‘The Cursed’: Film Review | Sundance 2021

Boyd Holbrook plays a late 19th century pathologist investigating a violent curse laying waste to landowners and villagers in Sean Ellis’ reanimation of the werewolf legend.

Writer-director Sean Ellis revisits the werewolf legend as a fogbound descent into Victorian Gothic in The Cursed (reviewed out of Sundance under its original title, Eight for Silver). Led by Boyd Holbrook as a pathologist in the late 1800s who knows a thing or two about nightmarish curses, stalking lycanthropic beasts and family tragedy, the film is more suspenseful than scary, higher on sustained atmosphere than well-rounded characters. But it moves along at a stately pace and remains involving, driven by eerie ambient music, soupy chiaroscuro visuals and sporadic bursts of blood, gore and body horror. It won’t disturb Lon Chaney Jr. in his grave, but still offers meat for genre fans to chew on.

Of all the classic Universal monster movies, 1941’s The Wolf Man possibly ranks up there with Dracula as inspiration for the widest range of reinterpretations. The lavish but lackluster 2010 remake that starred Benicio del Toro made far less of a mark than John Landis’ 1981 black comedy twist, An American Werewolf in London.

The Cursed

The Bottom Line

Brooding and baleful, even if it loses bite after a strong opening.

Release date: Friday, Feb. 18
Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Alistair Petrie, Roxane Duran, Nigel Betts, Stuart Bowman, Simon Kunz, Amelia Crouch, Max Mackintosh, Tommy Rodger, Áine Rose Daly, Pascale Becouze, Jicey Carina
Director-screenwriter: Sean Ellis

1 hour 55 minutes

The mythology has been fodder for high school hijinks in Teen Wolf, female coming-of-age in Ginger Snaps, feminist fairy-tale revisionism in The Company of Wolves and ’90s white-collar emasculation angst in Mike Nichols’ starry Wolf. Among contemporary spins, 2002’s taut Dog Soldiers, about a British military exercise gone awry in the Scottish Highlands, deservedly has its admirers. But my favorite remains 1981’s The Howling, with Joe Dante and John Sayles proving a hard combo to beat in terms of smart B-movie thrills and sly wit.

Ellis reverts to a more classic folkloric model perhaps closer to the 1961 Hammer entry Curse of the Werewolf, which starred a young Oliver Reed. Though the new film is almost entirely in English, the director deliberately muddies specifics of the setting, filming in southwestern France but mixing Celtic and Anglo names with French, and having children sing a traditional Irish song around the piano.

It opens with impressive recreation of the visceral trench warfare of the Battle of the Somme, where German machine gun fire and bombs yield gruesome sights in the British-French medical tent, including buckets of amputated limbs. Three bullets are removed from one soldier, Edward, along with a fourth — larger, conical, made of solid silver and definitely not of German manufacture. The main action then rewinds 35 years, to a country estate whose owner, Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie), enlists mercenaries to eliminate the “gypsy” problem.

While the Roma clan claim the land belongs to them, Seamus and his clergy advisors say there’s nothing documented that can’t be changed in their favor. But an attack that was supposed to scare them off goes to blood-curdling extremes as the encampment is torched. One man is dismembered and propped up like a human scarecrow, his severed limbs replaced with straw, and a woman buried alive along with her set of silver teeth. But not before she vows revenge: “We will poison your sleep.”

It’s an exciting set-up — pitch-dark, heartless, barbaric and effective at showing the scant regard of the wealthy landowners for the lower social classes. Ellis also points up the way Seamus’ family — wife Isabelle (Kelly Reilly) and children Charlotte (Amelia Crouch) and Edward (Max Mackintosh) — are sheltered from the brutality being unleashed on their doorstep. But that ignorance doesn’t last long, once their dreams are disturbed by violent visions.

The kids from the village settlement are infected by the same nightmares (sometimes to cheap effect), prompting their ringleader, Timmy (Tommy Rodger), to dig up the silver gnashers. This proves unwise as it unleashes the beast in him, leaving Edward with a nasty bite. Feverish, wheezing and showing an aversion to bright light, the Laurent boy disappears soon after, with Charlotte catching a glimpse of his entrails writhing like tendrils from his stomach before he goes mysteriously missing.

Meanwhile, traveling pathologist John McBride (Holbrook) has arrived at a local inn asking about gypsies in the area. When the search through the misty woods for Edward turns up nothing, McBride is summoned to the Laurent house, staying on and revealing his personal stake as the investigation continues. Casualties multiply, notably in a shivery scene with three field workers and another in which a housemaid (Roxane Duran) is interrupted while hanging out laundry.

Ellis, who also serves as DP, and production designer Pascal Le Guellec excel at creating an oppressive setting, with the house boarded up for safety as bite marks on the victims indicate the presence of a wolf. Even the daytime exterior scenes unfold in murky half-light while night brings the shadowy cloak of moonlight and interiors glimmering with the faint glow of candlelight.

The film remains visually striking, showing evidence of Ellis’ background in still photography. But the storytelling grows steadily less incisive as he stirs in undercooked elements relating to the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas for his betrayal and repeated talk of the Beast of Gévaudan. That man-eating animal or animals are believed to have terrorized an entire province a century earlier, during the time of Louis XV, though Ellis fudges the history by having McBride claim to have been stationed there with the army during the carnage. (Christophe Gans’ 2001 French action film, Brotherhood of the Wolf, is based on that legend.)

Other elements, too, seem tossed in and left unexplored, such as the hint of beautiful Isabelle’s lack of sexual fulfillment from boring old Seamus, and the suggestion that having studly McBride in the house might fix that. A scene in which the shirtless pathologist investigates bumps in the night wearing only his long johns seems intended either to further that notion or to satisfy audiences thirsty for a glimpse of hunky Holbrook liberated from his period garb. Given how gloomy and cold the unheated mansion looks, the scene seems a touch gratuitous.

The restraint shown elsewhere by Ellis is both a blessing and a curse. The preference for practical effects, animatronics and old-fashioned creature designs makes the movie a refreshing change from so many genre chillers that rely too much on shoddy CGI.

Though the movie is never unengaging, ultimately, it doesn’t quite deliver. The director (best known for Metro Manila and Anthropoid) has a genuine dedication to the propulsive power of mood, but he often seems less attentive to the mechanics of horror, choosing even to show the climactic action with all the villagers in the boarded-up church in a frenzied blur. He ties the story elements together tidily enough, but despite the heady climate of fear, you’re left craving hairier thrills and more teeth.

Full credits

Venue: Sundance Film Festival (Premieres)
Distributor: LD Entertainment
Production companies: Liddell Entertainment
Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Alistair Petrie, Roxane Duran, Nigel Betts, Stuart Bowman, Simon Kunz, Amelia Crouch, Max Mackintosh, Tommy Rodger, Áine Rose Daly, Pascale Becouze, Jicey Carina
Director-screenwriter: Sean Ellis
Producers: Pete Shilaimon, Mickey Lidell, Sean Ellis
Executive producers: Jacob Yakob, Alison Semenza King
Director of photography: Sean Ellis
Production designer: Pascal Le Guellec
Costume designer: Madeline Fontaine
Music: Robin Foster
Editors: Yorgos Mavropsardis, Richard Mettler
Special effects supervisor: Christian-Axel Vollard
Casting: Elaine Grainger
Sales: CAA, ICM

1 hour 55 minutes