Blood Harvest Movie Review
Written by Ren Zelen
Released by Signature Entertainment
Written and directed by Thomas Robert Lee
2020, 93 minutes, Rated 15 (UK)
Frightfest UK premiere on 24th October 2020
Hannah Emily Anderson as Bridget Dwyer
Catherine Walker as Agatha Earnshaw
Jared Abrahamson as Colm Dwyer
Sean McGinley as Seamus Dwyer
Folk horror, as a subgenre, has been having a renaissance with films such as Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Ari Aster’s Midsommar, and certainly one refreshing aspect of Thomas Robert Lee’s sophomore feature Blood Harvest, is that it boasts an intriguing rural story in its own right, rather than just a framework on which to hang some shocks and horrors.
The film takes place in 1973, although for the tiny village in a remote part of Canada, settled by an obscure Irish sect, time has not moved on from 1872, when they arrived. In a year when Vietnam ended, technology was advancing and the Roe v. Wade ruling became established in women’s rights, this community continues to eke out a basic existence by farming the land, living in log cabins with no modern amenities and travelling in horse-drawn wagons.
They pray regularly in Church and trust in God to help the land provide the crops they need. However, since an eclipse 17 years earlier, the farms of the devout have been blighted by failed crops, poisoned earth and dying livestock.
Strangely, the only high-yielding farm in the whole district belongs to Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker, A Dark Song). She lives in relative isolation from the community and is not part of their religious Congregation. Also, Agatha Earnshaw has a secret.
Born at the time of the eclipse and hidden from sight for the last 17 years, Agatha has been caring for a daughter, Audrey (Jessica Reynolds), as a single parent. Agatha has been at pains to keep her child a secret from the people in the village, and teenage Audrey has seen next to nothing of the outside world.
Although the pious townspeople believe themselves to be above superstition, they have long-held suspicions that the Earnshaw farm is pest free and fertile because it has benefitted from witchcraft. Agatha believes the town would place blame on Audrey if they knew of her existence because the years of famine began with ‘the eclipse’, which coincided with Audrey’s birth. Nevertheless, rumours continue to circulate about a secret child, although no-on has any proof.
Agatha inadvertently passes through the village on a day when a boy-child is being buried and emotions in the town are running high. She is stopped and accused of selfishness and indifference by Colm (Jared Abrahamson) the distraught young father of the baby and son of the community’s Pastor.
Audrey meanwhile is hiding in a crate that her mother uses to move her from place to place. Through the gaps in the planks Audrey sees Colm humiliate and slap her mother. The Pastor (Sean McGinley) takes pity on Agatha, calms the people and persuades them to let her go on her way without further harassment.
However, we find that Agatha is making the journey in order to allow Audrey to participate in a ritual amongst their own sect. This comprises of a secret circle of sinister women who live far out in the woods. Young Audrey is central to the rite they celebrate, and it soon becomes evident that this group has nothing to do with Christianity – it is more likely a coven and the girl is the focal point of their invocations.
Still nursing her indignation at her mother’s mistreatment by the villagers, Audrey asks the advice of one of the women in the sect, who encourages her to make the perpetrators pay for their disrespect.
So, young Audrey decides to exact revenge on Colm by putting a curse on his wife Bridget (Hannah Emily Anderson) as well as on the entire town. She does so in opposition to Agatha’s wishes, as her mother is still fiercely protective and fearful of her daughter’s discovery and of her burgeoning independence.
However, the truth is that the townspeople should be far more afraid of the girl Audrey than she is of them. Her curse brings a series of horrifying misfortunes and afflictions for the people, particularly for the innocent Bridget. Played by Hannah Emily Anderson, this performance carries most of the most horrifying moments of the film, which culminate in one truly shocking scene when a desperate Bridget attempts to perform her own abortion.
Her mother Agatha has impressed upon Audrey that every man, however benevolent, kindly or sympathetic he may appear, is a danger to them, and Audrey’s behavior reflects that belief, which is reinforced by the all-female cult to which they belong. The men therefore are never to be trusted, and Audrey’s mission is to exert her malign influence over them indiscriminately. (Although, ultimately, when Audrey’s true origin is indicated and she hints at a mysterious mission, the gender of those around her becomes irrelevant).
Blood Harvest is blessed with fine performances all round. Catherine Walker gives a fierce yet affecting portrayal of a mother both intent on protecting her child, while increasingly terrified of the emerging malignancy of her nature.
Newcomer Jessica Reynolds as Audrey, manages to walk a line where we initially sympathize with her character, trapped in her sparse and restricted existence. We understand her anger at the hostility of the villagers, but as her wide-eyed innocence gives way to a knowing and implacable malevolence and the torments of her victims escalate, so does our sense of dread.
All the supporting roles are compellingly portrayed by a wonderful ensemble cast who elevate the film by providing interesting, individual characters, just hoping to survive but struggling with inexplicable forces.
Although made on a shoestring budget, writer-director Thomas Robert Lee has created a film where he shows himself to be adept at storytelling. He provides a gripping and tightly-paced screenplay interspersed with moments of shocking horror, supported by well executed camerawork and a wise choice of cast.
Along with cinematographer Nick Thomas, Lee crafts a textured and realistically harsh, grimy setting, with the occasional passing plane or car to remind us that his story isn’t set in the last century, but in 1973. The film presents grim rural life in a cold, grey colour palette and uses natural light or practical lighting to create the shadowy chill of the interiors.
Like many of the current folk-horror films concerning the notion of witches and witchcraft, Blood Harvest may also be read as a film examining the position of women – their burdens, frustrations, and sacrifices. It may also be seen as a cautionary coming-of-age tale about a young woman finding her voice and embarking on a mission of vengeance for repressed womankind.
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