Writer/Director Thomas Robert Lee expertly creates an ominous atmosphere throughout his folk horror Blood Harvest (or The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw for non-UK audiences). Coupled with the haunting cinematography by Nick Thomas, Blood Harvest is accentuated by the stand out performance from young lead Jessica Reynolds.
Audrey (Jessica Reynolds), an enigmatic young woman, and her mother Agatha (Catherine Walker) live secretly as occultists on the outskirts of a remote Protestant village. As the community is besieged by a pestilence of unknown origin the children, fields, and livestock begin to die. Yet the Earnshaw farm remains strangely unaffected. As mass hysteria sets in the village, the townsfolk commence accusations against Audrey and Agatha of witchcraft.
Set in 1973 North America, we have a town of people who decided thanks to the Church of Ireland to keep to their pre-industrial age technologies. While the rest of the continent is finally giving women more control of their lives. Back in this small closed-community of immigrants, we are seeing nothing of the sort for women. They are kept to their stereotypical roles with women’s rights all but imaginary to them.
An eclipse 17 years prior came over the town and its district. Ever since then the slow rotting of all of the farms’ crops and the continued deaths of the livestock and children. At the same time Audrey Earnshaw was born mysteriously into the world and her mother Agatha has kept her hidden ever since. As the accusations of witchcraft rise against Agatha, Audrey makes her presence into a world she has never seen, much to the chaotic effect to the townsfolk and specifically one family.
Blood Harvest is not a film that wants to rush through the story to get to the juicy parts. This is a horror slow burn if there ever was one. We take our time to know the Earnshaws, know who they are. We learn about the town and how everyone perceives our two supposed witches. This is one of the moments where the film shines. It allows the audience into the fact that the mother and daughter duo are actual witches or have witchlike beliefs and powers. All of the fears of the town is correct. When Agatha is confronted by Colm (witnessed by Audrey) she is in fact on her way to a coven meeting. Too often are the innocent taken to be witches, and it is a true rarity to see the witches/coven trope be real.
Audrey comes into her own and grows confidence and belief in herself after the ritual (seemingly as she has come of age). She becomes less controllable as her belief in her powers causes her to yearn for independence, from her mother and the town. Wanting to continue this growth and become the woman and which she feels she was meant to be. Yet her mother has trained her to be wary of men. Men are not to be trusted as their motives are always sinister or to constrain a woman. Audrey has to make an important decision by the third act.
Where the film falters regarding its story is that after a great start, it flounders a tad in the middle, it doesn’t progress enough. Whether that is due to budgetary restrictions it cannot be sure. But a great sense of something missing never leaves the middle act. Happily, we have a great final act that does not relent once it gets going.
Lee and Thomas have created a memorable looking film. The audience is brought into this gloomy miserable life that these townsfolks have given themselves. At no point are we presented with a glimmer of hope in the cinematography, an undeniable coldness shivers through the picture with gloomy clouds almost always present. Circling this town as things go from bad to worse for all involved. Thomas has shot the film so that the idea of remoteness and loneliness stays with the characters. We know they are not far from safety and a world that can help them, but in his lens. It feels as If that is the case.
These are people on their own, awaiting a cruel insurmountable fate. Excellent work here by the two to conjure up such imagery. At the same time, Production Designer Melanie Raevn Brasch and her team have gone above and beyond in their work here considering the small budget of the film. As soon as Blood Harvest begins you feel, like the characters trapped in this endless gloom. So credit must also go to Art Director Matt Vest and Set Decorator Mike Kasper for their work here.
Jessica Reynolds maybe a fresh newcomer, but she powers through the film. She portrays a young woman who is coming into their own and understanding the power and control of her narrative very well. It is an impressive performance in what seems to be her feature debut. She is an actress that will certainly be one to look out for in the future. Equally, Catherine Walker shines in Blood Harvest as a mother who wants only to protect her daughter from townsfolk who will only cause her pain. Yet we also feel that she knows what Audrey is capable of long before Audrey herself does. By playing a character who is trying to protect her daughter and the people of her town. She becomes a well-rounded and conflicting character.
The rest of the supporting cast are excellent and help drive the story of the film and the utter despondency of the town. Without their performances. The desperation that comes from some of them in the third act simply would not ring as true.
For genre fans, Lee does not hesitate in keeping the grim visuals from us. The camera lingers on shots that in usual circumstances a cut would occur. We see a lot more than expected in Blood Harvest. However, he knows when enough is enough and carefully refrains from making some scenes venture into torture porn territory. This allows some freedom in that chaotic third act so when the screw turns. We feel it all the more than if we were continually getting battered over the head with the imagery.
The question remains as to why these people are suffering in silence when they have to know of a world beyond theirs that can help them. It is a fair question and one that isn’t truly answered well enough by the script. If children, livestock (the town has to be continually getting livestock from somewhere right?) keeps dying. Would they not seek to leave the town, or seek assistance in some form? The conceit that we are actually in 1973 is probably the biggest issue with the film. There is no reason for it to be that way and you have to work hard to ignore that fact.
Thomas Robert Lee’s sophomore picture Blood Harvest shows growing confidence in his ability as a storyteller coupled with strong performances from his cast. Blood Harvest is a film that is well worth your time and an interesting entry into the folk horror sub-genre.
Signature Entertainment presents Blood Harvest on DVD and Digital HD 16th November
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