Enys Men

Enys Men is the third notable experimental horror movie this year, coming after Skinamarink and The Outwaters. It’s an exciting time to be a horror fan for that reason. Filmmakers are out there taking risks and devising new ideas. If there’s a downside, it’s that going the experimental route can create a scenario where viewers appreciate the effort without being scared by the story. This was the case for me here. I fully appreciate what writer/director Mark Jenkin attempts to do. It just didn’t hit my fear button.

The year is 1973 and the central figure is an unnamed wildlife volunteer (Mary Woodvine) left alone on a small island off the coast of Britain. She has a daily routine of going outside, checking a small cluster of flowers, dropping a rock down a hole, and writing a quick journal entry about how the flowers are doing. We watch her do this several times over. One day, she momentarily forgets the rock, then throws it down the hole haphazardly. That doesn’t seem significant, except that the volunteer begins having weird, hallucinatory visions not long afterward.

Or maybe they’re not visions. We’re intentionally left puzzled. The woman’s teenage daughter pops up partway through. Is she on the island, as well? Does the volunteer even have a daughter? A boatman (Edward Rowe), who also may or may not be real, arrives periodically to deliver supplies and have sex with her. There are glimpses of a fire and brimstone preacher, along with a group of young girls dressed entirely in white who walk around chanting. The flowers develop lichens, which transfer to the volunteer, spreading across her body. Of course, that’s not possible for real. The story tosses all of these elements into the mix, generating an aura of mystery and danger.

That aura is expanded upon through Jenkin’s decision to shoot Enys Men on 16mm film. Doing so gives the movie an old-school texture that makes it feel like it was made decades ago. Having that type of disconnect goes a long way toward building a psychological impact. Motion pictures don’t look like this anymore. It’s at odds with the slick, glossy, digital style we’re now accustomed to. Like gazing at an old daguerreotype, there’s something haunting about the unfamiliarity.

Despite a potent visual scheme and an impressively atmospheric tone, shrugging off the repetitive nature of the film is difficult. We watch the volunteer go through her baffling routine so many times that it becomes dull. I grew impatient waiting for the horror to kick in. Once it finally does, figuring out the overall gist isn’t that difficult. The volunteer’s journey lacks a satisfying payoff, too. Obviously, horror movies need not explain every last detail, nor are they bound to give viewers a neatly tied-up package. But where the plot goes proves slightly underwhelming, because certain aspects of her hallucinations remain confusing, which robs the film of the all-important scare factor. What, specifically, we’re supposed to be afraid of simply isn’t clear.

Enys Men is consequently a work to be admired and respected on a technical level. On the level of emotional engagement, however, it comes up a bit short.

out of four

Enys Men is unrated, but contains disturbing images and some language. The running time is 1 hour and 36 minutes.