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OFF THE (CORN)WALL
Enys Men (15)
Director: Mark Jenkin
Screenplay: Mark Jenkin
Starring: Mary woodvine, Edward Rowe, Flo Crowe
Review: RJ Bland
The Experimental horror movie is a format that has generally been resigned to the extreme periphery of the genre. David Cronenberg’s Eraserhead (1977) is a rare example, where cult status has been achieved but there are plenty of others that have fallen between the cracks. You might think that if there were any group out there willing to indulge in some oddity, then horror audiences would be a perfect fit. Many of us spend hours watching film after film in the vain hope we’ll see something scary after all, which on the surface, seems a bit weird to most people. Yet, the irreverence of experimental horror has meant that it’s never really had widespread appeal, even amongst us lot. It is difficult to define the parameters of this super-niche sub-genre as there are rarely two that feel as if they share the same DNA. However, all take a non-traditional approach to narrative and are often rooted in surrealism. If you are looking for a logical plot and grounded characters, you won’t find them here. Experimental horror is something you feel. Yes, that may sound a little pretentious but it’s ultimately the reason why they rarely connect with a lot of viewers. The release (and subsequent discussion) of two films this year threatens to change all that though. Kyle Edward Ball’s Skinamarink (just released on Shudder) has been causing a bit of a stir over the last few days and another, Enys Men (directed by Mark Jenkin) has also been getting a lot of plaudits too. Whilst our Skinamarink review will be on site in the next few days, it’s the latter that we caught up with first…
Describing the plot of experimental horror films is not usually an easy task. Luckily with Enys Men (pronounced Ennis Mane) the set-up is very simple. Set in 1973 on an uninhabited island off the Cornish coast, a wildlife volunteer (Mary Woodvine) spends her days monitoring a clutch of rare flowers that are growing on the edge of a cliff. When she’s not doing this, she’s dropping rocks down a mineshaft, firing up the generator, drinking tea and taking walks across the moorland. But as she patiently awaits the delivery of vital supplies (tea bags and fuel!), this monotonous routine in punctured with some other details. Like the tall bronze age standing stone positioned ominously in front of the house. And the young woman who seems to occasionally appear inside the volunteer’s ivy festooned stone cottage. And then there are the dead miners. Is the sheer isolation causing her to lose her grip on reality or is there something else going on…
Cornish Director Mark Jenkin has produced a plethora of impressive short films over the last 15 years. But it was his unconventional and immersive 2019 debut about the gentrification of a Cornwall village (Bait) that marked him out as one to watch in the future. Whilst Enys Men will undoubtedly not be everyone’s cup of tea (although there is a lot of tea drinking in here admittedly), it unquestionably furthers Jenkin’s reputation as one of Britain’s brightest auteurs.
Like Bait, Enys Men is shot on a 16mm Bolex camera. However, there’s no monochrome in sight. It may be set in the early 1970s but it feels as if it was actually made in the early 1970s too. It has Jenkin’s characteristic scratchy, raw aesthetic – with greens and blues feeling dark and foreboding whilst the yellows and reds have a Don’t Look Now vibrancy to them. The fact that the audio was added in during post-production only adds to the eerie dreamlike idiosyncrasy of the experience. And that word, experience, is so important to your overall takeaway from the film. The script is almost void of dialogue and the lack of rigid narrative structure could leave you feeling rather untethered and on edge. But then that’s precisely what it’s trying to do. If you let the film wash over you it’s almost meditative.
Although borderline hypnotic (partly thanks to a soothingly haunting score) there is a quiet unease to Enys Men that means it’s never a purely relaxed watch. The dramatic landscapes and our lead’s soporific daily routine are soon interrupted. Small things at first, but enough to stir something in both our lead and the audience. It never goes full-horror mode. Whilst comparisons to The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now are understandable due to the British folk horror elements and directorial style, it never shocks or horrifies. But what it does do is slowly work its way under your skin. And in the same way that the tragedies on Enys Men have left an echo on the island, the film itself will make its mark on willing viewers for days afterwards too. If you let it.
Enys Men is one of the best experimental horror movies to date and it marks Director Mark Jenkin out as a hugely promising talent. Some may revolt against the unwonted style and lack of answers but for those going in looking to feel something, there’s plenty of provocation here.
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