Witch stories have long been a meaty subject for horror films to sink their teeth into, typically exploring interesting ideas such as patriarchy, femininity, and paranoia. But with horror being such a popular genre, it’s certainly a challenge to offer something new to the mix. Thomas Robert Lee’s The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw attempts to add its own spin to the folk horror subgenre but unfortunately doesn’t examine much of what it offers.
The film opens with a slow crawl of text, explaining that a religious settlement from Ireland was formed in North America in the 1800s, remaining closed off from society. Following an eclipse in 1956, hardship fell across the settlers’ land — all except for one property: Agatha Earnshaw’s (Catherine Walker). As Agatha — who births a daughter during the eclipse who she hides from the town for the next 17 years — sees her land prosper, the town makes the assumption she’s a witch
Set against a bleak landscape made up of brown colors and flat compositions, the town in which the residents reside represents a life of hardship. Dull palettes and dark forests fill the frame, casting a sense of dread. Lee composites an atmosphere that coincides with the hopelessness the townspeople feel, especially as the film progresses. The grip on setting is impressive considering this film is the director’s feature debut.
Agatha’s property rests outside of town, secluded from others. Her house is just as bleak as the town, but her beautiful daughter Audrey (Jessica Reynolds) breathes life into it. One day Agatha sneaks Audrey into town to perform a ritual with the town’s other women who are presumed to be witches. While there, Audrey witnesses the disrespect her mother undergoes at the hands of the townspeople, who are jealous of Agatha’s good fortune. This is the catalyst for Audrey taking matters into her own hands to punish those who wronged her mother.
Audrey’s curses on her victims and the increasing violence of them are the main chunk of the film and the most successful part. Lee makes good use of horror elements and gore in these sections; they are shocking in a realistic manner, making for an unsettling viewing experience. Disturbing imagery and a foreboding sense of doom do well to build tension within the story. The only issue with these scenes is that as we get deeper into the plot, little development occurs apart from the intensifying horror tat befalls the residents. Not much time is spent on the reasoning for Audrey’s actions apart from the inciting incident, especially as she grows further apart from her mother. The narrative jumps back and forth between characters too often to develop any sympathy for any single one of them, resulting in an ending that falls flat due to plateauing tension.
Unfortunately, this lack of advancement also left little room for an exploration into any concrete themes the film might have been attempting to investigate. Lurking between the lines of the script are comments on power and womanhood, but there’s scarce time spent exploring them. Instead, the runtime is filled with the increasing barbarity of Audrey’s punishment on the citizens of the town, which leads to a familiar tale of witchery that doesn’t offer much more than we’ve already seen.
That’s not to say it isn’t interesting or successful as a horror film; effective gore and atmosphere almost substitute for the lack of tension. All of the performances are well done, especially Walker’s turn as Agatha. And there are some admirable pieces of this puzzle, just not all of them fit together. For his directorial debut, Lee surely has a grip on world-building and the horror genre, so his next project should be much anticipated.