Following the lively, train-set werewolf movie Howl, comes another H-word flick from British filmmaker Paul Hyett in the form of Heretiks. Bravely, in a year that’s set to give us the hugely anticipated Conjuring spinoff The Nun (from fellow Brit Corin Hardy), it also takes on God’s habit-clad chosen women. Similarly to that film, the story is also set many moons ago.
Specifically, Hyett roots the action in 17th century England. He kicks things off with the judging of a young woman by the great Michael Ironside. In keeping with his reputation, Ironside refuses to do an accent here, and remains disconcertingly American in spite of the setting, the time period, and everybody else who is present.
They’re putting on trial a young woman named Persephone (Hannah Arterton, sister of Gemma), who’s accused of witchcraft. In what is surely a grave overreaction, she’s even compared to Pontius Pilate over the course of the proceedings. Saved from the death penalty, Persephone is taken to a priory to atone for her sins, only to discover all is not what it seems.
First off, the building itself is incredible creepy. A great, big stone structure, it’s situated far away from the bustling town and lit only by candles, meaning there are plenty of dark corners for things to lurk in. Right off the bat, Persephone’s arrival is celebrated with the declaration that “we’ve been blessed with a new soul!” which feels eerily prescient.
The idea of so-called fallen women will be familiar to those still struggling to understand how there are still outstanding questions about the Magdalene Laundries, in Ireland, as well as similar institutions all over the world. It’s a fascinating setting for a horror movie because the real-world horrors of women-shaming and punishment are so keenly felt.
The name Persephone is significant too, given that she, in mythology, was the ruler of the underworld. The priory is incredibly puritanical and strict, but even when their latest recruit finds a friend to bond with in their shared situation, the question of whether it’s she who is cursed or the place itself hangs over everything.
Hyett edges us closer to the truth slowly but surely. He starts with a disembodied hand in the cellar, appearing while Persephone is locked in for her insolence, but soon escalates to crawling on the walls, recalling this year’s Hereditary, which featured arguably the coolest usage of same in recent memory. The demon itself does look a bit like Tommy Wiseau, but no matter, the tension is well-established and tightly held.
Refrains about the priory being “a holy place” seem to render Persephone’s so-called visions that of a mad woman, but we know better. As she moves closer to the truth, so too do the horrifying moments increase in intensity, culminating in one character ripping out her own eyeballs — in one terrific, seemingly unbroken, shot.
Heretiks is surprisingly gory and spooky throughout, Hyett keeping the tension tight right up until its wild final moments. He utilises the creepy setting well, likewise the nuns themselves, showing one advancing slowly in her habit like Michael Myers in drag. The Reverend Mother (played by Hellraiser star Clare Higgins) is a bad bitch, and one frequently wonders whether she might be the real villain.
The thing is a bit wiggy to be fair, Arterton suffocating under the weight of her own hair, but the costuming is well-handled and period-appropriate, at least to the extent it doesn’t look like a Game of Thrones knockoff or something. There are just two male characters featured, one of whom is Ironside. The other, a young man with a distractingly modern haircut, is a superfluous addition who throws off the strong, all-female spirit.
Still, it’s a minor quibble vastly overshadowed by the committed and nuanced central performance from Arterton, who sounds a bit like her sister, and looks fairly similar, but has a screen presence that’s entirely her own. Gemma has only really dabbled in horror with Byzantium and the criminally underrated The Voices, so Hannah may well find her niche there.
The Nun clearly has its own thing going on, given it’s part of the wider Conjuring universe and all, but Heretiks could make for an interesting companion piece to it (this may even be the stronger nun-based horror movie released this year, we just don’t know yet). An impressively original idea, loaded with the kind of historical accuracy that makes it a frightening prospect regardless of supernatural leanings, it’s enlivened by a strong central performance and plenty of frights. The only question is, where will Hyett go next? (apparently, the literary world).
WICKED RATING: (8 / 10)
Director(s): Paul Hyett
Writer(s): Paul Hyett, Gregory Blair, Conal Palmer
Stars: Hannah Arterton, Clare Higgins, Rosie Day, Michael Ironside
Release date: 2018 (TBC)
Studio/ Production Co: EnMar Productions
Length: 86 minutes