Lurking beneath a rather nondescript title is one of the most nightmarish horror films you’ll see this year.

Alex Garland is an auteur that can be relied upon to bring something unique, cerebral and challenging to popular genres. His screenplay for Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later delivered a new spin on the zombie/virus outbreak, while his sci-fi films as writer-director, Ex Machina and Annihilation, elevated the concepts of AI and alien invasion, respectively, into the arthouse.

Men sees Garland take on the horror genre with gusto and the result is a disturbing and nightmarish mood piece with a creep factor and sustained sense of dread that’s cranked up to unbearable levels.

Harper (Jessie Buckley, Wild Rose) relocates from London to an old manor house in the country to convalesce following the apparent suicide of her estranged husband. After meeting with her dorky and amiable landlord, Geoffrey (Rory Kinnear), she takes a stroll in the woods where she encounters a sinister naked man who proceeds to relentlessly stalk her, despite police intervention.

A subsequent visit to the local church attracts unwarranted attention from the salacious vicar – who knows more about her situation than he possibly could – and taunts from a bratty schoolboy in a cheap plastic mask.

Suffice to say it’s a village filled with male antagonists (all played by the shape-shifting Kinnear) who turn Harper’s getaway into a nightmare, and to reveal any more would spoil the fiendishly freaky ride that awaits…

Men blends gender issues with the tropes of folk horror, a sub-genre distinguished by a rural setting and its folklore (The Wicker Man and Midsommar being prime examples). Pagan images adorn the church altar, the mythical Green Man puts in an appearance, and floating dandelion puffs signify sinister forces. There’s also a biblical nod to forbidden fruit and original sin. It’s a film rich in symbolism, which is taken to the extreme in a slimy and surreal depiction of the cycle of rebirth.

It also works as a traditional ‘old dark house’ horror with a female protagonist under siege and fighting for her survival and sanity. Buckley is terrific in the kind of role usually played by Rebecca Hall, running the gamut of emotion with total conviction.

But this is an Alex Garland movie and nothing is as clear-cut as it appears – the aforementioned elements serve an allegorical agenda that will provoke much discussion after the end credits roll.

Men doesn’t hold back on visceral shocks – there’s a nasty moment involving a mail slot that can’t be unseen, and the climax features some truly grotesque body horror that would make even David Cronenberg wince. It’s also a visually stunning film, juxtaposing the verdant serenity of the countryside and dark interior scenes bathed in red giallo lighting. One of many amazing shots sees Harper dwarfed by the immensity of the universe as she contemplates a galaxy of stars at the end of a dark road.

The sound design is also crucial to the ominous tone; Harper tests the acoustics of a cavernous railway underpass by singing a series of notes, and the repetitive echo becomes an aural motif throughout the film, complementing the eerie choral score by regular Garland collaborators Geoff Barrow and Ben Salisbury.

Men engages on several levels – as an indictment on violence against women and “toxic masculinity”, an exploration of guilt, grief and post-traumatic stress, and a genuinely scary folk horror – and packs the creative and intellectual punch audiences have come to expect from one of Britain’s most interesting and unconventional filmmakers.

In cinemas: June 16, 2022
Starring: Jessie Buckley, Rory Kinnear, Gayle Rankin
Directed by: Alex Garland