The Movie Waffler New to Shudder - LORD OF MISRULE | The Movie Waffler

New to Shudder - LORD OF MISRULE

New to Shudder - LORD OF MISRULE
A vicar clashes with a pagan community as she searches for her missing daughter.

Review by Eric Hillis

Directed by: William Brent Bell

Starring: Tuppence Middleton, Ralph Ineson, Matt Stokoe, Evie Templeton

American filmmakers Ari Aster and Robert Eggers may have kicked off a revival of the folk-horror sub-genre, but the cinematic spiritual home of folk-horror (at least in the western world) is Britain. It may be directed by an American, Orphan: First Kill's William Brent Bell, but Lord of Misrule has all the ingredients for a classic slice of British folk-horror. A small village filled with sinister yokels? Yep. An outsider who clashes with the locals' beliefs? Absolutely. Lots of talk of "the old ways?" You betcha. A missing child and resultant fears of human sacrifice to appease pagan gods? You better believe it.

Yet despite possessing all the right ingredients, Lord of Misrule never quite captures the distinctive vibe of folk-horror. The best British folk-horrors blur the line between their heroes and villains, between the old pagan ways and modern Christianity. They're often sympathetic of traditional beliefs and critical of Christianity while drawing comparisons between the fundamental nature of both doctrines. With a religious figure at its centre, Lord of Misrule has the perfect opportunity to double down on this idea, but it's a concept it squanders.

The key movie of the original folk-horror movement, The Wicker Man, plunged a devout Christian into a pagan community. Lord of Misrule goes one step further by making its protagonist a vicar. Hot priest Rebecca (Tuppence Middleton) is just settling in after taking over the church of a small English village. There are tensions with her novelist husband (Matt Stokoe), who can't write anything, leaving Rebecca to pay the bills. The couple's young daughter, Grace (Evie Templeton) is struggling to fit in with her new surrounds.

While her Christian faith means she disapproves of the village's embracing of the pagan tradition of a harvest festival, Rebecca is happy when Grace is selected to be this year's harvest angel. At the ceremony, lead by local blowhard Jocelyn (Ralph Ineson, who since his turn in The Witch has become a staple of this stuff), Grace mysteriously disappears, last seen wandering into the woods accompanied by a man dressed as a demon.

With the police and her husband both proving useless, Rebecca conducts her own investigation, which brings her into conflict with Jocelyn. The townsfolk express sympathy for Rebecca, but there's something a little disingenuous about their affection. As Rebecca investigates she becomes increasingly alarmed by how seriously the locals take their adherence to the old ways.

On paper, Lord of Misrule should work. It shares essentially the same setup as The Wicker Man after all, that of a Christian searching for a missing girl among a community of sinister pagans. But it fails to build a convincingly pagan world beyond some window dressing. The Wicker Man feels like the filmmakers literally landed on an island that was still rooted in paganism, but Lord of Misrule's English village is never anywhere near as convincing. The sense that we're watching a very modern village play dress-up is abetted by the film's bland digital aesthetic. Shooting on film, especially the lower quality film stocks, goes a long way to selling the distinctive ambience of folk-horror – just look at how much heavy lifting the 16mm film did for Mark Jenkin's Enys Men. With its bland visuals and procedural narrative, Lord of Misrule might be mistaken for the sort of limited series that you'd find on British TV on a Sunday evening, though likely with Middleton replaced by Anna Friel or Sarah Lancashire.

That procedural aspect kills off much of the potential for suspense by keeping both Rebecca and the viewer in the dark. We receive information at the same time as Rebecca, which means we're never a step ahead of her, which of course eliminates the possibility of any moments where we might find ourselves shouting at the screen for her to stay out of the basement/woods/whatever.

Perhaps Lord of Misrule's biggest misstep is in wasting the potential of both its protagonist and the talented actress cast in the role. The fact that Rebecca is a woman of the cloth doesn't amount to a hill of beans in the grand scheme of the narrative, and she barely demonstrates any trust in her faith or crisis thereof. Middleton is one of the most exciting British actresses to emerge in recent year, yet aside from the Canadian thrillers Disappearance at Clifton Hill and Possessor, she's struggled to find the roles she deserves. Her presence isn't enough to make anything of Rebecca, who is one of the more confusing protagonists to grace the horror genre in quite some time. Despite some runny eye-liner, she never seems quite as upset as a mother should be at the disappearance of her child, and her reaction to some events (particularly a physical assault at the hands of an angry local man) is downright baffling.

If you're new to folk-horror, Lord of Misrule might provoke some further exploration of the sub-genre. But for those of us familiar with folk-horror's unique delights, Bell's film is a dull attempt to ride its coattails without understanding the cloth it's cut from.

Lord of Misrule
 is on Shudder UK now.