Review by Sean Boelman
While the occult is a common theme in the horror genre, it isn’t often that one sees a film that explores witchcraft in the context of the twentieth century. Thomas Robert Lee’s The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw offers this intriguing premise, and even though its messaging may be a bit undercooked, it’s still a fascinating watch.
The film follows a woman who lives on the outskirts of her remote and traditionalist community along with her daughter, whom she has kept hidden from the superstitious townspeople until they discover her and accuse her of being the cause of their misfortune. It’s a fairly simple story, but a well-executed one at that.
Lee’s approach to the idea of community isn’t entirely original, but it still manages to be interesting. When one thinks about occult horror, one thinks of witch hunts and how communities tear themselves apart from their paranoia. By transposing these common ideas to a more recent (albeit not quite modern) time, it’s clear how this distrust still permeates society.
One of the film’s weaknesses is its character development. The most compelling aspect of the story is the mother-daughter relationship, and while Lee does explore this dynamic and how it was affected by keeping the daughter hidden for so many years, a substantial amount of the film is spent with another set of characters that is far less interesting.
The film also could have been a lot more effective had it been paced more consistently. The first hour or so is a solid slow burn with a few moments that drag (mostly when the film decides to go off on a tangent) before turning into something much more traditionally horror-focused. It is the drama elements of the film that made it work well.
Young actress Jessica Reynolds shows a lot of talent as the eponymous character. Her chemistry with Catherine Walker, who plays her mother, is excellent, but she really shines in those scenes in which she is allowed to be a bit more sinister. In the supporting cast, Jared Abrahamson and Don McKellar are standouts, even if their roles are mostly inert.
The film also features some very strong production design. Lee immerses the viewer in this world as if he turned back the clock several decades and several centuries at the same time. The result is a satisfyingly disorienting feeling that makes us know that something isn’t right, which soon becomes a sense of creeping dread.
There are quite a few moments in The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw that fall flat, but the idea is there, and there are some great parts too. It’s nice to see a return to form for the genre, even if it doesn’t do anything particularly unique with its ideas.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw screened as a part of the virtual edition of the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, which ran August 20-September 2.