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The Cursed Review: Period Horror With Bite

The Cursed Review: Period Horror With Bite

Werewolves, like vampires, are astonishingly versatile movie monsters when given the right framing. They can serve as metaphors for ferocious adolescence (“Ginger Snaps”), satirical journeys into new age movements (“The Howling”), and even the feeling of being a stranger in a strange land (“An American Werewolf in London”). Despite that versatility, though, for some werewolf fans, it all goes back to the original, “Wolf Man”-style take of the Golden Age of monster movies, to stories of curses and unwanted transformations and doomed men in over their heads.

“The Cursed” seems to lean immediately into this version of werewolf lore, and the film’s distributor even changed the title (when it debuted at Sundance 2021, it was known as “Eight for Silver”) to reflect that. If you’re looking for a classic cinematic take on the subgenre, the film’s opening act seems to give you exactly what you’d expect: A period setting, a group of superstitious Romani nomads, and the unsuspecting white men who fall prey to a creature they never see coming. As the film goes on, though, “The Cursed” reveals itself to be a clever twist on these traditional elements, rather than another film attempting to follow the same playbook. The results are mixed, but when writer/director Sean Ellis digs deep into his genre riffs and dread-laced atmosphere, “The Cursed” really works as a modern take on some very old werewolf tropes.

Revenge has teeth

In 19th century England, wealthy landowner Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) is on the hunt for a new acquisition, but there’s something standing in his way. A group of Romani people are living on the land he and his associates want for themselves, and it seems they may have an actual claim to the territory. To combat this, Laurent chooses the most brutal retaliation possible, making an example of the Romani and setting fire to their camp. As you may have already guessed, though, he’s messing with the wrong people, and soon Laurent and his family are facing a terrible curse that takes the form of a monster roaming the land he took by force, a monster that threatens to consume everyone he loves.

Right away, the principal charm of “The Cursed” emerges from this setup, as Ellis takes something very familiar to any werewolf movie fan and begins to slowly, methodically, twist it into something else. It begins with the basic design of the curse itself, as the film reveals the monster element at play here is not a creature, at least at first, but instead a pair of magical silver teeth which seem to have the capacity to infect dreams and, eventually, infect bodies. With that piece of mythology in place, Ellis then introduces another key element: John McBride (Boyd Holbrook), a pathologist who’s been on the trail of the curse ever since a tragedy claimed members of his own family, and believes he may be able to finally stop the carnage with the Laurents. That is, of course, if Seamus ever sees what his wife Isabelle (Kelly Reilly) sees, and actually starts to believe McBride’s theory.

Uneven bite

As all of its plot elements move into place, “The Cursed” builds a tremendous amount of horror promise, first by establishing the title curse as an act of revenge against wealthy white landowners, and then by giving the creatures at the heart of the story their very own Van Helsing in McBride and his personal vendetta. There’s a lot to work with inside of those little tweaks to the classical werewolf movie narrative, and Ellis and company do their best to wring as much juice out of it as they can. It helps that Holbrook seems to slip right into the role of McBride, carrying the character’s pain and swagger with equal deftness, and it helps that the film’s production design, costuming, and cinematography all rise to the task of delivering period werewolf terror.

It also helps that the chances the film takes don’t stop with the setup. While its mythology and its pacing are firmly rooted in werewolf movie convention, “The Cursed” takes a different approach when it comes to creature design, giving us a monster that’s both reminiscent enough of a werewolf to work within the framework and different enough to stand on its own when it finally emerges as an adversary for the human characters. Beyond that, though, Ellis works in a visually dynamic, different take on the classic transformation sequence that’s both undeniably creepy and a way of portraying the curse as something more infectious and less magical than a more traditional werewolf change. These particular visual choices come to a head in one spectacularly terrifying autopsy sequence, as McBride reveals that the curse does more than simply make people into monsters, imbuing the film with higher emotional stakes in the process.

Unfortunately, for all its success in establishing atmosphere and rendering some memorable horror sequences, “The Cursed” is not firing on all cylinders at all times. When the human violence is at the forefront of the horror, the visual effects work with visceral efficiency, but the same isn’t always true when the creature is onscreen. The computer-generated monster look is often jarring, particularly when contrasted with the shots in which the creature actually does get to exist as a practical piece of design. The creature sequences themselves, outside of the look of the beast, also have a tendency to get at least somewhat repetitive when it comes to the pacing and the nature of the attacks. For a film that’s so intent on going on its own way, often very successfully, it gets a bit run-of-the-mill when the real meat of the creature elements are involved.

That said, “The Cursed” still lands more blows than it misses in terms of sheer horror atmosphere and monster movie fun. There are underwhelming moments, and sometimes the film loses momentum by getting in its own way, but by the time the emotional arc of the film reaches its conclusion, that doesn’t matter as much as what “The Cursed” has managed to achieve. It’s an evocative, often beautiful, riff on the werewolf subgenre, and deserves plenty of attention for its ambitious approach to one of horror’s greatest monsters.

“The Cursed” opens in theaters February 18.

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