★★★★1/2 out of ★★★★★
This Canadian occult tale is one of dread, rebellion, and revenge. It’s a masterful work that won’t let go once it gets you in its clutches.
Directed by Thomas Robert Lee
A young woman hidden away by her mother from a strict Christian community comes of age and rage in director Thomas Robert Lee‘s The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw. Unfortunately for those around the titular character, she is a witch who is not afraid to verify the rumors and insinuations that the neighbors have been whispering about her mother in terrifying ways.
Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker, who is as excellent here as she is in A Dark Song) lives a few miles from the sheltered religious community. The Canadian film is set in 1973, though because the residents are descendants of Irish Protestant settlers and stick to their old, pre–modern-technology ways, it could easily be mistaken for a period piece, if not for the occasional passing airplanes and automobiles. Seventeen years earlier, an eclipse happened, and since then, Agatha’s crops have been successful while the community members’ crops have all failed. That eclipse also saw the birth of her daughter Audrey (Jessica Reynolds in a star-making turn), who must hide in cupboards at home and in a crate when Agatha goes on errands.
When Agatha is attacked in public by a grieving father (Jared Abrahamson as Colm Dwyer) burying his son — which Audrey witnesses through a hole in her crate — and her mother does nothing to avenge herself, Audrey strikes out on her own for the night and puts a curse on the man’s wife (Hannah Emily Anderson as Bridget Dwyer). Soon enough, the rumored daughter of Agatha is seen outside her house, and Pastor Seamus Dwyer (Sean McGinley), Colm’s father, does what he can to solve the mystery of Audrey Earnshaw while trying his best to keep his flock members at ease — and alive.
Lee directs The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw masterfully, crafting a near-perfect horror film that is mesmerizing, jolting, and heartbreaking. The landscape is both wide open and claustrophobic, with any beauty tempered by rotting animals and produce. Lee balances on-screen and off-screen horror splendidly, showing immediate, sometimes gruesome effects of the land that some residents feel is godforsaken while wisely leaving some horrors to the imaginations of viewers.
Lee’s screenplay is abundant with rich dialogue and full characterization. One particular scene that sees a father feeding his wife and young daughter questionable food is jarring in its execution, and is just one of several memorable set pieces in this haunting film. Nick Thomas’s rich cinematography and the score by Bryan Buss and Thilo Schaller are both captivating.
Walker and Reynolds make for a fine pairing, with Walker bringing a paranoid yet stern gravity to Agatha. Reynolds portrays Audrey’s rebellion and ever-growing self-assurance marvelously, going from shy and obedient to a supernatural force of vengeance without ever missing a beat. The supporting players all turn in splendid work, as well.
Lee paces The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw strikingly and infuses the film with a constant sense of dread. It’s an intelligent supernatural tale that packs an emotional punch. It is sure to find a place on my list of top 10 horror films for this year.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is part of Fantasia’s 2020 virtual edition, which runs August 20–September 2. For more information, visit https://fantasiafestival.com/en/.