“Familiar” is one of those descriptors critics can twist into a positive or negative connotation. William Brent Bell’s folkloric Lord of Misrule basks in culty Pagan familiarity but not as cheap mimicry. If you’ve seen The Wicker Man, The Ritual, Kill List — I’ll spare you thirty more titles — you won’t be stricken dumbstruck by writer Tom de Ville’s ode to harvest rituals and wretched traditions. Bell’s not rewriting the book on insidious celebrations beneath all the synchronized dances and laughter, and yet, Lord of Misrule is an undeniably atmospheric venture into villages of the damned.
Tuppence Middleton leads an excellent ensemble as vicar Rebecca Holland, who — along with her family — are newer residents to the hidden settlement of Berrow. Together with her author husband Henry (Matt Stokoe) and 9-year-old daughter Grace (Evie Templeton), they prepare for a yearly autumn festival where Grace will play the role of “Harvest Angel.” Neighbors cheers frothy beers while they watch the master of ceremonies, Jocelyn Abney (Ralph Ineson), portray the “Lord of Misrule” who — through pageantry — drives the evil spirit Gallowgog away (another costumed actor). It’s presumably fun and games until Grace disappears, sending Rebecca into a spiral as she investigates the history behind Berrow’s worshiping community.
Lord of Misrule correctly casts the bellow-voiced Ralph Ineson as Berrow’s resident upholder of beliefs, a phenomenal choice for an ominous wolf in everyman’s clothes. The way he galivants in his Lord outfit, wearing a wooden jester’s mask and banging his scythe to set a rhythm, is unnerving as he first makes eyes at Grace. Ineson is built for intimidating dialogue, like when Jocelyn dares not pray for Grace during Rebecca’s service, instead spreading the Gallowgog’s legend. The more Rebecca digs into Berrow’s secrets, the more Jocelyn steals scenes — a bang-up job from Ineson, no surprise.
There’s nothing revolutionary about Rebecca’s investigation itself. At the onset, Henry is in disbelief that Berrow’s friendly citizens could be hiding sacrificial practices. Rebecca trusts no one, learns too much, and endangers herself in the name of her missing kin. Chicken eggs spill bloody fetuses into mixing bowls, and children’s nature clubs are exposed as something else — Lord of Misrule is a film of bad omens and blatant manipulation that never tries to hide intentions. At the center of problems is an inevitable trajectory evident from chapter one, page one, which Bell doesn’t seem to mind. Simplicity is delivered with competence, earning points where messier productions fumble.
Where Lord of Misrule shines is its cinematography and atmosphere. The vibes, as youths say, are correct. Director of Photography Simon Rowling does well with the naturalistic backdrops of bonfire festivals and English countryside nooks where fairies might hide. How he frames a naked Jocelyn strolling into foliage, or a black barn where Gallowgog is said to reside exudes fableish qualities attuned with Mother Nature. Shot selection reminds me of The Witch or Gretel & Hansel, broody period-set horror tales soaked in isolated distress. Bell’s visuals are constantly on point, which helps excuse some narrative shortcomings.
While Lord of Misrule doesn’t snatch any thorny crowns from superior folkloric horror comparisons, that doesn’t mean it’s better skipped. William Brent Bell shows ample command when translating scripted pages into picturesque storytelling, aided by his veteran cast. It’s giving me everything I want from a film like Lord of Misrule, even if “suitable” is a fairer compliment than “indulgent.” Nevertheless, Tuppence Middleton and Ralph Ineson are reason enough to give yourself to Gallowgog’s congregation, as long as you’re in the mood for a step below all the better titles mentioned above.
Movie Score: 3/5