Things were rough in England in 1644. Parliament and the King were having a minor disagreement over who should run the country and, as sometimes happens with that kind of thing, a civil war broke out. Needless to say things got a bit bloody as those loyal to the King and those supporting Parliament clashed in battle. Firearms were in use to some degree, but more often than not, the battles were decided with the clash of steel on steel.
It is in the aftermath of one of these battles that Hex opens. As the opening credits play, the camera moves through a clearing filled with waist high grass and weeds. Hidden in the foliage are the bodies. Possibly hundreds of men lay dead, blood still dripping from wounds and weapons alike. It would be easy to suspect that none had survived the most recent clash. That is, until Richard (Daniel Oldroyd) rises shakily to his feet amongst the carnage.
Richard is a Cavalier, one of the supporters of the King. His first act is to find the flag his company carried, pry it from a dead man’s hand and plant it in the ground. As the last man standing he claims victory, if you can call it that, for the Royalists in the clearing.
But Richard is not the only survivor. Thomas (William Young) also made it through the battle. He is a Roundhead, one of the supporters of Parliament. His first concern is not trying to claim victory, but to pray to God for forgiveness and salvation, fear and sorrow clear on his face.
Soon enough the two encounter each other. Both men are tired and beaten but mostly uninjured from the battle that left every other man dead. Thomas doesn’t want to fight. He sees no point. Richard has other plans though and he comes after Thomas with his sword, promising a quick death.
The two have a prolonged fight in the woods that shows Richard is clearly the superior swordsman. Thomas makes up for his lack of skill with a blade with fear-driven cunning and a willingness to do whatever it takes to survive. Though disarmed by Richard, Thomas still manages to escape and the pair move deeper into the woods, the Cavalier bent on killing the Roundhead.
As Richard pursues Thomas, the pair encounter strange things, sighting a cloaked woman in the woods near the ruins of a church. Thomas, the more religious of the two, sees her for what she may be, a witch. He also believes the woods she inhabits to be her cursed territory. Now he has two fears and while Richard threatens his life, Thomas believes that the witch threatens his soul.
Fleeing even deeper into the woods Thomas finds an abandoned military camp. Though small, it is well stocked, undamaged and yet completely empty. He takes this as both good fortune and an ill omen. Were the soldiers here taken by the witch’s dark power?
When Richard finds the camp he believes he has his prey, only to discover Thomas has found a musket. Loaded and primed Thomas faces off against Richard at point blank range. However, instead of killing his pursuer, the Roundhead implores the Cavalier to join him against a common foe, the witch they have both seen.
An uneasy truce follows and that soon transforms into a grudging form of trust as Thomas, the religious man, explains what they face, the witch’s dark powers and what they must do to survive. Strange and surreal events haunt both men as time passes and the pair face threats that seem to come as much from their own dark imaginations as from anything real. Thomas is sure the witch has them in her power and declares they must re-consecrate the destroyed church and lure her there to end their torment. But can the pair continue to work together even as their fear and failing grip on reality threaten to tear them apart?
Hex is a historical horror/thriller somewhat in the style of Witch but reminiscent of the genre defining Blair Witch Project. Though well-made and well-acted, the film lacks one crucial factor for either a horror film or a thriller: tension. Both actors turn in excellent performances and the minimalist sets combined with the deep woodlands filming location do well to set the stage. However, the film’s pacing is off and though only 88 minutes in length, the plodding speed of the film makes that time feel longer.
In addition to the slow pace, another aspect that doesn’t work for the film may in fact be a possible historical accuracy. Thomas and Richard come to the fast conclusion that they face a witch and that she must be destroyed. Viewed through modern sensibilities and absent the viewer’s preexisting knowledge of the plot simply from film’s title, there is little in the initial encounters to brand the woman they see as a witch. Viewed through the lenses of the 17th century though, it could easily be seen that men who’d just been through the horrors of a battle only to encounter strange things in the woods might look to the supernatural as a reason. This was the age of the Witchfinders in England, when women who were suspected of witchcraft were readily tortured and killed in the name of stamping out Satan’s agents on the Earth.
Ultimately Hex plays out more as a strange form of situational psychosis and misogyny than a horror film or thriller. Perhaps if the film moved faster the existential threat of the witch might seem more real and legitimate. As it stands, though technically and artistically a good film, Hex falls flat for me as a viewer expecting tension and terror and instead finding a long walk in the woods punctuated by the occasional spat of violence and the surreal.