Thomas Robert Lee’s Blood Harvest (which also goes by the much better title of The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw) is an arresting piece of folk horror. Sharing a lot of DNA with contemporaries like The Witch and Jugface, it also has a voice all of its own.
An opening scroll informs us that a community of Irish protestants moved to America in the 1800s in order to live a simple, pastoral and isolated life, not dissimilar to the Amish. In the mid-50s, a blight came to their farmland, which caused their crops to wither and die and plunged them into poverty. Peculiarly, the blight did not affect the land of outcast Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker), leading to rumours that she may be a heretic, or even a witch. When moving her cart laden with food past the funeral of a villager, Agatha is attacked. Audrey (Jessica Reynolds), her daughter (who is kept hidden and not allowed to interact with strangers), is incensed, and decides to exact a terrible supernatural revenge on the villagers.
What follows is an artfully directed and eerie folk horror story, with shades of The Witch and The Village. Crops fail, animals are mutilated and villagers break out in boils and begin to cough up blood. The whole horrifying package is dripping with atmosphere and tension, with director Thomas Robert Lee managing to evoke a feeling of corruption and decay lurking within and beneath the peaceful community’s pious veneer. The overall tone of the film is dour, and there is a real sense that the characters are experiencing a protracted doom. In some ways, they are so enmeshed in a dark pattern that they cannot see that they are really already dead.
Nick Thomas’ cinematography is the star of the show. For effective folk horror, a deep understanding of the landscape, and a sense that the horror is somehow rising from the dirt itself, is key. Thomas’ visuals are haunting, with striking shots of dusty and barren fields where life can only wither away.
As viewers, we spend a lot of time with the villagers, and their trials and tribulations are genuinely moving thanks to some weighty performances. Preacher Seamus (Sean McGinley) wrestles convincingly with the burden of being the spiritual glue that holds this dying community together. Colm (Jared Abrahamson) is consumed with concern for his ailing wife (Hannah Emily Anderson). Agatha is constrained by her responsibilities, managing the only prosperous farm and attempting to protect her willful teenage daughter. Audrey herself is enigmatic and mysterious, with a sinister disregard for others. The strength of these performances carries us through some slow pacing and a plot that can at times be a little too obscure, relying more on atmosphere than action.
It’s an elegant and moody piece, but occasionally muddied by some odd script choices. For example, the action is set in the 1970s, but as it takes place in an isolated community with a distrust of modern technology, the aesthetics are pure 1870s. It’s all wooden carts and Little House on the Prairie-style farmsteads. Viewers are likely to anticipate a Shyamalan–esque twist as in The Village, but nothing emerges, making this a distracting and peculiar storytelling choice. Equally, audiences may find their allegiances unexpectedly split by the events of the film, with the villagers being largely sympathetic and, apart from the opening scene of grief-inspired violence, fairly undeserving of the horrors that Audrey inflicts upon them.
Perhaps we’re too used to the tropes of the witchcraft genre, where ostracised women use their supernatural skills to expose the evil and hypocrisy of their communities. In Blood Harvest, these battle lines are far more blurry, with our sympathies likely to switch from scene to scene. It’s a complex and intriguing tale, which is a little hard going in places, but is captivating and ultimately rewarding viewing.