VOD film review: Blood Harvest (The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw)
Anton Bitel | On 16, Nov 2020
Director: Thomas Robert Lee
Cast: Catherine Walker, Hannah Emily Anderson, Jared Abrahamson, Don McKellar
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“In 1873 a group of families separated from the Church of Ireland and established an isolated settlement in North America.”
The text that opens Blood Harvest (aka the Curse of Audrey Earnshaw) might make the viewer imagine that they are about to watch a premodern story unfold – and even after another text has revealed that the current time is Autumn, 1973, it might still be supposed that we are in a parallel world, where modernity has simply never happened. That is because, like the Mennonites or the Amish, or indeed the deluded denizens of M Night Shyamalan’s The Village, the devout members of this community really do occupy their own alternative universe, having cut themselves off from the world beyond. In one scene, as a small plane is seen passing overhead, it might as well be an alien spaceship, so out of place is it in this unsophisticated setting where vehicles are drawn by horse and engines are absent. As such, this second film from writer/director Thomas Robert Lee (Empyrean) occupies a strange space between the agrarian beginnings of America’s colonial history, and a more contemporary, if not necessarily more advanced, period.
Following a phenomenon in 1956 dubbed the eclipse, the community has become barren and blighted, with its crops failing and its livestock corrupted. Only the land of Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker) has remained fecund over the intervening 17 years, but she lives on the village’s margins, in a sort of voluntary exile, subject to the envy and mistrust of the others, who think of her as a heretic and a witch. And they are not entirely wrong: Agatha has been keeping her teenaged daughter Audrey (Jessica Reynolds) secret to protect her from from the village “villains”, and occasionally takes Audrey, hidden in a crate on her cart, to a circle of other, even more reclusive women who perform rituals of communion with the girl’s letted blood.
When Audrey sees the recently bereaved villager Colm Dwyer (Jared Abrahamson) lash out in grief and anger against Agatha, the indignant adolescent woman decides to come out of the darkness and, in opposition to her mother’s quietism, demonstrate the danger of her own growing strengths. Audrey enacts a vengeful curse upon Colm’s wife, Bridget (Hannah Emily Anderson), which will soon spread disruptive havoc (disease, suicide, murder), throughout the rural village, in an apocalypse of doubt, sinfulness and despair. Yet it will remain uncertain if Audrey is an emergent witch (like the one in Robert Eggers’ New England Folktale from 2015), or a pagan miracle-worker and matriarchal Messiah, maligned and misunderstood by her panicking flock.
As we watch the village turn on itself and invert its own deeply held values in the face of environmental, or perhaps divine, disaster, Blood Harvest plants in its constant sense of doom-laden dread a broader allegory of societal dissolution, with the villagers reaping what they sow. While its events take place far north of Texas, they are unfolding in the same year – indeed only a month or so after – the events of The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974, but set over 18th August, 1973). Like Tobe Hooper’s film, this too ends with a young woman leaving in a pickup truck, although we are not sure what exactly she is leaving behind, or where she might be headed, and whether she has been the film’s “villain” (a recurrent word in the film) or heroine. Yet like the similarly empowered young female protagonist of Marina de Van’s Dark Touch (2013), Audrey is very much a product of her environs, embodying the righteousness and moral certainties, the repressions and oppressions, all around her.
This is what makes the Gothic folk horror of Blood Harvest so political. For the village is an American microcosm – a vision of a stunted patriarchal country grown from the infertile soil of faith and superstition, where women, denied control of their own bodies and only grudgingly granted any kind of independence, form their own clandestine covens of resistance, in a struggle for power inscribed in the very productivity of the land. It is a small-town yet biblical fable of suffering, sacrifice and legacy, presented in such highly ambiguous terms that it is unclear by the end whether the devil has triumphed or yielded – or just moved on to the next village.