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— Will Smith, Men in Black II

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An exercise in atmosphere, with some really inspired surrealism —John Adams (DVD review...)

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While technically well-crafted, the story in The Cursed doesn’t go far enough to escape the tried-and-true tropes and trappings of the werewolf legend.

The Indentured

John McBride (Boyd Holbrook)
John McBride (Boyd Holbrook)

Writer/director Sean Ellis (Cashback) has described The Cursed (originally given the less bland title of Eight For Silver) as a modern telling of the 1941 classic The Wolf Man. It’s curious, then, that this “modern” spin goes further back in time, spanning 1882-1917, while attempting to use the themes of the storyline to shine a metaphorical light on — as Ellis explains it — today’s addictions, including drugs and smartphones.

The potential is most certainly there in the movie’s setup, but some of Ellis’ ambitious vision get lost in the darkness.

It all begins in the trenches of the Somme in 1917. A wounded soldier is given medical care and a couple bullets are removed. But, with the soldier still in agony, the medic finds one more piece of shrapnel and, after digging deep, he pulls out a mysterious silver bullet unlike the other recovered casings.

From there, the story moves back to 1882 and goes on to explain how that bullet got there.

As if the horrors of World War I weren’t grisly enough — the movie starts with gasmask-wearing soldiers lining grim trenches — Ellis turns up the brutality as the story shifts focus to a band of gypsies and a wealthy landowner, Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie, Rogue One: A Star Wars Story), who wants them off his estate. He’s ruthless. One gypsy is tied to a cross and his hands and feet are chopped off; with his head covered, he’s lifted up and serves as a living scarecrow until, of course, he gives his last gasp. His wife fares no better; she’s buried alive.

In the thick of this, an awkward story element is introduced: a set of dentures made with silver teeth cast — as lore would have it — from the same silver coins given to Judas. The gypsies used those teeth to bite into their victims and spread the curse to those who persecute them.

As it turns out, it’s not only Laurent’s family that falls victim to this gypsy curse. Their modus operandi plagued another French village. John McBride (Boyd Holbrook, The Predator) lost his wife and daughter to the gypsies’ curse and he’s determined to put an end to the madness.

The Oath

The elements to bridge between the present and the past are right there. Most notably, in the 1880s Europe was throttled by a cholera pandemic, one which impedes the response to this gypsy curse as trade routes are impacted and towns close gates. And, certainly, with the gypsies, it’s an opportunity to revisit racism and an array of prejudices.

Ellis also introduces a novel twist on the werewolf creature itself. In The Cursed, it’s a Gollum-like monstrosity enveloping its victims in a cocoon state. That facet yields a gruesome autopsy scene that conjures thoughts of Alien and The Exorcist.

Given Ellis not only wrote and directed this endeavor, he was also the cinematographer, the overall production serves as a showcase for Ellis and his immense talent and creative potential. There are some great visual and practical effects on display — including the classically powerful lighting effects of torches — that extend the on-screen value beyond the production’s modest independent budget. To his credit, Ellis shot The Cursed on 35mm film and the end credits boast the hashtags #ShotOnFilm and #FilmIsNotDead.

Even so, this atmospheric film’s visual grandeur, the interesting ideas and the strong cast aren’t enough to shake the specter of the overly familiar that undermines the tension.

The Circle

Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie)
Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie)

As the movie ends, it stretches for something different. It’s an effort to put the story in a bigger historical context, one of family and lineage and the temporal nature of life. The story moves back to that first reveal of the silver bullet and to the future state of John McBride. There’s a new family photo, replacing the one of his lost wife and daughter.

On the one hand, there’s the morbidity of the monster. On the other hand, there’s the touching element of humanity that has faced and defeated the monster, a family that has managed to survive and thrive.

It’s a striking sense of history past and yet to be written that circles back to the movie’s notions of the curse living on in the victims’ nightmares and families paying for the sins of their elders. It’s an artful attempt to grasp some redemption for the characters.

But it doesn’t quite gel. It’s an ambitious stretch that lands off the mark.