My notes on the low budget British historical horror film Hex.
Sometimes, the understandable impulse to disassemble films into their pitch ingredients while watching them is misleading. That’s interestingly the case with Hex, written and directed by George Popov and Jonathan Russell, which could probably get a push as ‘a cross between A Field in England and The Witch’ but also draws a lot on John Boorman’s Hell in the Pacific – one of those ur-text films which gets a trickle of remakes, like Enemy Mine – but then comes up with a finale that offers something very different and even uses the enemies-who-must-learn-to-coexist premise as a springboard for a much less life-affirming, though horribly on-the-mark conclusion. The last scene of this low-low-budget British film is so strong, though it pulls back for a long shot rather than gets up close and in your face, that it casts the whole picture in a different light. And also makes it hard to review, since the most original aspect of the movie is eminently spoilable. So, in lieu of analysis, take this as a recommendation that you seek the film out. We’ll talk about where this comes into the spectrum of witch hunt cinema that includes Dreyer’s Day of Wrath and Michael Reeves’ Matthew Hopkins – Witchfinder General later.
We open in a field in England, in colour this time, sometime during the English Civil War – after what seems to have been a minor skirmish. Cut off from their respective armies and disoriented are Thomas (William Young), a parliamentarian, and Richard (Daniel Oldroyd), a Royalist. Going against type, the King’s soldier isn’t a lace-ruffled cavalier but a dour, armoured professional soldier with a Northern accent while the Roundhead is a floppy-haired, beardless youth who says his quarrel is with the King not his soldiers and would rather not fight to the death if there isn’t an actual battle on. At first, Richard and Thomas – we don’t find out their names till the end credits – scrap in the long grass, not very expertly, but both realise that there’s something cursed about this patch of ground, and have glimpses of a cowled woman (Suzie Frances Garton) in the woods. Witch signs and stick figures suggest the supernatural, and the terrified men eventually set aside their quarrel and try to survive by reconsecrating an abandoned ruin of a church – finding that despite their political differences they share Christianity (though doctrinal differences were a big thing in the Civil War) and perhaps a fear of witchy women.
With its limited cast and remote setting, Hex doesn’t fall into the trap of trying for effects beyond the budget – Popov and Russell are able to kit out their few characters in authentic-seeming period gear and make good use of the wilderness. Performances are fine, and the gradual stress on eeriness is effective – there are comparatively few outright scare scenes, and some depend on odd details (a prop which seems to be in the wrong character’s hand) to show up naturalistic nightmares for imaginings. In her brief appearance, Garton makes a big impression as a ferocious, but different type of witch woman. You have to be willing to go along with this, but it’s a striking little picture.
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