Producer: Gianna Isabella   Director: Thomas Robert Lee   Screenplay: Thomas Robert Lee   Cast: Catherine Walker, Jared Abrahamson, Hannah Emily Anderson, Geraldine O’Rawe, Don McKellar, Sean McGinley, Jessica Reynolds, Tom Carey, Barb Mitchell, David LeReaney, Anna Cummer, Lindsay Woolsey, Lorette Clow, Stephanie Jennings and Alexis McKenna   Distributor: Epic Pictures

Grade: C+

Atmospheric but deliberately opaque and not particularly frightening, Thomas Robert Lee’s horror film is situated in an unusual community—a remote town in North America composed of adherents of an offshoot of the Church of Ireland, who have maintained their nineteenth-century way of life (and their brogue) into the twentieth.   According to an expository prologue, the villagers, whose ancestors emigrated in the 1850s, prospered until 1956, when after an eclipse a pestilence fell on the area, affecting both livestock and crops.  From then until 1973, when the story is set, the residents have been struggling to survive in the face of persistent famine. 

One farm, however, has continued to be productive—that of reclusive Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker), an outsider who has therefore become a focus of suspicion and hostility; she’s regarded as a heathen, and quite possibly a witch.  Unbeknownst to her neighbors, she had given birth to a daughter named Audrey during the eclipse, but has kept the girl hidden away ever since.  Audrey, now a teen, is chafing under her mother’s restrictions and the need to remain a non-person.

Essentially “The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw” is a coming-of-age story; the twist is that the young woman is possessed of extraordinary powers that she is only beginning to recognize.  On the one hand she will embrace them in rebelling against Agatha’s severe strictures on her.  But on the other she’ll use them against the villagers whom she perceives as her mother’s tormentors.

There are three of these in particular.  One is young Colm Dwyer (Jared Abrahamson), who turns his concern for his pregnant wife Bridget (Hannah Emily Anderson) into anger at Agatha.  Another is Lochlan Bell (Tom Carey), who is so driven to madness by Agatha’s refusal to help him and his starving family that he turns to violence.  And a third is Bernard Buckley (Don McKellar), who learns Agatha’s secret but allows himself to be bribed into keeping it, and suffers such pangs of conscience afterward that he too cannot go on.

The vengeance meted out to each man takes different forms.  In one instance it involves a killing, in another a suicide.   The most elaborate of the three scenarios, however, includes not only seduction but a twisted variant of the devil’s child motif that recalls both “Rosemary’s Baby” and “The Omen,” as well as the introduction of a Satanic cult.

And while Audrey’s acceptance of her destiny is the major thrust of the film, an equally significant thread is the effect it has on the devout villagers who become her targets.  The fall of those who, in various ways, come under her spell is as much a theme as her own emergence as a person of dangerous possibilities, so “The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw” is not only a peculiar coming-of-age story, but a tale of how easily faith of the most ostensibly secure sort can be corrupted.  In that connection another character is significant—Seamus Dwyer  (Sean McGinley), the village pastor, who tries to mediate between Agatha and his increasingly terrified parishioners but in the end also falls victim to forces he cannot understand.

That’s an awful lot of text and subtext for a single film to bear, and Lee doesn’t quite manage to tie it all together into a satisfying whole.  Despite his sometimes awkward sense of pacing, however, he has drawn strong performances from his cast, even if in the latter stages Reynolds’ transformation into a stereotypical “dark lady” comes across as slightly ridiculous.  On the other hand Walker, Abrahamson, Anderson, McKellar and McGinley all remain first-rate throughout, though the accents sometimes cause them trouble.

The particular strength of the film, however, is its look.  Production designer Melanie Raevn Brasch has fashioned a convincing place-out-of-time village setting, and the costumes by Kendra Terpenning and Benjamin Toner add to the ambience; for a low-budget effort, the result is impressive.  Nick Thomas’ cinematography, with its overcast skies and bleached-out colors, creates a menacing mood, and Ben Lee Allan’s deliberate editing lets it set in—sometimes to excess.  The score by Thito Schaller and Bryan Buss adds to it further. 

But while there’s much to praise about this slow-burning tale of a strange community’s unraveling, in the end it throws too many ingredients into the mix to be entirely effective.  Still, genre fans looking for something different might give it a try.