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From the film The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw. Courtesy, Route 504 PR.
Jessica Reynolds in a scene from the Alberta-shot horror film The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw by director Thomas Robert Lee. Courtesy, Calgary International Film Festival.
From the film The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw. Courtesy, Route 504 PR.
When Jessica Reynolds was told she had landed the lead role in The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, she didn’t have a lot of time to let the news sink in.
The Irish actress was only weeks away from finishing studies at the Liverpool Institute for Performing Arts but graduation would have to wait.
“I got the call four days before I had to jet off to Canada, which was quite crazy,” says Reynolds, in an interview from her home near Belfast. “I had only just signed with an agent. It was all very wild and I didn’t have a second to think about it.”
The audition process had been fairly straightforward. She sent in some tapes and had a Skype conversation with Calgary writer-director Thomas Robert Lee. The filmmaker , a graduate of SAIT, was looking for a new face for the titular role of Audrey Earnshaw in his creepy, atmospheric horror film and Reynolds certainly fit the bill. While she has since landed a role on the BBC series My Left Nut, she was an on-screen novice when she arrived on the rural set in April 2019.
At first, filming of the Irish-Canadian production was supposed to take place a little closer to home for the actress. But when part of the funding fell through, producers decided to shoot the whole thing on the CL Ranch west of Calgary. Reynolds, who had never been to Canada before, suddenly found herself in a strange land starring in a strange film that required a good deal of actorly heavy lifting.
The good news is that she didn’t disappoint. As the enigmatic Audrey Earnshaw, she offers an engaging performance that keeps the audience guessing. When we meet Audrey, she is a mysterious teen hidden from the world by a seemingly overprotective mother. When she does come into contact with members of the fundamentalist Christian community where she is living, Audrey has a disruptive impact on their well-being. Her captivating beauty tends to put the men under a spell and leads to all sorts of self-destructive behaviour. Women don’t fare much better.
So how does one go about preparing for such a role? For the 22-year-old actress, the key was grounding this otherworldly character with a more universal character arc.
“I think it’s comparable to coming-of-age stories without a supernatural connection, or the horror or spawn-of-the-devil kind of idea,” she says. “This one just happens to be able to exercise certain powers to take revenge on the people who have wronged her and her mother. So, yeah, it was about a woman in society just trying to find her place the best she can in that moment.”
Still, to suggest the film is merely a coming-of-age tale with a twist is a bit of an understatement. The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, which will be available on Video On Demand Oct. 20, is a beguiling, atmospheric hybrid of a movie. It’s a follow-up to Lee’s 2015 oddity Empyrean, an ultra-low-budget, four-years-in-the-making sci-fi thriller that debuted at the Calgary International Film Festival five years ago. As with his debut, Lee’s sophomore effort is not a straightforward genre piece. Even its setting requires a somewhat convoluted explanatory prologue. While it takes place in 1973, all the action occurs in a religious community of Irish immigrants in rural America who have removed themselves from the modern world and choose to live like impoverished pilgrims from the 1800s. When the film begins, the community is in dire straits after enduring 17 years of pestilence, failed crops and general bad fortune. The only person who appears to be flourishing is Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker). She refuses to share her bounty with the rest of the resentful community, who suspect her to be in cahoots with the devil. For 17 years, Agatha has hidden her daughter from the rest of the community, telling the teenager that she needs to be isolated for her own protection. But when Audrey witnesses the shabby and occasionally violent treatment her mother receives from the increasingly desperate village folk, she decides to take revenge.
All of which leads to a good deal of bloodshed and perhaps some shifting sympathies among viewers. It also makes Audrey a particularly intriguing and ambiguous character.
“I think in any story, and in life in general, everyone can be a villain in specific circumstances and I think everyone can be the hero of their story in specific circumstances,” Reynolds says.
In 2013, filmmaker Lee was working at Calgary’s Model Milk when he met and befriended producer Gianna Isabella, a Lethbridge native who was working as an assistant on Alejandro G. Inarritu’s Alberta-shot blockbuster The Revenant at the time. She attended the festival screening of Empyrean in 2015 and was impressed by Lee’s stylish, black-and-white debut. When he showed her the screenplay for what would become The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw, she signed on as a producer. While the plan to shoot the film half in Ireland and half in Canada was eventually abandoned, the cast is a mix of Canadian talent such as Don McKellar and Jared Abrahamson, local thespians such as David LeReaney, Tom Carey and Barb Mitchell and Irish performers such as Walker, Reynolds and Sean McGinley.
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw began a limited theatrical run in Canada on Oct. 9 in nine Canadian cities, including Calgary, and has so far earned mixed reviews. The Hollywood Reporter called it a “handsome-looking sophomore effort”; the Boston Herald praised Lee for having a “keen sense of what to show and what not to show to build fear and suspense, a talent few directors have these days”; while the Gate.ca called it an “austere, elevated and still sufficiently gruesome Canadian horror flick” and a “good example of a movie that steals from the best while still carving out an identity of its own.”
While the film certainly emphasizes mood and atmosphere — Lee and cinematographer Nick Thomas’ breathtaking use of big-sky rural Alberta suggests a bleaker Days of Heaven — it also has some truly unsettling, blood-spurting moments that should satisfy genre aficionados, Reynolds says.
“I don’t know what that says about people, that we’re so drawn to horror and we have been for so long,” she says. “I think it’s kind of an escape in a way, whether it’s just the thrill that it gives you or that it takes your mind to a level that can’t be fulfilled in other artistic ways in films. I’ve grown up around it and I love it. I can enjoy a gory horror film as much as I can enjoy a slow-burn, psychological film.”
The Curse of Audrey Earnshaw will be available on VOD on Oct. 20.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020