The Cursed review: a bloody werewolf story built around terrible stereotypes

You gotta say it for Sean Ellis horror movie Cursed: He doesn’t waste much time talking that he could spend on bloodshed. The film, which played at film festivals in 2021 under the more evocative name eight for the money, pits British villagers in the 1880s against a series of deadly supernatural events, including a monster stalking their fields and forests. The things the monster does to its victims are ugly and often accomplished with visceral practical effects designed to make all but the most veteran gorehounds uncomfortable. But the Beast’s origins are far uglier, and far more likely to leave audiences unsettled – sometimes in exactly the wrong way.

So many indie horrors are being made on a shoestring these days that it’s honestly surprising how lavishly appointed and casually expensive Cursed watch, first in an opening sequence set on a World War I battlefield, then in a flashback that takes up most of the film, set 35 years earlier. When a band of Roma settles near a British colony, wealthy aristocrat Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) and his peers send a group of bloodthirsty and sadistic thugs to slaughter them. The Roma have a legitimate legal claim to the land that would compete with the use of these local elites, so simply forcing them to move on will not be enough – Seamus and the others are conspiring to wipe them out, alter land records and bury the evidence in the field where the camp once stood.

Soon after, all the local children start dreaming of a strange scarecrow in that field and an occult object buried beneath it, and Seamus’ children Charlotte (Amelia Crouch) and Edward (Max Mackintosh) join the children of the village nervously. visit the site. Events escalate, Edward disappears and it becomes apparent that something anomalous is stalking the town. When pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) arrives, asking about the “Gypsies” in the area, he corrects recent events and goes into full Witcher mode, preparing to fight the creature while keeping his own secrets about what’s going on. ‘he knows.

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Cursed has its own mythology and some baffling and gory innovations around what is essentially a werewolf story, but Ellis gets a lot of his mileage around standard horror story stuff with creatures he is not it do. John doesn’t bother to explain the were-beast to Seamus and his pale, subdued wife Isabelle (Kelly Reilly) up front – instead of stacking exposition, he smoothly deflects or dodges most of the questions, in a way that makes him seem more mysterious than the average horror movie protagonist, and much wiser. In particular, he seems to have a solid understanding of small town politics and how men like Seamus react to events beyond their control. Ellis also doesn’t bore the audience with the spin of the “Werewolves don’t exist” wheel, or making the characters’ knowledge lag behind what the audience has already seen. Which gives the beast more time to tear people apart, in a series of memorable and visually arresting attacks.

Ellis’ eye as cinematographer is the film’s greatest asset, and the place where Cursed most stand out in a crowded field of bloody gender drills. His talent for creating rich images is crucial to the mood he tries to create. When John or Seamus nervously emerge from the protection of a mansion at night, they seem as dwarfed by the enormous weight of pre-industrial darkness around them as if they were falling from a ship and into the sea. Scenes like the one in which three laborers brave an oppressive, dark orchard in fog after the first beast attack adds a brooding beauty to the chaos that follows. And the contraption that went into the long-distance shooting of the Roma massacre elevates the film well above the more indifferently shot slashers that are crowding streaming services lately. There’s a lavish feel to the directing – the costumes and sets all have weight, and the casting brings a compelling, compelling intensity to the material, but this is a film to watch for the visuals above all else.

But Ellis gets stuck on way too many rehearsals around spooky nightmares and seemingly endless real and imagined journeys to see this haunted scarecrow. So many characters visit the place so many times that it starts to look more like a running gag than an arcane echo. This dark joke has a decent punchline – there are so many visits from scarecrows that they start to blur, as does the line between reality and dreams. But as a recurring image depicting the horror that Seamus and his type have visited in the world, it seems both too generic and too forced to have the impact Ellis seems to crave.

A lot of Cursed has the same problem. The set dressing here is all too familiar: those tedious nightmarish scares and gasping waking moments, the kids singing an eerie nursery rhyme that’s immediately relevant to the events at hand, the generic CGI crawliness overlaying the more compelling hands-on work. Ellis continues to repeat other elements as well, with three people in a row disappearing from bloody beds and too many characters braving the dangers outside to do work that could conceivably be put off until there is no more. have more monsters on the loose.

Alistair Petrie and a group of other men with guns hunt a monster through the dark woods in The Cursed

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This last element comes from the underlying moral current which visibly crosses Cursed, about the traumas of working-class life and the disdain that the rich and powerful show for anyone’s life and humanity. The film only gets to preach this theme fully once, at a time when John’s frustration overwhelms his diplomacy, and in that moment he feels welcome and overdue. Corn Cursed comes back to the idea again and again, as Ellis points out how Seamus and his class oppress everyone in their power, and how everyone pays the price when a society allows the greediest, most amoral and most arrogant of a community to take charge.

This theme gets a little exhausting, especially when confined to such superficial and superficial presentation, intended only to give the story a hiss-worthy villain and a burst of self-righteous indignation. As relevant and precise as the central point is, it is no less true that most Cursed is about watching innocent people, especially women and children, suffer in grotesque and horrific ways because of Seamus’ selfish choices. Knowing that this is all a game of morality does not make the wall-to-wall anguish of the vulnerable and unworthy any easier to bear.

And for viewers with a sense of history, it’s also hard to escape the way Cursed puts a racist stereotype at the heart of its story, portraying its Roma victims as occultists with hideous black magic at their disposal. Using a “gypsy curse” as a plot device was an old horror cliche back when Stephen King did it in Thinner in 1984, or even when Lon Chaney Jr. forged the American tradition of on-screen werewolves in the 1941s The werewolf. It’s surprisingly regressive to see the trope resurface in 2022, with no apparent examination or thought. Compounding the problem: the Roma curse literally steals Seamus’ child, another widespread racist stereotype who should have been buried long ago.

This inevitable basic problem with Cursed greatly spoils the action and creates a story that seems to yearn for Robert Eggers artful horror The witch looking backward instead of pushing the boundaries. There’s a real old-school Hammer Horror vibe to this movie, with the screaming red fake blood replaced by something much thicker and more arterial. But perhaps the whole thing could have used a little more thoughtful discussion of its core ideas — both onscreen, among the characters who take the lessons here for granted without offering cathartic accomplishments or conclusions, and off-screen, before Ellis mixed in a horrible fictional monster that refuses to die, and horrible ethnic prejudices that have the same problem.

Cursed is in theaters now.

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