Divided into chapters like I: The Incantation, II: The Descent, “The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw” builds an atmosphere of dread as it tells the tale of a tiny American community settled by fundamentalist Irish Christians in 1873. Isolated from the modern world, they live a simple agricultural and spiritual life frozen in time at the moment the settlers arrived.
Of concern inside this closed-off community is a pestilence that kills children, crops and livestock. The villagers think a 1956 eclipse is the source their problems. They see it as sign from God and feel powerless to do anything about it.
In that same year a baby was born in secret to Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker), an outcast from the local church. Now, seventeen years later that baby, Audrey (Jessica Reynolds), has come of age. Suspicious eyes are cast at the Earnshaw farm which is unaffected by the plague. As the villagers starve, Agatha’s fields are ripe with crops and healthy livestock, leading the frantic locals to accuse the mother and daughter of witchcraft.
“The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw” breathes the same air as Ari Aster’s “Midsommar,” Robert Eggers “The Witch” and Robin Hardy’s “The Wicker Man” (not the Nic Cage version). Like those other filmmakers, director Thomas Robert Lee uses isolation as an incubator for hysteria and horror. He takes his time with the story, creating the off kilter, claustrophobic feel that goes a long way to create the necessary dread to make this story work.
Lee also leans on two central performances. As Agatha, Walker is fiercely maternal, a mother with a secret to protect. She is a character straight out of H.P. Lovecraft, one of the movie’s other influences. Knowing, yet unknowable, Walker wears her character like a shroud.
Reynolds brings both innocence and a steely edge to Audrey. As she comes of age, she discovers her power and wields it like a sword, seeking revenge on the townsfolk who treated her mother disrespectfully.
“The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw” is ripe with tension and bloody practical special effects that should satisfy the genre lover but more than that it mines the very timely idea of isolation. To varying degrees many of us have been cooped up during the pandemic and while this haunting movie takes place in a very specific place, it showcases the dangers inherent in cutting one’s self off from the world.