FANTASIA FEST 2020: ‘The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw’ Haunts and Beguiles

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There’s something about the subgenre of folk horror that calls especially to women. Maybe it’s the more intimate, homey settings. Maybe it’s the connection to older, more earth-bound evils. Consider films like Midsommar or this year’s Gretel and Hansel and it’s easy to see that folk horror has a feminine bend that delivers unexpected and powerful female performances. The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw falls right in step with this idea, delivering an impactful, haunting, enchanting, and seductively feminine horror. The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is directed by Thomas Lee and stars Jessica Reynolds, Catherine Walker, Jared Abrahamson, and Don McKellar. The film is an official selection of Fantasia 2020, as a “cheval noir” (dark horse) entry, where it had its live World Premiere.

Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker) lives on the edge of a village that has been struck by pestilence, death, and misfortune… and she was a secret. Agatha is an occultist, whose powers allow her to prosper, and she must keep her young daughter Audrey (Jessica Reynolds) a secret from the superstitious townsfolk. Audrey is young, strong-willed, and does not wish to live in secret and in fear of the townsfolk. As her powers grow, Audrey taps into a force that Agatha can no longer control.

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw taps into the atmospheric dread that practically defines the folk horror subgenre. From the shots of the remote village and the strange occult occurrences to the odd silence and stillness that permeates the film, The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw seems to cinematically capture the feeling of holding your breath and listening for creeping footsteps in the darkness. The tension and dread are bolstered with pastoral shots that are somewhat drained and muted. Honestly, the way the countryside is filmed does more to support this notion of a village sapped of all life than nearly any other element of the film. It’s bleak and chilling, but still quite lovely.

Another fun element of the film is its episodic structure. The film breaks down the action into chapters, with eerie titles like “Incantation”, to lead us gently down the descent into terror. At first blush, these episodes feel like warning labels reminding the viewer of what evil is around the corner. However, in the opinion of this critic, once the film has ended it makes more sense to look back on those chapters and realize they are chronicling Audrey’s embrace of her dark powers.

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The feminine horror of The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is equally rooted in ideas of feminine power and vengeance, with divine femininity being a central beam of the film’s structure. The occult coven in which Agatha and Audrey participate is dominated by women and exists as an alternative lifestyle, an alternative power structure, to the traditional patriarchy of the village. Participation in the occult is what allows Agatha and Audrey to live in modest prosperity, while the village suffers. An argument can be made that the cult allows the Earnshaw women to maintain agency and craft a living for themselves. Even within the traditional confines of the village, women are a driving force. Where men falter, it is the village women who carry the burden of loss and sorrow and ultimately drive the confrontation between their way of life and Audrey’s revenge.

Further, the moon, that most divine and womanly of celestial bodies, is a massive player in Audrey’s power and worth noting in any read of the film. In traditional pagan moon practice, the moon’s waxing and waning are given a feminine personification. The slim maid rounds to fullness with divine motherhood and womanhood, before slipping away to nothing as she descends into life as the crone. Audrey is supernaturally conceived and born in an eclipse. Like the moon that made her, Audrey is growing out of girlhood and coming into her power as a woman. She’s at her peak… and at her most dangerous.

The power dynamics between mother and daughter are always complicated, and that’s especially true when a mother must secret a daughter away for her protection. Agatha represents age and experience and the forgiveness that comes with learning how to live life on the fringe. For Audrey, the scorn of the villagers and their prejudice is unforgivable. She is young and full of potential and prefers to make the world in her image, rather than adapt to it. In a classic story of teenage rebellion, Audrey’s vengeance takes on a more feminist bend as she confronts and destroys the systems that had driven her mother to the edges of society. There is a strange morality to The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw that leaves the viewer with bloodlust and the haze of not being quite sure whose side they’re on.

From a “nuts and bolts” standpoint, The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is an A+ horror. The film strikes an excellent balance between slow-burning dread and visceral gore. Performances are solid across the board and each scene is masterfully constructed. It’s a rock-solid piece and a beautiful effort from Thomas Lee. Newcomer Jessica Reynolds shows a maturity and depth to her performance that promises greatness. She’s one to watch.

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is provocative and arresting. An atmospheric and intentional horror that could easily join the ranks of the other great folk and female-centered horrors of late. A festival highlight, for sure!

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw had its World Premiere at the 2020 Fantasia Fest on August 22, 2020.

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw
  • 8/10
    Rating - 8/10
8/10

TL;DR

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw is provocative and arresting. An atmospheric and intentional horror that could easily join the ranks of the other great folk and female-centered horrors of late. A festival highlight, for sure!