You’ve Never Seen a Horror Movie This Strange
Patience is a virtue when it comes to Enys Men, and so too is a tolerance for oblique insanity. Cornish filmmaker Mark Jenkin’s latest feature (in theaters March 31) is an experimental whatsit of the weirdest order, dispensing a brand of folk horror that’s so ambiguous and dreamlike that it makes Ben Wheatley’s kindred In the Earth look conventional by comparison. Those with a craving for out-there mystery and dread, however, will get a heady buzz from its bizarro madness.
On a remote island in the middle of an unspecified ocean, an unidentified woman (Mary Woodvine)—who’s designated in the credits as “The Volunteer,” so let’s go with that—spends her spring 1973 days and nights trekking from a solitary house that’s covered in vines to a spot on a scraggly cliff overlooking the water, where she takes the temperature of a mound of soil boasting a small outcropping of flowers.
In her journal, she repeatedly notes her findings, which for weeks on end indicate “no change.” The same is true, at outset, about her routine, as Jenkin shoots and cuts his material in a hypnotically rhythmic manner, repeating shots—of the Volunteer’s boots walking across the ground; of waves crashing into rock formations off the coast; of birds flying overhead through sparkling blue skies dotted with puffy white clouds—to create a mesmeric atmosphere that casts the proceedings as a waking reverie.
Nothing is clear in Enys Men, be it the Volunteer’s identity and backstory, the purpose of her environmental work, or the meaning behind the visions that soon plague her. For one, there’s a young girl (Flo Crowe) who’s sometimes found sleeping in a guest room bed, and is often seen standing on the lower part of the house’s roof. There’s also a brief glimpse of a mustached stranger (Edward Rowe) having sex with the Volunteer in the house—an individual we later learn is the boatman who delivers necessary supplies. The most valuable of those is gasoline for the small generator that provides power to the Volunteer’s abode, although at night, she prefers candlelight when she reads “A Blueprint for Survival”—a tome that speaks as much to her mental as physical well-being.
Jenkin cuts Enys Men into fragmentary snapshots that are ordered chronologically… except when they’re not. The dividing line between the past and present is as hazy as the boundary between the real and the imagined, the external and the internal, and the film demands that one submit to its curious pulse. Numerous images reoccur, as do Jenkin’s juxtapositions, creating suggestive ties between disparate sights and sounds.
There’s something connecting the Volunteer’s research, her ceremonial habit of dropping rocks down the island’s abandoned mine shaft, the waves crashing against the shore, the crackling radio that broadcasts not only messages from the boatman but cries of “mayday” from unknown sources, and—most important of all—a totemic rock that stands on a ridge opposite the Volunteer’s house, which crackling audio links to a memorial for fishermen who died in an 1807 shipwreck.
Grief courses through Enys Men but its nature is hard to pin down. Is, for example, the teenage girl the spirit of the Volunteer’s daughter, or is she the Volunteer’s younger self? Jenkin provides faint clues without offering anything resembling a conclusive answer, thereby leaving his protagonist in what amounts to a swirling fugue state.
The more she goes about her daily chores, the greater the Volunteer appears to be plagued by the totem, especially once she detects lichen spreading on the flowers—a development that interrupts her journal’s monotonously identical entries—and those growths then begin appearing on the giant slashing scar across her own stomach. Trauma, corruption, and sorrow are all intermingled here, and in ways that prove beguiling precisely because they’re so difficult to parse.
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The Volunteer is alone and yet not without company—at least of the ethereal kind. There’s a collection of (dead) miners who stare at her blankly from inside a dripping-wet cave. There’s the boatman, who eventually appears on the island with much-needed petrol. And there are the maids—dressed in traditional 19th-century garb (white bonnets, black-and-white dresses)—who stand behind the Volunteer as she lays beside her flowers, and who have apparently leaped into the real world from the label of a cannister of dried milk.
These ghosts provide Enys Men with its most memorable images, while its jarring montages, ’70s-style zooms into and out of close-up, rewound footage, and motley audioscape (a combination of clanging noises, chirping birds, whooshing wind and ominously distant-but-nearby singing and giggling) amplifies its creepiness.
Jenkin cares little for narrative thrust or traditional mystery; the mood is the thing in Enys Men, and it turns out to be impressively sturdy as its story—in a manner similar to the rocks that the Volunteer habitually lets fall into the mineshaft abyss—descends into murkier depths. Things escalate at an unnervingly gradual pace, allowing for sustained consideration of events that are, if not supernatural, then harrowingly inexplicable.
Detached faces screaming in unison, hands burning on red-hot stoves, and dead bodies materializing in the water all heighten a sense of impending catastrophe. Further drumming up suspense are late sequences in which the Volunteer comes face to face with herself, albeit in different guises, including as a Coast Guardsman tasked with recovering a waterlogged corpse.
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What to make of all the doppelgangers, specters and color-coded rain slickers floating—or, per those many shots of the Volunteer’s walking feet—trudging through Jenkin’s highly composed frame? Enys Men hints at its underlying purpose through trance-like echoes and reiterations, its indirectness a far cry from the mainstream horror of the multiplex, forcing viewers to succumb to its strange cadences and to investigate the organic and unearthly tissue tethering its various elements.
Given its ’70s-style aesthetics, the film’s clash between the ancient and the modern feels caught in something of a time warp, which makes sense given the dizzying plight of its protagonist. It’s akin to an indistinct, incomplete transmission from some ancient (literal and cinematic) world.
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