Occult horror has always been a popular sub-genre within cinema. The fear of satanic forces working in the shadows to disrupt the established norm and inflict unspeakable horrors upon society is a prevalent one. There’s even been something of a resurgence of late with films like Hereditary and The Witch. Thomas Robert Lee, with his sophomore effort The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, crafts a fine work of horror that fits well into this framework. Although it does not do anything spectacular that necessarily makes it stand out, the film remains an enjoyable and compelling watch.

Set in rural Canada in 1973, the film follows the members of an isolated puritanical community beset by failing crops and a mysterious pestilence that affects their animals. Suspicion and accusations of heresy abound, especially against pariah Agatha and her secret daughter, the eponymous Audrey Earnshaw (portrayed excellently by an emergent Jessica Reynolds). Things begin to unravel as Audrey begins to come into her power and she directs her frustrations towards the townsfolk that mistreat her mother.

The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw features all the trappings of an American gothic tale brimming with horror and folklore, and it executes these elements with incredible flair. It is suitably gruesome, but never excessively so. Instead, Lee builds to these moments with methodical grace. It is never surprising, but the tension and terror the film creates as it approaches these crescendos more than makes up for it.  Bryan Buss and Thilo Schaller aid this mood especially, with a haunting soundtrack that is at once simple and chilling.

At the same time, however, the film sometimes struggles to ratify all its elements. It feels at odds with its 1970s setting which adds little to the narrative aside from giving the affair a timeless quality when combined with the gorgeous woodland vistas. However, this just makes it jarring when we are reminded of the pseudo-contemporary setting. The presence of an aeroplane soaring overhead would feel less out of place if Lee did more with the community’s rejection of modern technologies; that or simply doubling down as a colonial-era horror film would have allowed the film to truly key into its strengths.

Despite strong performances from the central duo of Reynolds and Catherine Walker as Agatha, and masterful use of its horror elements; The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw feels oddly lacking in anything that would make it really shine.

Screened as part of Fantasia Festival