By Angelo Muredda
A woman’s observation that lichen has started to grow on a flower she’s been studying for weeks counts as bold narrative progress in Mark Jenkin’s decidedly low-stakes folk-horror curio, Enys Men. Shot in the same striking, hand-processed 16mm stock and set in the same seaside milieu as the director’s lauded feature debut Bait (2019), Enys Men is a more opaque affair than its predecessor, a mood piece about the totemic power of natural landmarks and the allure of sinking into the historical sites of past trauma. Staccato in structure and wind-hewn in style, with its stark visuals of rock cuts and crashing waves and abrasive, post-synced sound design, the film is a sensorially rich but occasionally patience-stretching exercise. Repetitive by design as it recreates the stultifying daily routines of a naturalist whose faculties are in decline, it is most impressive for how thoroughly it plants its roots in the filmmaker’s Cornish soil.
The “Enys” of the title, which is Cornish for “stone island,” refers to the eponymous isle in the Celtic Sea, where an unnamed woman referred to in the credits as the Volunteer (Mary Woodvine) plays caretaker to the local fauna while occasionally throwing a rock down a well into an abandoned mine and anxiously tiptoeing past an eerie standing stone. The Volunteer’s notebook, in which each day she neatly logs the temperature of the contaminated soil and the mostly unchanged appearance of the flower that grows from it, tell us that it’s the spring of 1973, although a faint voice on the radio ominously suggests that catastrophe has already struck the land, and what we take to be this present may already be past. Haunted by fragmented images and mayday sirens that seem to come from both individual and collective traumas—among them, a wounded child and a shipwreck—as well as cryptic glimpses into her future, the Volunteer becomes untethered from reality as the landscape is progressively inscribed upon her body and mind.
Like its poppier antecedent The Blair Witch Project (1999), though without either the expository framing device or the meta-textual hype, Enys Men plays out as a strange art object of regionalist horror—a lost text now found. The scratchy, beat-up celluloid image grants the project an evidentiary quality even as it creeps into psychedelic territory in its last act, when sea gales disrupt the calm of the Volunteer’s cottage—bringing apparitions of dead fishermen and seven portentous milk maids—and when slash patterns on the local rocks start to appear on the Volunteer’s body: first as a scar on her stomach, then as a plant growth that rapidly overtakes her. This associative chain, emphasized by the wide shots that treat the Volunteer as just one of the many natural elements on the isle, about as distinct as one of the branches swaying in the wind, is as deep as the Volunteer’s characterization goes. Her psychic dissolution, which sees her electively absorbed by the landscape, is fairly generic as folk horror protagonists’ final outcomes go, as is the thematic linkage between her and the standing stone, with both registering as interchangeable properties of the environment in their unmoved disposition and their unmooredness from time.
What it lacks in conceptual depth, though, the film more than makes up in the visual interest of Jenkin’s stunning, high-contrast colour photography of white waves crashing against brown rocks, and in the pop of the Volunteer’s red raincoat jutting out against the enormous grey sky and muddy grass underneath her shoes. As in Bait, Enys Men’s curious throwback quality comes not just from the idiosyncrasies of the film grain and the manifest history of the setting, electively written on the moss and the ancient rocks, but also the unique soundscape. In the absence of human voices to bounce off the protagonist, the amped-up sounds of the rustling wind and crashing water, as well as the beat-up technological elements the Volunteer introduces to the land—her hissing tea kettle, ticking clock, crackling radio, and rattling power generator—become both a constant discursive companion for her and a series of repeating musical motifs for us, their return or deferral signalling another day in the cycle or a shift in the routine. “I’m not on my own,” the Volunteer enigmatically replies to a rare human interloper who checks in on her late in the film, with the gloomy ambience of her surroundings granting a ring of truth to her answer. Despite the well-worn framing of the landscape as a touchstone for a solitary woman in the throes of hysteria to riff off, there is something genuinely fresh as well as unnerving about the constant din of the soundtrack, the slight lag of the sound elects behind the image they accompany giving the film a quaint, lo-fi quality, as if we’re handling a freshly discovered piece of old Cornish video art of unclear provenance.
Jenkin’s evocation of traditionalism is on trend, though the film’s formal inventiveness and tendency toward abstraction distinguish it from the recent folk-horror revivalist works of Robert Eggers (The Witch, 2015; The Lighthouse, 2019), Ben Wheatley (Kill List, 2011; A Field in England, 2013), and Ari Aster (Midsommar, 2019). Though Jenkin shares a central inspiration with these contemporaries in Robin Hardy’s 1973 classic The Wicker Man (whose release date is perhaps not coincidentally mirrored in the apparent setting of Enys Men), the film’s cyclical structure and punchy images also evoke both Maya Daren and Alexander Hammid’s Meshes of the Afternoon (1943) and Nicolas Roeg’s Don’t Look Now (1973)—the latter of which gets an additional tribute in the form of the Volunteer’s vivid red coat, a cosmic doppelganger for the child-sized garment that Donald Sutherland’s bereaved father pursues through the canals of Venice.
It’s to Jenkin’s credit that these nods—particularly to the elliptical cinema of Roeg—don’t come across merely as cute citations on a folk-horror syllabus, but as a good-faith acknowledgement of a shared investment in using the unique formal properties of montage to treat time not as a line that one progresses along, but a stream one disrupts. If Enys Men is ultimately more than the sum of the parts it assembles from the history of folk horror, though, it largely comes down to Jenkin’s expert wielding of image, sound, and juxtaposition to bring this idiosyncratic landscape of lichen, moss, rock, and harsh winds to life. In that respect, it’s a throwback not just to a strain of ’70s experimental horror, but also to a kind of regionalist filmmaking that derives its power from the ground the filmmaker stands on.