An interesting shift in recent horror is that witch movies have become distinctly pro-witch. This makes complete sense, and is probably overdue; the horror of real-life witch hunts, after all, is not the horror of women using witchcraft to terrorize townsfolk, but the horror of religious fundamentalists using “witchcraft” to persecute women. But while the framing of witchcraft as a means of fighting back against an oppressive patriarchy is inherently radical and exciting, it puts horror filmmakers in a curious place: how do you acknowledge that the villagers are the real monsters, while also indulging in terrifying witchcraft?
The answer, at least in Thomas Lee’s new folk-horror thriller The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, is to roll both witchery and Christianity into the same ball of unpleasantness that is colonial American life. Actually, that’s not quite true: while the characters and locations all appear to be set sometime in the 1800s, we learn in an opening crawl that the year is actually 1973, and the village is actually a remote Irish Protestant settlement in the wilds of Canada that has resisted hundreds of years of technological advances. This approach doesn’t seem to be working out very well for the townsfolk: for the past couple of decades, the settlement has been beset by a pestilence that leaves the ground barren and the animals malnourished. Curiously, the one exception is the bountiful farm of Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker, of A Dark Song), a local spinster on the outskirts of town who the locals suspect of witchcraft. That second part is actually true– Agatha belongs to a coven that communes regularly in the forest– but what they don’t suspect is that Agatha has a daughter, Audrey (newcomer Jessica Reynolds), whose existence Agatha has been keeping a closely guarded secret.
Understandably, this arrangement is beginning to grate on the teenage Audrey, whom Agatha forces to hide in a closet when neighbors stop by to buy her crops, and has to travel to their coven meetings via crate. One day in their travels, Audrey witnesses her mother get accosted by local farmer Colm Dwyer (Jared Abrahamson), who takes Agatha’s bounty as a personal affront as she rides past the funeral of his young son. Secretly consulting her fellow witches, Audrey decides to use her burgeoning witchy powers to place a hex on the bereaved father, using her anonymity as an asset. Soon, strange events begin to befall Colm’s neighbors, leaving it to the kindly Father Seamus (Sean McGinley) to piece together what’s going on.
As you can imagine, The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is a slow burn, but at times I almost wished it were either slower or faster. Much of the misfortune that befalls the settlement could easily be explained by natural means; crops fail and children die and men go crazy from hunger or horniness with or without supernatural intervention. Yet, curiously, we see Audrey levitating in the middle of a circle of witches right out of the gates, thus removing any doubt that what we’re seeing is, in fact, the devil’s work. And yet, following this scene, the other witches are largely absent until the finale. It’s an odd sort of down-the-middle approach, in which the fact of the supernatural is never in doubt, yet strangely sidelined for much of the picture; I would have liked to have seen a version that committed more fully in one direction or the other.
Still, folk horror in general is more about atmosphere than plot (I defy anyone to succinctly describe the storyline of The Blood on Satan’s Claw), and in that, The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw excels. Even before Audrey levels her titular curse, the unnamed settlement feels thoroughly forsaken, the ground sodden and the sky a perpetual white-grey; even Agatha’s supposedly bounteous homestead feels like a forlorn outpost on an abandoned planet. Once Audrey gets her hooks in her marks, the madness spreads quickly, manifesting itself in different villagers in differently horrifying ways. The town becomes so insular in its despair that, when we’re reminded that this is actually taking place in the ‘70s (as in a striking shot of a single-engine plane flying over farmers plowing their fields), the result is disorienting. The town is so isolated and cloistered that you completely buy into their town-wide folie a deux. It’s impossible to imagine that, at the exact same moment on the other side of the world, David Bowie is recording Pin Ups.
As colonial American folk horror goes, Earnshaw doesn’t come close to unseating the current reigning champion, and there are moments when the execution is not as sure-footed as it perhaps could be. But I’m still a sucker for a good puritan freakout, and once the gears get into motion it’s difficult not to get caught up in it. If nothing else, this is a movie in which a cursed woman cradles a severed sheep’s head like a baby while laughing hysterically, and for that, I salute it.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw
dir. Thomas Robert Lee
World premiere at the Fantasia International Film Festival – click here to follow our continuing coverage!
For more information on this film’s release, follow it on Twitter @Audrey_Earnshaw
Right now Boston’s most beloved theaters need your help to survive. If you have the means, the Hassle strongly recommends making a donation, purchasing a gift card, or becoming a member at the Brattle Theatre, Coolidge Corner Theatre, and/or the Somerville Theatre. Keep film alive, y’all.