Although it outsmarts itself right out of the gate, the austere, elevated, and still sufficiently gruesome Canadian horror flick The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is a good example of a movie that steals from the best while still carving out an identity of its own. Clearly indebted to classic cult movies from the 1970s and the likes of Robert Eggers’ freaky chillers The Witch and The Lighthouse, writer-director Thomas Robert Lee’s The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is engaging and spooky enough to satiate the seasonal demands of most genre fans.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw unfolds in a community of Mennonite-like Irish settlers living somewhere in America in the autumn of 1973. The location and specific nature of the religious order the town’s residents belong to is never specified. All that’s known is that the community has been going through plague and pestilence for the past seventeen years, following an event known only as “the eclipse.” It’s rumoured that local resident Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker) gave birth to a daughter that night, but no one has actually seen the girl in the flesh. The devout, God-fearing townspeople are highly suspicious of Agatha because her land hasn’t fallen victim to the same hardships. Agatha has been keeping her now seventeen-year-old teenage daughter, Audrey (Jessica Reynolds), hidden away from a world that might seek to do her harm. When Audrey finally gets a chance to see how terribly her mother is being treated by most of the town, she decides to start seeking revenge.
It’s made known early on in The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw that there’s an occult connection involving the titular character, but while that thread evolves and becomes better established over time, the true nature of the entire religious commune setting is frustratingly vague. While it’s easy to understand that followers this devout might not use cars or believe in contacting outside help for their problems, all that’s explained about the town happens in Lee’s opening text crawl, meaning any nagging questions one has about how things work in this strange land will remain somewhat frustrating vague throughout, leading to moments that may or may not be plot holes, depending on how much such things annoy you.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is best viewed as a mood piece; a bleak, but very stylish period-set revenge movie with a supernatural mean streak. While the world isn’t well defined enough to hold up to any close scrutiny, the characters, plot, and performances are solidly constructed. Before things start to get violent, Lee builds tension and dread naturally and organically, assisted nicely by a cast of actors willing to get a bit dirty for the material and some expert cinematography from Nick Thomas. The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw might let its own backstory get away from it, but everything else has a clear, well defined direction.
Reynolds and Walker make for a compelling daughter and mother duo, with the former doing a fine job with a character straddling the line between being a hero and a villain. Audrey’s cause is somewhat justified, but who she’s doing all of this bloodletting for takes away some of that goodwill; a wrinkle that adds a welcome amount of complexity that the background info can’t provide. There are also great performances to be found here from Jared Abrahamson and Hannah Emily Anderson, a local lout who assaulted Agatha and his pregnant wife, both of whom are still reeling from the loss of one child already. Can-con-icon Don McKellar even shows up to provide a pivotal supporting turn as the first person in town to catch a glimpse of Audrey up close.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw escalates nicely into purer horror movie trappings, but the journey to get to the bloody and psychologically disturbing stuff is just as engaging. It’s a subtle and deliberately paced film, but never a slow one. It might not earn a place as one of the most memorable horror films of the current era, but it’s entertaining, contemplative, and scary enough viewing on a dark and chilly autumn night.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw opens in select Canadian theatres on Friday, October 9, 2020. If seeing a film in cinemas, please take all necessary precautions. Practice social distancing, wear a mask, and stay home if feeling ill. The film will also be available on VOD starting October 20.
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