Enys Men horror film review

Enys Men is an experimental horror film for an adventurous audience

3 out of 5 stars

One of the most destabilizing ways to instill dread in a viewer is to render the familiar unfamiliar. By and large, narrative cinema is a representational medium: trees look like trees, water looks like water and people look like people, but what happens when that needle shifts? Enys Men, a strange and bewildering horror film with very little dialogue and vague hints of a story, instills a sense of dread through various destabilizing techniques. It unmoors the viewer, thrusting them into an increasingly disturbed sense of uncertainty. 

Enys Men structures itself on a strange set of repetitive actions. Shot on grainy 16mm, on an island off the British coast, a woman wearing a red jacket does a series of experiments. She examines flowers at a cliff’s edge, takes the earth’s temperature and throws a rock down a mine shaft. She returns to a small cabin where she turns on a generator, takes notes and makes tea. The aggressive roar of the sea punctuates her outdoor adventures, the drumming of the generator her indoor ones. 

Her actions are mysterious and unclear. She has no name, no history. Slowly but surely, though, small changes shift in the routine. There are ellipsis in time and reality. We see flashes of memories or hallucinations. Using zooms, familiar environments become suddenly unrecognizable, reframed and transformed. The audience, lulled into some semblance of routine through repetition, is increasingly tested in both endurance and attentiveness. The presence of our unnamed character — referred to as the Volunteer in program notes, played by ​​Mary Woodvine — becomes an anchoring point of the film. In the film’s invitation to observe, we search her physical presence for hints of a greater narrative. Her body becomes the most salient evidence; her eyes match the sea, and a large scar across her abdomen offers our most significant clues about what may be happening. 

Enys Men
Enys Men

At best, Enys Men can be hypnotic. Not quite soothing but certainly rhythmic in its patterns and audiovisual quality, the nature of the film plays tricks on the eyes. It’s reminiscent of other recent films like Skinamarink, which rely heavily on the haptic quality of the image to inspire a sense of discomfort. (It should be noted, however, that Skinamarink achieves the effect mainly in post-production, whereas this one is intrinsic to shooting on film. Neither technique is better, though I’d argue Skinamarink’s engagement with the quality of the image is overall more thoughtful and engaged with a sense of memory and space). The environment’s textures and film stock act similarly to the white noise on an old TV. It veers between aggressive, uncomfortable and alluring. If you look hard and long enough, you might see things that aren’t quite there, as if a portal to another world may open up and swallow you whole. It mirrors the experience of the Volunteer, who similarly finds herself in a world where visible reality seems to be cracking at the edges. Like the dark mine, acting as a passageway to another world or time, we veer on the edge of falling into the abyss. 

It’s worth discussing, though, that Enys Men often risks falling into too much ambiguity and vagueness. There are hints and allusions to what may be going on (or what might have happened) on this strange island, but they remain ambiguous, often to the point of being non-committal. The film exists between experimental and genre and runs a serious risk of alienating both audiences, being not quite scary enough for one and too light on ideas for the other. Depending on the baggage you bring to the film, your mileage will vary on the whole project’s effectiveness. 

Enys Men feels like such an anomaly in what appears typically in cinemas. It’s also the type of film I can barely imagine working at home. It requires darkness and for the sound to be turned up loud. It won’t win over all audiences, but it is such a singular experience that it’s difficult not to recommend it to an audience in search of something new and unusual. ■

Enys Men (directed by Mark Jenkin)

Enys Men opens in Montreal theatres on Friday, March 31.

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