Being a teenager almost always feels like an inescapable curse, but the 17-year-old girl at the center of Thomas Robert Lee’s The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is the living embodiment of evil. She may walk and talk like the rest of us but she breathes smoke and death followers wherever she goes. It’s a surprising little story that really doesn’t bury the lead with its witch’s witchy witchiness. I’m still a little confused by some of the specific choices it made in how Lee wanted to tell his story, but coming out early with the witch stuff left plenty of opportunities to see the villagers fall victim to an unstoppable presence more compelling and fearsome than the God that abandoned them.

Written and directed by Thomas Robert Lee, The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw stars Catherine Walker (A Dark Song), Hannah Emily Anderson (What Keeps You Alive), Jared Abrahamson (Travelers), Don McKellar (Blindness), and newcomer Jessica Reynolds as Audrey Earnshaw. The witchy indie celebrated it’s World Premiere at the 2020 Fantasia Film Festival, running August 20 through to September 2.

 

“Hats off to Thomas Robert Lee for finding a unique way to explore the fear and paranoia of isolate farmland living…”

 

17 Years after an ominous total eclipse of the sun, a small and secluded village of religiously devote farmers are struggling to survive. For some time now, the ground has only produced rotten fruit and vegetables. The cattle are longer able to carry their litters (?) to term and a mysterious illness is slowly claiming the lives of everyone else. Only one woman has managed to keep a healthy and prosperous farm. Her name is Catherine Earnshaw (Catherine Walker) and the town has suspected her of evil dealing with the devil long before they were starve-crazed and desperate. There’s even a rumor that she gave birth to a child during that eerie eclipse, and guess what? They were right! Her daughter Audrey was born in darkness seventeen years ago, this harvest, and that same darkness has remained with her all these years later. She’s powerful, she’s evil, and she’s tired of being kept a secret from such weak, pathetic fools.

One thing I had to make peace with early on was the time period of the story. There’s a detailed crawl at the beginning explaining the circumstances in which our early settlers arrived, the hardships they lived through. Then flash forward a hundred years or so and suddenly it’s the 70s baby! For reasons I don’t think are really necessary, this story takes place in a 1973 Mennonite-type village. Outside of 2 small moments in the film where characters interact with a modern vehicle, I see no reason why this couldn’t have just as easily been set in 1673. That said, it’s only just occurring to me now (as I type this) how perfect Mennonite villages are for modern witchy horror.

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A staple of the early-settlers-battle-supernatural-forces subgenre is that unique brand of helplessness that was cured by one hundred years of progress, medicine, and education. The family in The Witch had nowhere to go, no one to turn to, and no means of defense against something they couldn’t fight with rudimentary farming tools. But what if all they had to do to save their family was take a short walk away from that cursed land into modern society? The knowledge that salvation is within arms reach adds an entirely new layer of horror to the plight of the religiously devote in dire straights. In the 1670’s all they could have done was pray and maybe burn an innocent woman at the stake. But in the 1970’s all they have to do is give up everything they’ve ever known and turn they back on their faith. No biggie.

Hats off to Thomas Robert Lee for finding a unique way to explore the fear and paranoia of isolate farmland living, I just really wish he found more ways to highlight the helplessness his characters felt. Especially in regards to a young woman (played by What Keeps You Alive‘s Hannah Emily Anderson) who expresses her desire for an abortion after realizing she is pregnant just a few days after burying her infant son. Lee does his best to remind you midway through the movie that these people are living out of time but it was completely lost on me during my viewing. Instead of recognizing what was surely an incredible internal struggle to turn their backs on the land, I just saw these villagers go in circles hoping that salvation would miraculously appear.

 

 

The struggle is very real for the members of this community though, although they never once seem to think that leaving is at least an option. Instead, they keep tamping down their fears and frustration until they boil over and explode, including an incendiary moment mid sermon from Don McKellar. Audrey Earnshaw‘s powers have been on display enough by this moment, however, that it’s unclear whether the man was even acting of his own free will because the “curse’ of Audrey Earnshaw is Audrey Earnshow herself. She is a blite upon the land, and one that will only continue to spread if no action is taken. You might expect that we’d learn about Audrey’s powers and purpose later in the story but The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is pretty upfront and center about the evil this teenage girl possesses. It’s a surprising place to start but by handling the witch business as more than fifth business, we’re given ample time to explore her powers and the horrors she was destined to rain upon the god-fearing villagers.

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is heavy on atmospheric dread but plays a little too fast and loose with its witch’s powers. Audrey Earnshaw is an unstoppable evil that seems intent on tormenting the entire village but it’s unclear whether she is punishing them for the cruel treatment of her and her mother, or if it’s just evil in the name of evil. And for such a powerful coven that seems to now have a child born of pure evil in their circle, what do they really need the villagers for anyway? To its credit, The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw picks up where a lot of films finish off. I find myself falling in love with the story the more I dissect it,  but I didn’t have an immediate connection with it on screen. if the screenplay, the performances, and the direction of a film are the ingredients of a spell meant to bewitch the audience, The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw could have used double the toil and trouble to make that cauldron really burn and bubble.

 

“…The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw could have used double the toil and trouble to make that cauldron really burn and bubble.”

 

Thomas Robert Lee’s The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw celebrated its World Premiere at the virtual 2020 Fantasia Film Festival. Click HERE to follow all of our festival coverage, and let us know what you would do if it turned out your teenage daughter was the living embodiment of evil over on Twitter, in the official Nightmare on Film Street Subreddit, and on Facebook in the Horror Movie Fiend Club!