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Enys Men‘s Abstract, Dawdling British Folk Horror Is Weak Tea

Rural American horror is supplied with murderous hillbillies, ready to exact economic revenge on vacationing yuppies, and foreboding log cabins, haunted by the sins of Manifest Destiny. These are our tangible anxieties, out there in the country. Drive a farm-to-market road long enough and you’re liable to see plenty of dilapidated barns surrounded by empty fields, and shacks, not yet Airbnb’d, hidden amongst the hills. At their furthest, our cultural memories barely extend back enough to conjure up that tired guilt-ridden colonial trope, the Native American burial site. Older countries have a different scale for the kind of ancestral fears they can still reach out and touch. But the lingering presence of history is often a desperately discovered explanation for the horrors, rather than the single mesmerizing element of the ghost story. Enys Men (revealing a bit of its magic when its Cornish title is translated to “stone island”) is do-it-all filmmaker Mark Jenkin’s dawdling attempt to change this, but his non-narrative folk horror is so enraptured with its own images that it forgets to cast its spell over us.

And why shouldn’t Jenkin enjoy what he’s shot? Enys Men’s retro creation is an isolated exhibit of anachronistic technologies and techniques. The 16mm film grain, orange-red light leaks, frozen frames, slo-mo and flare-fade transitions—Enys Men’s ‘70s setting and ‘70s subgenre are meticulously reflected in its aesthetic. When Mary Woodvine’s unnamed middle-aged environmentalist conducts observations on her lonely island, recording the daily soil temperature near some odd flowers, her delicate routine is second to its place in time. Jenkin’s camera is typically so static that its occasional slow pans and zooms give the sense of another presence, but the moves are less unsettling than conspicuously throwback. We’re sure she’s alone; the brief visits from dancing girls, a solemn priest and other residents of The Busy, Busy World of Richard Not-So-Scary only confirm as much.

The woman continues her daily pattern, her bright red symbols of civilization (a gas generator, a shiny plastic raincoat, the laces of hiking boots) blistering on the green-brown face of the rocky island. She moves from the flowers, past a decrepit stone tower, to a well, into which she drops rocks (“Listen closely for the splash!” this set-up screams at us). She eyes a stone menhir suspiciously; standing alone on the island and evoking thoughts of paganism, the monolith is more Wicker Man than 2001. She then goes to her modest home, where she records her findings in a notebook. “No change,” she writes.

I find abstraction most effective when it’s so broad and expressionistic that our feelings can’t help but overtake the logical parts of our mind. But Enys Men’s experiment pushes an advancing, clarifying logic—even if it’s mostly free from narrative—so that your movie brain (or perhaps your puzzle-game brain, for those more used to navigating mysterious abandoned islands that way) starts hunting for the very changes Woodvine’s character ignores. It notices them just as quickly.

Jenkin returns us to the same images so often that even our lizard brains start playing Spot the Difference. Was there that much moss on that rock before? Are those flowers moving with the wind, or against it?

For those intent on ignoring the bits of rusted mine track poking through the dirt and the cavernous well opening (its darkness repeated in a kettle’s spout and the perforated grill of a radio’s speaker), a strange piece of artwork on the naturalist’s wall gives us a shove in the right direction: Underneath our feet is the graveyard of history. We’re all conducting our lives on top of tombs, whether they merely house the remains of those that came before or entire past civilizations. So what’s under the island?

As the supernatural becomes more and more visible over the course of Enys Men’s 90 minutes, Jenkin’s film feels less and less satisfying. The woman’s visions are as deeply rooted in the island as the flowers she’s studying. Their encroachment onto her reality creeps as rapidly as the spreading lichen. But because Jenkin cuts to reminder after reminder of the island’s long, strange past (memorial plaques and broken signs are the more explicit props supplementing the forsaken architecture), we’re not given much break from the film’s guided tour to be unsettled. Woodvine’s deliberate movements and still, skeptical expressions are its best asset—straight-on close-ups of her off-kilter reactions are more jarring than any of its specters.

It’s in Woodvine’s performance that Enys Men maintains some mystique. As we’re directed towards this horror’s occult archeology, just as insistently as we’re assured that this film’s construction and look have also been excavated from the past, its ideas wear thin with repetition. Woodvine, sometimes letting an incongruous smirk or a startlingly wide-mouthed scream stretch across her face, is invested without needing to be investigative; she’s frightened without needing to problem-solve. We feel ensnared by her relative calm, a reaction far more compelling than its catalyst.

Focusing on the ghosts of history, Enys Men draws out a scientific shade from the corner of the horror world focused on natural isolation. Navigating a place sitting on an otherworldly rip in time is a terrifying manifestation of what lonely research feels like. As soon as you unearth a place’s past, it lives on in you—changes you. This is the heart of folk horror that Enys Men speaks to, but its dull, repetitive, padded delivery of images makes its genre findings (in words British enough to befit the film) weak tea.

Director: Mark Jenkin
Writer: Mark Jenkin
Starring: Mary Woodvine, Edward Rowe, Flo Crowe, John Woodvine
Release Date: March 31, 2023

Jacob Oller is Movies Editor at Paste Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @jacoboller.

For all the latest movie news, reviews, lists and features, follow @PasteMovies.

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