With only three credits on his directorial CV to date, Paul Hyett – who has a long track record in make-up effects – is becoming a master of British films about folk menaced by monstrous evil in enclosed yet labyrinthine spaces. Cannily, he’s picked three very different settings (and horror sub-genres) so the underlying premise is dressed up afresh each time, without too much repetition. The Seasoning House, set in a war-torn Balkan rape factory in the 1990s, had a nippy, mute heroine literally slip through the cracks in the walls to harry macho Kreplachistani goons. Howl was a contemporary monster movie with werewolves besieging a snowbound, stalled train and many commuting wags commenting that this wouldn’t be a much worse experience than Southeastern’s regular rail service. With Heretiks – co-written by Conal Palmer (one of several hands on The Seasoning House) and actor Gregory Blair (Garden Party Massacre) – Hyatt goes back in time … to the 17th century England in its pestilence- and Satan-ridden setting, and to the Tigon Films of the late 1960s and early ‘70s in its co-option of the witchfinding and demon-raising freak-out sub-genre, though there’s also more than a dose of the frenzied nunsploitation of — taking the higher road — Ken Russell’s The Devils and Walerian Borowczyk’s Behind Convent Walls, and – down in the depths – Nigel Wingrove’s Sacred Flesh or Bruno Mattei’s The Other Hell.
A little too gritty to be a simple nostalgia exercise, it works hard at getting into the seamier, more cruel aspects of films like Blood on Satan’s Claw or The Wicker Man that tend to be sentimentalised by critical discussions of folk horror. The Devil is present in this convent in coal-eyed and horned form (Ryan Oliva as ‘The Diabolical’), but it makes more sense to be afraid of the pious authoritarian Reverend Mother (Clare Higgins, splendidly chilly) than the acolytes of Satan. Young Persephone (Hannah Arterton), who has psychic gifts, is tried for sorcery before a stuffy magistrate (a cameoing Michael Ironside) but whisked away by the Reverend Mother for supposed redemption in a priory that’s hardly more cheerful than the brothel in The Seasoning House. Persephone, chided for not having a saint’s name, joins other novices/inmates – most of whom are clapped up behind convent walls for being inconvenient or awkward women rather than because they have any particular vocation. A nice lad from the village (Freddy Carter) tries to be friendly, but any conversation with him leads to more praying and punishment. Sister Elizabeth (Ania Marson) is almost as seething as the Reverend Mother, and the younger women in their care have a range of issues – Rosie O’Day (of The Seasoning House) pops up again as one of the more fragile girls, but Emily Tucker (also of The Seasoning House) gets the best acting work-out in her arc from chatty naif to hissing hellspawn.
Besides the regular miseries of privation and repression, the priory is also haunted and an epidemic of bad behaviour (and glowing eyed possession) runs through the sisterhood – with an infernal climax that fulfils prophecies of CGI fire and damnation the protagonist suffers throughout. As in the recent Truth or Dare, nuns playing occult parlour games might have unleashed a demon – for some reason, the nuns and imps sub-genre is enjoying a mini-boom at the moment, represented by several other FrightFest titles this year (The Devil’s Doorway, Luciferina). The current British horror boom – and there are more British horror films around now than there were in, say, 1971 – has been reluctant to revive the period-set horror dramas which were almost a dominant form in the heyday of Hammer and its rivals. Only Christopher Smith’s Black Death has really ventured into these waters recently, which gives Heretiks a relatively fresh feel, though it goes for a blasted heath look, dingy interiors and authentically scratchy-looking costumes rather than prettified countryside, lush art direction and flimsy nighties. Its crudeness around the edges extends to some of the effects and a few of the performances, but it has a gloomy, sinister, atmosphere and some moments of effective dread going for it.