31 Days of Horror: Fantasia 2020 Review – The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw

If you did nothing but look at stills or the trailer for Thomas Robert Lee’s The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, you’d be forgiven for thinking that it takes place in the 1800’s. Log houses, period dress, and a completely agrarian lifestyle would suggest that, but the film’s opening crawl clarifies that the story takes place 100 years later, in the autumn of 1973. It explains that the town is inhabited by a group of Irish Christians who settled there in 1873, and chose to isolate completely from the rest of America as it grew and modernized around them, similar to an Amish community. This outside world never encroaches on the community and it’s hard to nail down why this choice was made, but it’s an interesting wrinkle. The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw doesn’t always seem to know where it’s going and certainly only has a passing interest in telling us, but it does some mildly mind-warping world building and provides both shocks and scares.

Central to the story and part of the community, but clearly an outsider from it, is Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker). Her farm was the only one spared of a blight that was connected to a mysterious eclipse seventeen years prior to the film’s story, and as such she is the only one in town with a reliable food source. Elsewhere, the townspeople are literally starving – their crops are all rotten and their livestock is producing a steady stream of horrific mutants that are not ideal for consumption. Suspicion mounts that Agatha was spared for a more sinister reason, that she might be a witch, or at least something evil.

Agatha has been hiding something, though. She actually is part of a coven, and has an eighteen-year-old daughter named Audrey (Jessica Reynolds) who has never been revealed to the townspeople, and who hides in a wooden box on Agatha’s wagon as she travels through town. Agatha picks a bad day to traverse the town square as her cart, full of food, interrupts a funeral for local farmer Colm’s son that has died of starvation. Violence ensues, and Audrey, powerless to protect her mother and spurred on by her coven, decides to turn her wrath on the town using her budding ability to persuade and control others.

In between all this, we’re offered a fair bit of colour for the townspeople – in particular the farmer Colm (Jared Abramson) and his pregnant wife Bridget (Hannah Emily Anderson), tragically driven to desperation by hunger. Don McKellar brings his usual intensity to the role of Bernard, who knows Agatha’s secret. The villagers are well-drawn characters, and seem pretty rounded in their motivations though, to be fair, those motivations usually start and stop at hunger or at least survival.

It’s Audrey’s motives that are a little less clear. Once she begins unleashing her power, it’s even more chaotic than you’d expect for someone exacting revenge. Agatha tries and fails to reign her daughter in but once Audrey gets a taste of cursing, well, there’s no stopping her. Folks that are sympathetic or even helpful to the Earnshaws are cut down as indiscriminately as those that shunned or harmed them. The way this is presented leaves the viewer with no one to root for, really. The townspeople probably could have been more welcoming to Agatha and Audrey, but when you remember that they’re starving to death and eating the (mutated) family pets, you have to feel at least a twinge of sympathy for them. The film seems to encourage this, providing deeply sad scenes of at least one family sadly chowing down on some mutant meat, the parents sadly chewing as their child enthusiastically houses the tainted meal.

The cinematography, painted by Nick Thomas with gritty grey-blue gothic vibes, is beautiful, and the set design works to build a fantastic sense of place for the film. It’s desolate when it needs to be, but is capable of cultivating a crushing feeling of dread, especially when the top-notch, mostly practical effects are employed. If there’s one thing that The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw achieves, it’s that atmosphere.

With The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, Thomas Robert Lee has crafted an enchanting witch tale, though it doesn’t quite offer enough of a direction to pay off the intriguing groundwork it lays down. The world-building here is quite good, and combined with loads of engrossing atmosphere and some truly intriguing themes, makes you wish it’s ideas were just a little more developed.

THE CURSE OF AUDREY EARNSHAW will be available on VOD/Digital Tuesday, October 6, 2020: Indemand | Comcast | Spectrum | Charter | Dish | Sling TV | Vubiquity | iTunes | Google Play | Vudu | Xbox | YouTube | Amazon Fandango Now | DirecTV | Breaker | Alamo On Demand
iTunes Pre-order: https://itunes.apple.com/us/movie/the-curse-of-audrey-earnshaw/id1531056261

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