The Cursed is blessed with beautiful images but is otherwise plagued by an overly familiar werewolf narrative.
Why’s it so hard to make a good werewolf movie? As one of the handfuls of enduring horror archetypes, filmmakers keep trying and trying, but tales of lycanthropy seem to have a much lower batting average than the typical vampire or zombie flick. Sean Ellis’ new period-horror film The Cursed is a case in point: it has mood and atmosphere to spare, but gets bogged down in bland characters, lazy jump scares, and underwhelming creature design. After a brief prologue set in the trenches of WWI, the film flashes back to the late-19th Century and begins in earnest, as Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie), a wealthy gentleman of the landed gentry, massacres a group of Romani immigrants who have challenged his claim to a plot of land. As Laurent watches his band of mercenaries shoot and stab their way through the encampment, a Romani woman armed with a talisman of cast silver teeth curses him and his family. Soon enough, wife Isabelle (Kelly Reilly), young son Edward (Max Mackintosh), and teenaged daughter Charlotte (Amelia Crouch) are having cryptic nightmares about a particularly creepy scarecrow that stands perched over the unmarked mass grave of the Romani victims. When Edward goes missing and a local boy turns up dead, riddled with teeth and claw marks, Seamus and the other town elders turn to pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook), who says he’s encountered these kinds of “wolf” attacks before. Of course, he knows what’s really happening here, as does the audience, and so it’s a slow trek for the rest of the characters to catch up.
In a way, The Cursed functions more as a Golem tale than a werewolf one, as the creatures have been summarily summoned to take revenge for the unjust deaths of the immigrant villagers. It’s the return of the repressed, and the film is at its best when it’s digging into the racism and entitlement of the upper class. There are some effective sequences of the werewolves hunting their prey, and Ellis doesn’t skimp in the gore; present are plenty of dismemberments and much gnashed flesh, as well as a show-stopping setpiece where McBride performs an autopsy on one of the beasts and finds… something inside. But after a promising first half, the film runs out of steam and quickly settles into a repetitiveness. Ellis tries to tweak the standard werewolf design here, but they are uninteresting in both concept and execution, as chintzy CGI leaves them looking rather like large hairless cats. The director, acting here as his own cinematographer, does craft some beautiful images; scenes lit by candlelight and forests covered in wispy fog are quite evocative. But it’s all in service of a foregone conclusion, as every character does exactly what you assume they will at any given moment and meets equally predictable fates. Reilly, in particular, is given little to do, disappearing for long stretches of the film despite its climax ostensibly hinging on her maternal devotion. There are things to like here, but as the pleasingly uncanny gradually becomes more and more familiar, the goodwill evaporates. Chalk this up to a swing and a miss.
Originally published as part of Sundance Film Festival 2021 — Dispatch 5.