‘Enys Men’: Imagine ‘The Shining’ on a Deserted Island
The title is Cornish for “Stone Island,” a forbidding slab of land located off the coast of England’s southern tip. The year is 1973 — the same horror-cinema annus mirabilis of The Wicker Man and Don’t Look Now, for those of you playing along at home. The only current resident seems to be a woman (Mary Woodvine), who is never named; she’s simply referred to as “The Volunteer” in the end credits. Every day, she treks out past the lighthouse and the stone statue that stands in for some vaguely hinted-at collective grief (and which, per a radio report, was mysteriously vandalized in recent days), and dutifully logs whether a local flower has shown signs of change. It’s a solitary life. Other than the restless spirits of dead miners and long-gone sailors, she’s more or less on her own.
This is the basis for Mark Jenkin’s Enys Men, though trying to boil this waking nightmare down to a quick-and-easy synopsis is an exercise in madness. Although indulging in “madness” may be thematically appropriate given what lies at the center of this lysergic folk-horror throwback, which not only borrows liberally from the cult-movie classics of yesteryear but mirrors their druggy look (dig that washed-out, slightly grainy 16mm film stock) and fractured sense of storytelling. It may be a tale of someone losing their mind, and how being isolated out in the pastoral fringes can gnaw at the sanity of even the most stable people. Or it may be a pagan ghost story, dipping into the legacy of Old, Weird Brittania and how the landscape can absorb trauma, tragedy, grief, violence, and the loss of innocence. Either way, you’ll wonder if your drink has been dosed.
Jenkin’s previous movie, the scrappy, black-and-white 2019 microindie Bait — a drama about a fishing village in Cornwall that turns into a class-warfare battleground — ended up becoming a mainstream left-field hit in the U.K.; no less than Mark Kermode called it “one of the defining British films of the decade.” You’d have thought that the Cornish writer-director might try to level up or join the ranks of franchise-surfing ex-pats. Instead, Jenkin’s pivot to open-ended unease feels like he’s doubling down on the idiosyncrasies and the regionalism, bypassing a shot at primetime in favor of embracing a more after-hours viewing experience. Enys Men is a midnight movie made from the bare, bleached bones of works from an era when that term meant something, and for contemporary audiences that may not get the references (the filmmaker hasn’t been shy about namechecking influences) but understand the universal appeal of dread. Put it this way: Have you ever wondered what The Shining might be like on a deserted island? Wonder no longer.
Anyone can make a homage, however. What we have here is something chewier, singularly unsettling, more cryptic. There’s a real vision behind its sideways swipes at supernatural terror, a sensibility fueling these slow-burn turns of the screws. Hints of a once-quaint domestic life keep threading their way into the daily routines, leaving you to scratch your head over whether that young woman (Flo Crowe) loitering precariously on a cottage roof is (or was) her daughter? And if that man from the boat (Bait’s star Edward Rowe) is (or was) her husband, or lover, or maybe a future victim of something wicked this way coming?
While we’re asking questions: Who are the prancing maids, the silent men in seafaring uniforms, the staring phantoms in mining gear that lurk beneath the ground? What’s up with the flowers, which suddenly seem to have started sprouting fungal growths? Are they related to the similar things the Volunteer is finding on what may or may not be birth-related scars on her body? Do these things even exist at all? Does any of it?
There are horror fanatics who may find the ambiguity, the deliberate pace, and the purposeful confusion of what Jenkins is doing here to be its own type of madness — not to mention the fact that it’s a movie that’s more interested in what goes bump in your psyche instead of the night, what slowly loosens your hold on reality rather than immediately jolting and jangling your nervous system. When this hallucinatory daydream does indulge in something you could characterize as a scary-movie move, of course, it’s all the more effective. But there are also those who love being toyed with, and hot-potatoing a narrative back and forth in our hands without needing concrete A-to-B answers — who appreciate a horror vibe. Enys Men is for us. It’s a cult classic that didn’t feel the need to kill time in order to be called cult or classic.