Saturday 25 March 2023

Shudder Saturday: Blood Harvest (2020)

AKA The Ballad Of Audrey Earnshaw.
AKA The Curse Of Audrey Earnshaw.

The sophomore feature from writer-director Thomas Robert Lee, Blood Harvest is an assured and unhurried work, a mood piece that shows what can happen when members of a small community just won't leave their local suspected witches to live their lives in peace. It's well-acted, and well put together. It's just a shame that it's not very good.

The setting is an isolated village in North America, established a couple of centuries previously by families who settled there after separating from the Church of Ireland. This is all related to viewers by opening text. In 1956, after an eclipse, the community started to suffer, bad soil and sick livestock making things hard for almost everyone. The notable exception is Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker), who also gave birth to a daughter, Audrey (Jessica Reynolds), during that same eclipse. She has kept the existence of her daughter a secret from the others in the community, but it's getting harder to keep that secret, especially as people become more and more curious about how Agatha is managing to maintain her farm while everyone else suffers great hardship.

While there's a lot here that is very familiar, Lee makes the decision to stay away from anything that could seem too in line with more obvious horror moments or witchy imagery. There aren't any pointy hats or broomsticks here, nor even one eye of newt. There also aren't many moments that feel like a battle between witches and non-witches. As mentioned in the first paragraph, Agatha just wants to be left to get on with her life. Others around her may resent her, and they may consider her reluctance to help them as a contributing factor to their misery, but Agatha and Audrey aren't necessarily out to actively harm them. That doesn't mean that one, or both, won't eventually fight back in self-defence as the behaviour of others starts to become more confrontational and aggressive.

It's admirable that Lee takes this approach to the material, and he's helped by cinematographer Nick Thomas, among others, maintaining a brooding and oppressive atmosphere throughout. He doesn't do enough to reward the patience of viewers though, and that's particularly obvious during a hugely anti-climactic finale. There's a difference between deciding not to show too much and forgetting to show anything of interest, and Lee sadly does the latter.

Walker and Reynolds are both very good in the main roles, very good indeed (giving the kind of performances that immediately have me hoping to see them in other, better, movies), and there are a fine selection of performances from Jared Abrahamson, Hannah Emily Anderson, Geraldine O'Rawe, Don McKellar, and Sean McGinley playing other members of the community. The film simply doesn't do enough to feel deserving of their good work.

Is this bad? No. It's a decidedly okay drama with dark clouds constantly gathering overhead. Those clouds never break though, delivering neither a storm nor momentary sunshine. They're just always there, which means viewers are left with an average film that feels just like them; grey and portentous, but sadly going nowhere.


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