The new face of folk-horror: ‘Enys Men’

There is something primitive about Mark Jenkin’s new film “Enys Men.” It was shot on 16mm film and developed by hand. There is almost no dialogue. The sounds are explosive and unadulterated. It has been described as a “folk-horror” film which is fitting when you consider the word folk implies the unearthing of lost origins. In this sense it is archaic but also new. “Enys Men” is stripped down to the barest aesthetics and to great effect. Mark Jenkin has crafted a film that to some will be deeply infuriating, but to others will be a liminal and unnerving  experience.

I recommend this film cautiously. As is indicated by its 31% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes, it is not kind to the viewer by any means. The plot, in as much as there is one, follows a lady credited as The Volunteer, played with frenetic energy by Mary Woodvine, as she observes a mysterious flower on an uninhabited island off the English coast. Slowly, reality begins to fade as characters from the island’s past begin to appear before her. Are they apparitions? Is she going insane? Is she reliving her own trauma? If you expect satisfying answers to any of these questions then “Enys Men” is not the film for you. It has other preoccupations.

Jenkin has been open about how he wanted to make a uniquely Cornish picture, one which was not indebted to Hollywood’s sensibilities. His previous film, “Bait,” dealt with the erosion of the British working class in the face of deindustrialization and gentrification. “Enys Men” expands on this by showing the evaporation of folk tradition. The Volunteer’s backstory is never explained and her life is ritualized. Everyday she repeats the same tasks: journaling about the flower, making tea and reading. However, these are interspersed with surreal moments. She encounters a group of miners in a cavernous space beneath her cottage and hears a priest’s phantom praying in the night. A stone memorial that has been built to commemorate sailors who died off the island’s rocky shores seems to move when unwatched. The film is deeply abstract so it never firmly presents a thesis, but all these elements coalesce to show a culture that is disappearing.

This political critique is coupled with stylistic experimentation that toes the line between bizarre and fascinating. Striking red and yellows are splashed across the celluloid canvas. The grainy 16mm photography recalls English horror films such as the original “The Wicker Man” and “The Shout.” The bright colors of the ocean, the flowers and the island’s other wildlife are juxtaposed with grimy interiors. At night, the cavernous spaces explored by The Volunteer are so dark that it is unclear whether the walls are drenched in water or blood. Noises clash into distorted soundscapes that occasionally overwhelm the senses. It is amazing that Neon picked something this avant-garde up for distribution, and hopefully “Enys Men” makes its money back at the box office so there will be more opportunities for filmmakers like Jenkin. 

“Enys Men” falls into a recent trend of aesthetically audacious movies that got widespread distribution for some strange reason, most likely because some studio executive was hit in the head by a large rock. Some of these films, such as “Flux Gourmet,” are excellent films constructed with an academic rigor while others, like “Skinamarink,” are pretentious and bloated. Nonetheless, this filmic trend is a welcome reprieve from the typical blockbuster fare. 

Whatever “Enys Men’s” box office is, Mark Jenkin has established himself as a talent worthy of serious consideration. Creating an original style that is tailored to a person’s cultural heritage is something many directors try to do but many fail. Oftentimes their style slips into whatever the default, establishment aesthetic is. Jenkin has avoided this and made a film that embraces folk elements many would consider outdated or boring. If you are willing to challenge yourself, “Enys Men” is worth the time.