Folk horror has had somewhat of a resurgence in recent times with Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Ari Aster’s Midsommar bringing it to the forefront of the genre as fantastic films. Now, Fantasia Film Festival 2020’s The Curse Of Audrey Earnshaw can be added to that list!
Thomas Robert Lee brings us a chilling and foreboding story that uses witchcraft to comment on the issues of prejudiced communities, revenge, motherhood, legacy and unwanted pregnancies set in a devout Irish community in an isolated North America settlement.
Despite the setting, costumes and lifestyles of this settlement appearing to be from the past, making the film a period piece, it’s actually set in the 20th century. This element of the god-fearing community sticking to the ways of the past and not embracing the technological and ideological advances of modernity plays very heavily into the plot.
Indeed, the communities’ prejudiced fears and jealousy of ‘outsider’ Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker), as a result of her farm being the only one there that is flourishing and producing goods, whilst the rest of them are ravaged by pestilence is certainly one that draws parallels to certain modern-day communities and it definitely seems like Lee is commenting on these outdated and hateful beliefs and behaviours and, as we discover in the course of the film, condemns them for them.
It is, in fact, because of these behaviours that Agatha Earnshaw believes she has to hide her daughter; the film’s titular Audrey Earnshaw (Jessica Reynolds), away and keep her a secret. This is something that the, now 17 year old, has come to loathe and as a result we get the classic battle between a young woman who wants freedom and a mother who desperately wants to protect her.
It also leads to Audrey, having seen her mother mistreated at the hands of the other villagers, grow hateful towards them and seeking revenge through witchcraft, which kicks off the film’s many atmospheric, foreboding, creepy and horrific supernatural events, hauntings and scares. There are no jump-scares to be found here, the horrors are all subtle, quiet and understated with the dread-inducing uncomfortable situations themselves and the shocking consequences of them forming the real horror of the film.
We watch wide-eyed as livestock is born mutated with two heads and one villager, who had already lost a son, becomes haunted by her own pregnancy, leading to two of the film’s most shocking moments, one during which she attempts to violently abort her own baby and the second where she has bloodily slaughtered a sheep, placed its body in the baby-to-be’s cot and is cradling its decapitated head like a baby. But these are just a handful of the film’s nasty shocks.
The cast are all superb as well with both Reynolds and Walker standing out as the Earnshaws but the rest of the actors playing the villagers are up to the task as well, with Hannah Emily Anderson playing the extremely troubled aforementioned expectant mother Bridget, Jared Abrahamson shining as Bridget’s grieving and desperate husband Colm and Sean McGinley as kind-hearted and concerned priest Sheamus.
Lee does a great job of building tension throughout until all of the villager’s suspicions, guilt and anger boil up into a chilling, if not slightly unclimactic, moment of retribution, during which the film’s mystery, namely what is Audrey Earnshaw and what is going on, is vaguely revealed and the film’s title The Curse Of Audrey Earnshaw is suddenly given multiple meanings.
We learn from the opening crawl that Audrey Earnshaw’s birth, during an eclipse, is what sparked the settlement’s decline in fortunes, which would make her a curse in herself, we see during the film that she has cursed the villagers and then in the climax we see that in many ways Earnshaw’s birth was a curse for her mother, a dangerous and dark legacy she embraced that others couldn’t, but one that ultimately dooms her.
The lack of crucial context, particularly between the exposition dump in the opening title crawl and the film’s actual opening, and during the climax in connecting all of the dots, leads to The Curse Audrey Earnshaw being slightly unfocussed and vague. A problem that’s at its most striking during the film’s final moments when Bridget has her baby. But a striking lead in Reynolds alongside a game ensemble cast, heaps of atmosphere and dread and shocking moments of horror help to fill in for the missing pieces to make Lee’s film a great tale of witchcraft mall-town paranoia.
For more reviews and interviews, check out our Fantasia Film Festival 2020 coverage here