It’s 1973, but an isolated community in Canada – descended from Irish protestant settlers – lives an Amish-style un-technological lifestyle, trusting in God to provide crops … but the farms of the devout are blighted, and the only high-yielding land in the district belongs to Agatha Earnshaw (Catherine Walker, from A Dark Song), who isn’t part of the Congregation and has raised a fatherless seventeen-year-old daughter, Audrey (Jessica Reynolds), on her own. When a neighbour (Tom Carey) comes to beg Agatha to barter with him for produce, she makes Audrey hide in a cupboard … and when another (Don McKellar, director of Last Night) happens to see the girl, the mother uncharacteristically gives him bread and milk on the condition he he keep quiet about Audrey’s existence, though she knows he won’t.
No one in town quite comes out and says it, but the church-folk think Agatha is a witch … and the years of famine began with an incident they call ‘the eclipse’ which coincides with Audrey’s secret birth. In a development that’s unusual in the folk-horror rural religious misery sub-genre – see Fanny Lye Deliver’d and Gwen, or even The Witch – it’s made explicit that the Earnshaws mother and daughter not only are witches, but are members of a thriving coven which holds rituals in a nearby barn … though no one in the village seems to acknowledge the existence of this parallel isolated community, where a high priestess (Barb Mitchell) is the equivalent of Pastor Dwyer (Sean McGinley). When Agatha comes to market on the day of a starved, sickly child’s funeral, she is slapped by the pastor’s grieving son Colm (Jared Abrahamson) and Audrey decides to test out her burgeoning witch powers by putting a curse on his wife Bridget (Hannah Emily Anderson). Tragedy ensues, and is then compounded as all the named characters fall under the malign influence of the curse – though their lifestyle is so austere and dour that it seems likely most of them would crack up without witchy influence.
Writer-director Thomas Robert Lee crafts an interesting setting, with the occasional passing plane or car to remind us this isn’t the 19th century, and gets a raft of excellent, muted performances from a castful of suffering, agonised folk. It’s key that the relative prosperity of her land hasn’t made Agatha any happier, and that not being barren in another sense has added to her paranoid isolation, while Audrey is interestingly strange as a mixed-up adolescent … she has a a fierce sense of injustice, but also overreacts to a minor slight, and her rebellion is as much against being put in a cupboard by her mother as the stifling puritanism of the community. A hand is tipped a little too early about some significant elements of the plot – but there are so many strange circumstances involved it’s still not easy to tell exactly where this is going.