ENYS MEN. A horror unlike any other
Forget about the idiotic Scream VI, the pretentious Beau is Afraid, the absurd Infinity Pool, and other overhyped productions based on worn-out formulas. Enys Men is the best horror film since the underrated Bone Tomahawk and Mandy, although it is completely different from them and from any other horror film.
Spring 1973. On a desolate rocky island off the coast of Cornwall, a middle-aged woman works. We will never know her name or the exact nature of her work. Every day, she observes flowers on the cliff and measures the soil temperature, recording her findings later in a notebook. After work, she returns to a stone cottage, where she brews tea, listens to music, reads a book, and communicates with the outside world through a radio. Occasionally, a man arrives on the island with supplies: provisions and fuel for the generator. One day, a strange lichen grows on the flowers, and mysterious figures begin to appear nearby: a teenage girl, an old pastor, singing children, silent women, ghostly fishermen, and miners from an abandoned mine. All of this seems to be connected to an ancient pagan menhir that the woman sees from the windows of her stone house.
“Enys Men” is the sixth feature film by Mark Jenkin, who gained recognition with “Bait” in 2019 (BAFTA award). Jenkin creates strictly authorial cinema: he is the director, screenwriter, editor, cinematographer, and composer. He wrote the script for “Enys Men” during the COVID lockdown, and the sense of isolation deeply permeates the text, which the creator describes not as horror in the traditional sense but as “horror of senseless time.” The plot was also influenced by folk tales heard in childhood: “I was a child from the countryside, and I always felt attracted to its dark side,” explained Jenkin. The director, with a minimal crew, filmed the movie on the edges of Cornwall for three weeks – a picturesque region in southwestern England inhabited by descendants of the Celts, full of wild heaths and landscapes of mining areas listed as UNESCO World Heritage.
“Enys Men” (meaning “stone island” in the Cornish language) fits into the long tradition of British horror cinema, especially the subgenre called folk horror. The basic premise of folk horror is the belief in the dangerous and unpredictable power of nature, against which people are helpless. This doesn’t necessarily mean that folk horror includes supernatural elements – it can focus solely on rituals, superstitions, and beliefs (real or imagined), as seen in flagship films of this genre like “Witchfinder General” (1968) by Michael Reeves and “The Wicker Man” (1973) by Robin Hardy. Other essential features of folk horror include rural settings, references to pre-Christian folk religions, the isolation of the main characters confronted with the unknown, and a natural landscape that is much more than just the backdrop of events. All of this is found in varying proportions in “Enys Men.”
The visual aspect of Jenkin’s film is stunning and breathtaking. Shot with an old Bolex H16 SBM camera on 16mm film and in a 1.33:1 aspect ratio (which enhances the sense of confinement), “Enys Men” is full of mesmerizing images that are striking in their beauty. Waves crashing against the cliff, moss covering rocks, the black glass of the mine, the stone tower, vines densely enveloping the house, a solitary menhir in tall grass, birds against the sky, ants carrying food on their backs, the wrinkled face of the nameless woman… The image is grainy and scratched, and Jenkin doesn’t spare close-ups or editing reminiscent of Nicolas Roeg’s style. It is so unique that it doesn’t resemble anything else in contemporary cinema (even though it may remind one of formal experiments by Derek Jarman). “Enys Men” looks like a film from the period in which its action takes place – like a lost classic of British horror from the ’70s.
Equally important is the sound. “Enys Men” was made as a silent film with sound added in post-production, explaining the microsecond pauses between the words and gestures of the actors. The lack of synchronization is a deliberate choice that emphasizes the surreal atmosphere. Long segments of the film pass without words; except for radio broadcasts, the first dialogue only occurs in the fifteenth minute of the one-and-a-half-hour production. More often, you hear the sound of the sea, the wind howling, birds singing, echoes of the mine shaft, and the crackling of the radio equipment. The sound landscape is complemented by Jenkin’s minimalist music. Interestingly, the film’s resonance with the work of Richard D. James, known as Aphex Twin, is intriguing. Both creators grew up in Cornwall, and James included a track titled “Lichen” on the album “Selected Ambient Works Volume II.” Perhaps it’s a coincidence, but lichen is a significant element in the plot of Jenkin’s film.
Does the captivating form hide substantial content? The answer may be ambiguous. The plot of this mysterious film gives the impression of being so concise that it’s almost pretextual. The whole thing is closer to the logic of a dream than to a traditional narrative: nothing is said directly, and nothing is entirely explained. In this way, the creators, on the one hand, leave room for broad viewer interpretation, and on the other hand, expose themselves to criticism of prioritizing form over content. The undersigned leans towards the former; with a bit of goodwill, “Enys Men” is both a feast for the senses and a reflection on loneliness, sadness, and loss. These themes, subtly presented, also find their place in Jenkin’s unsettling and atmospheric work, expanding the tag cloud to include psychological cinema. One thing is certain: this expressionistic cinematic poem is one of the best and most original works that British cinema has produced.