It’s always a pleasant and humbling surprise when you enter a film thinking you know what you’re about to see, only to be proven wrong. That’s exactly the case in The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, the sophomore feature from Canadian writer-director Thomas Robert Lee. Following up his 2016 science-fiction drama feature debut Empyrean, Lee pivots into very different realm of genre cinema with this folk-horror tale of paranoia and revenge.
The film takes place in a remote Protestant village in the United States; one originally founded by Irish immigrants in the 19th century. They’re a superstitious people, preferring to remain tucked away from the ever-expanding outside world. In the 1950s, a mysterious eclipse laid waste to the land and livestock of the village, leaving only one farm untouched: Agatha Earnshaw.
As you might imagine, the villagers suspect only one thing can explain her prosperity: she must be a witch. Fearing retribution, Agatha stays isolated within the already isolated confines of the village; when she falls pregnant some years later, she decides to hide the existence of her daughter in order to keep her safe. But it’s not that easy – soon enough, young Audrey has become a teenager and tires of the eternal hide-and-go-seek. When a grief-stricken mourner strikes her mother during an altercation in town, Audrey plots to enact revenge against the townspeople for their treatment of her mother through, you guessed it: witchcraft.
What ensues is a deeply unsettling descent into madness and horror as Audrey expertly plays the villagers against each other – and themselves. Jessica Reynolds is absolutely riveting as Audrey Earnshaw, subtly and expertly shifting between innocence and Machiavellian cruelty. That can be said of the entire cast, really – there are some fantastic performances across the board.
Lee’s script avoids the pitfalls of being a vehicle for predictable, loud VFX scares; instead, The Curse of Audrey Shaw is a slow-burning Gothic tale of what lengths desperate people will go to for what they perceive as justice. Its desolate landscape and moody atmosphere is rendered beautifully by cinematographer Nick Thomas, capturing Autumn fog and barren fields with equal parts grit and beauty.
This is a well-crafted, well-acted and highly impressive second feature from a director whose next film will undoubtedly be worth keeping your eyes peeled for. And my goodness, let’s give Jessica Reynolds some more lead roles.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is now available for digital rental and purchase on VOD platforms.