Wither the werewolf revolution?
For a while there, vampires were all the rage. If you wanted bloodsuckers, you had oodles of choices. The painfully emo creatures of the night in Interview With the Vampire, the rampaging hell-beasts in From Dusk Til Dawn, the Swedish nosferatu in Let the Right One In and so many more. They were an effective metaphor for fear of the AIDS crisis, otherness, and so, so many other interpretations.
Then it shifted to zombies. The spectacularly humorless The Walking Dead became one of the most consequential TV shows ever. Zack Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead was fast-paced, bloody as hell, and only a little stupid. Hell, there were even a couple of rom-zom-coms with Shaun of the Dead and Warm Bodies. The undead represented an uncontrollable contagion, capitalism run amok, and so, so many other interpretations.
There have been a metric ass-ton of solid vampire movies and excellent zombie movies. And yet, there really haven’t been that many good werewolf flicks. Naturally, those in the know appreciate An American Werewolf in London, The Howling, Dog Soldiers, and Ginger Snaps. A few others followed,* ranging from fun to forgettable to godawful. You had the tired yuppie monster of Wolf, the entertainingly foolish remake of The Wolf Man, and whatever the hell Wolfcop was supposed to be.
Is it because making a lycanthrope look good using prosthetics or VFX is really hard? Are the metaphors not compelling enough for filmmakers? Whatever the reasons, we have a dearth of quality werewolf cinema to deal with, and when quality werewolf cinema raises its hairy, gore-encrusted snout, it’s worth celebrating. I’m talking about, of course, the new film The Cursed.
We kick things off in the trenches during World War I. An older officer moves through the line, doing his best to reassure his men. Gas blossoms above the trenches. A machine gun chatters. Men start to die and the officer is hit. At the medical tent, a surgeon removes bullets with brutal efficiency. One of the bullets is silver.
From there, we go back in time several decades to a small, unnamed rural area. The Laurent family owns the land and rules with an iron fist. We know that because a Roma band arrives, sets up camp, and lays claim to the surrounding land. Their claim is correct and Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) couldn’t care less. He pays a group of mercenaries to slaughter the Roma and end the matter.
Only they don’t. A Roma woman (Pascale Becouze) knows her end is coming. She sees her husband mutilated, burned, then raised on a cross as a grotesque scarecrow. She sees herself buried alive in a mass grave. She won’t leave without taking her revenge, and her vengeance will ripple through the community like a stone thrown into a pond. As the mercenaries finish their bloody business, one of them discovers a skull piece, the teeth replaced by silver.
That’s when things get really bad. Everyone begins to have nightmares involving the scarecrow, including Seamus’ daughter Charlotte (Amelia Crouch) and son Edward (Max Mackintosh). Then Edward vanishes after being attacked by…something. Seamus and his wife Isabelle (Kelly Reilly) panic, and luckily for them, pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) arrives to help. He’s had some experience with situations like this, but to quote an old classic, who will survive and what will be left of them?
Genre filmmaking is often branded as cheap or lazy. Instead, director Sean Ellis made a lycanthrope movie with care and intelligence with The Cursed. The film’s lighting and production design are excellent, and we’re immersed into what feels like a fairly authentic nineteenth-century world, one where civilization tries and often fails to hold the wild at bay. Ellis also does good work with blending in-camera practical effects and CGI to create some alarming sequences. I should also mention that his lycanthrope design is unique. We don’t have the standard “hair sprouting and nose elongating” sequence. It’s something else that both fits the story on a thematic level and looks gnarly as hell.
Ellis wrote the script, and I liked his work in terms of lore and plotting. He dives deep into the old werewolf folklore and twists it in interesting ways. You’ll expect things to work out a certain way, yet when the script zigs instead of zags, Ellis isn’t doing it just to be contrary. He’s put a lot of thought into not only tweaking our expectations but also thematic elements such as colonialism and scientific denial. There’s no denying that Ellis is very smart, but I wish that he’d taken a bit more time on characterization. Opportunities existed to show different aspects of the characters, and they occasionally come off as thinly drawn.
Having said that, the cast delivers good work. I don’t think it’s terribly fair to examine performances from child actors since they’re…y’know, children. However, Max Mackintosh and Amelia Crouch as the Laurent offspring carry the movie for long stretches, and they both go beyond just selling the terror of the situation. They’re natural actors who never feel stiff or overly mannered. Boyd Holbrook has been quietly making a name for himself as an interesting genre actor. He’s done well in films like Logan, Gone Girl, and the entertainingly stupid The Predator. Here, he knows how to make the stalwart hero McBride interesting and human. Holbrook is just as comfortable with quiet dramatic moments as he is with running and yelling.
The Cursed acquits itself nicely. Through skill, intelligence, and some jaw-dropping gore effects, it enters the top tier of werewolf movies. Despite a few flaws, it’s a sophisticated horror movie that evokes the primeval knowledge of something in the darkness, watching, waiting for the right moment to strike.
*I hesitate to mention the righteously awesome Brotherhood of the Wolf as it’s not quite a werewolf movie.