Filmmaker William Brent Bell‘s latest, Lord of Misrule, bears all the familiar earmarks of folk horror. A peculiar town with Pagan roots, bonfires, masked denizens reveling in harvest rituals, and a pious Christian at the center, scrambling to make sense of it all. It’s that well-trodden but visually lush path that serves as refreshing misdirection in a new folk horror entry that attempts to keep its audience on their toes to varying degrees of success.
Tuppence Middleton stars as Rebecca Holland, a Christian preacher who’s recently moved to the quaint town of Burrow with husband Henry (Matt Stokoe) and daughter Grace (Evie Templeton). Burrow accepted her with mostly open arms, attending her sermons weekly and demonstrating patience for Rebecca’s wariness over their Fall harvest festival that’s named Grace as the “Harvest Angel.” Just as soon as Grace is revealed to be a bit of a sociopathic animal abuser, she’s lured away from the festival bonfire by masked figures and disappears into the woods. Her disappearance sends Rebecca on a desperate search, leading to unsettling discoveries about the town’s true nature.
Bell, working from a script by Tom de Ville (The Quiet Ones), smartly emphasizes the setting and its natural beauty, creating both rich production value and a pervading sense of atmosphere and unease. That unsettling quality begins with an eerie performance from young Templeton, whose unnatural behavior both raises overarching questions and catalyzes the horror. It’s atmosphere that drives Lord of Misrule, as Rebecca’s desperate bid to find Grace leads her to a series of familiar folk horror beats and encounters. Especially with Ralph Ineson’s menacing leader, Jocelyn.
It’s that central mystery and dangling unanswered questions about the festival’s true purpose that keep Lord of Misrule engaging, rather than its protagonist. Middleton does a serviceable job as a mother coming unglued the longer Grace is gone from the picture, but the script shoehorns her character into bizarre encounters with villagers that stretch plausibility. One key scene that sees Rebecca confronting a petulant child results in violence from the child’s father; both the scene and the character’s reaction to it feel jarring and melodramatic. The more entrenched in the mystery behind Grace’s appearance it gets, the less interesting Rebecca becomes. Her husband barely factors into the story at all and eventually becomes all but forgotten.
The good news is that Bell mixes up the formula just enough to deliver a few surprises. Just when you think you’ve nailed the trajectory and guessed the outcome for the Christian woman, Lord of Misrule takes sharp detours in a very different direction. It’s bolstered by glimpses of an inhuman entity, lurking about in wait, and another solid portrayal by Ralph Ineson as the rueful leader with a commanding presence. Ineson’s Jocelyn, like most of the town’s key players, toggles between warm friend and menacing villain with ease.
Ultimately, Lord of Misrule can’t fully escape the trappings established by quintessential folk horror films like The Wicker Man, but Bell gives it his all to subvert many of the tropes and make it entertaining. The finale ultimately satisfies, given Rebecca’s character arc, but Lord of Misrule is carried by the strength of its intriguing mythology and stunning production value. Burrow is a deeply weird town that feels lived in, rich with details and history. The creepy atmosphere and striking imagery on display help offset a folk horror entry that eventually tries to shake up the blueprint, though it’s not wholly successful along the way.
Magnet will release Lord of Misrule in theaters and on VOD December 8, 2023.
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