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Irish immigrants learn it’s unwise to persecute witches in The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, a handsome-looking sophomore effort from writer-director Thomas Robert Lee. Aspiring to the artful folk-horror of Robert Eggers’ The Witch with a nod to M. Night Shyamalan’s The Village, it sets its doomed 19th century-style hamlet in the shadow of 1970s America for reasons that are hard to guess. That odd choice has little impact on the movie, though, which hits some notes well but never really generates an overall sense of dread.
The title character, played by newcomer Jessica Reynolds, is the daughter of a single woman who has kept her existence secret. Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker) lives on the fringe of a village that was settled by devout Irish Christians in 1873 and remained isolated as the decades passed: One hundred years later, townspeople still dress and speak as their great-grandparents did. (They see the occasional plane flying overhead, but characters never interact with the modern world in a way that affects the story or mood.)
Release date: Oct 02, 2020
The town has been suffering for the last seventeen years — a mysterious event caused fields to become infertile, and by now people are desperately poor. Inexplicably, Agatha’s acres were not affected: Her continued prosperity inspires both bitterness and gossip that she’s a heretic. At the start of the film, a grief-stricken father (Colm, played by Jared Abrahamson) is burying his son as Agatha’s cart rolls by the graveyard, laden with food she refuses to share with neighbors. There’s a violent confrontation, and Audrey, hidden inside a crate, is incensed. She decides to take revenge — not just on Colm, but the whole town.
(This is another strange choice, in that the torments to come would be more involving if the victims were less sympathetic. Obviously the violence is unjustified, but their resentment of Agatha’s selfishness isn’t — and it’s hard to enjoy watching a well-fed girl as she tortures the poor and starving.)
Readers will have gathered that Agatha’s a bit more than a “heretic”: She belongs to a coven of witches in a nearby town (just how many frozen-in-time communities are scattered about in America’s woodlands?), and Audrey, presumably, is the teenage spawn of Satan. So she has an inside track on plague and pestilence. Crops and animals start to rot from the inside; people go mad or break out in boils; there’s a lot of coughing up blood.
Lee’s sometimes awkward script devotes more attention than it probably should to the suffering of individual families. We spend a lot of time with Colm and his wife Bridget (Hannah Emily Anderson); with the town preacher (Seamus Dwyer); and with Mr. Buckley (Don McKellar), who was unfortunate enough to meet Audrey face to face and remains wounded by her pale beauty. The strong cast makes these characters compelling, but their stories don’t leave much room for Lee to explore the evils behind their suffering.
While a little (or a lot) of mystery has worked well in recent horror pictures from filmmakers like Ari Aster, in this instance it keeps things from gelling. Nick Thomas’ attractive compositions and strong design work overall help give the film a credible sense of place, but ultimately this haunting lacks soul.
Production company: Gate 67 Films
Distributor: Epic Pictures
Cast: Jessica Reynolds, Catherine Walker, Jared Abrahamson, Hannah Emily Anderson, Geraldine O’Rawe, Don McKellar, Sean McGinley
Director-Screenwriter: Thomas Robert Lee
Producer: Gianna Isabella
Director of photography: Nick Thomas
Production designer: Melanie Raevn Brasch
Costume designers: Benjamin Toner, Kendra Terpenning
Editor: Ben Lee Allen
Composers: Thilo Schaller, Bryan Buss
Casting directors: Maureen Hughes, Sarah Jones
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