The Cursed opens as a handful of British troops prepare to charge across No Man’s Land. Sean Ellis’ camera prowls evocatively through the trenches eventually settling in upon one soldier. Soon a cloud of mustard gas consumes the troops and the camera lingers upon tendrils of the poisonous cloud seeping through the holes of the soldier’s uniform.
After the inevitable charge towards German lines begins, the camera locks upon the unflinching bangs of the German machine gun. We cut to the chaos of a medical tent, a kaleidoscope of wartime carnage with broken bodies and severed appendages. Our soldier has been shot – soon a surgeon pulls bullets from his body: first one, a second, a part of a third… and then a large conical silver shell. It’s an effective set-up that shows the impressive craftsmanship of the filmmaking team before we slip back 35 years earlier.
I suspect Sean Ellis is, in part, tying a link between modernity – the Great War – and the world of this film. Abstractly, the world of the 1880s feels like “olden times” in a way that just three decades later does not. It’s a savvy way to show how close in history the brutality of the film actually is. Early in the film, a band of Roma are brutally slaughtered by various townsfolk at the behest of a landed aristocrat (Alistair Petrie, Sex Education, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story) over a property dispute. It’s a chilling and harrowing sequence shown in cold removal by Ellis’ camera. The slaughter triggers a “gypsy” (the phrasing of the film’s characters) curse, which makes for a savvy rejiggering of the classic werewolf origin story.
Soon children in the town start dying in horrible ways. An animal in the wild is mayhaps the cause. A strapping young pathologist played by Boyd Holbrook (Logan, Narcos) fast appears on the scene to help investigate the deaths. He shacks up with the aristocrat and his wife (Kelly Reilly, Sherlock Holmes, True Detective). A lesser film may have leaned into a lurid love triangle element, but Ellis is too savvy a writer to fall into that trap. It’s clear there is an element of desire between Reilly and Holbrook – each dealing with their own sorts of loss – but the film keeps their interactions understated.
I first saw and reviewed this film at Sundance 2021 under its old title Eight for Silver. I wrote then that Alistair Petrie stood out for me among the cast and that remains the case. His character engages in a great many wicked actions – he watches dispassionately as the Roma on his land are slaughtered – but Petrie manages to find a sliver of humanity beneath the surface. He manages to tell volumes about his character with very little dialogue. In one early sequences, he looks upon his wife’s naked form by a bath with a cold distance which conveys a deep alienation in the marriage without a hint of dialogue. The film’s screenplay is confident enough to trust the audience to take what they need from the actors without lazy exposition.
I should make note of The Cursed’s beauty. The film simply looks astonishing. Director and cinematographer Sean Ellis (Anthropoid, Metro Manila) has a background in still photography and it shows here – the film is composed of striking, memorable imagery. Ellis is particularly savvy in his use of light and color. Much of the world feels caked in an overwhelming, evocative fog – literal and metaphorical, including the threat of a cholera outbreak on the periphery of town – which leaves each torch in the darkness at threat to be overwhelmed by the smothering atmosphere. And that’s before we get to the cursed werewolves running wild in the mist.
The film is interesting in the way it juggles serious character beats with immensely satisfying (and – blessedly – largely practical) horror effects. It’s difficult to strike the right tone in a story that is about horrific abuses of power while still allowing the audience the release of a good jump scare. I think Ellis largely threads the needle quite successfully. I’ll admit I had an immense amount of fun during the movie, perhaps more than Ellis intended. I found something about the focus on in-camera effects a throwback joy. Ellis is a savvy action filmmaker even if the budget appears to restrict him from his grandest ambitions in the film’s climax.
I mentioned the film’s original title, Eight for Silver, earlier. It’s really a disappointment that a movie as unique and lovingly crafted as this, which once had a suitably evocative (if ambiguous) title, has been anathematized with a title that seems born from a microbudget VOD horror movie. Don’t let the title fool you – this is excellent genre filmmaking. How many movies these days are shot on film with substantial practical effects? Not many. And even fewer take this sort of mature, textured approach to genre work. This is an early contender for 2022’s finest horror film.
The Cursed will be released in theaters tomorrow, February 18, 2022.
I interviewed Alistair Petrie about his role in the film. It was a great conversation. Please do give it a watch here: A Conversation with Alistair Petrie on The Cursed