The Cursed brings startling new ideas and awful old ones to the werewolf horror story

You have to say this for Sean Ellis’ horror movie The Cursed: It doesn’t waste much time on talking that it could spend on bloodshed. The movie, which played film festivals in 2021 under the more evocative name Eight For Silver, pits British villagers in the 1880s against a series of deadly supernatural events, including a monster stalking their fields and forests. The things that monster does to its victims are ugly, and often accomplished with visceral practical effects designed to make all but the most veteran gorehounds feel queasy. But the beast’s origins are far uglier, and far more likely to leave the audience unsettled — sometimes in exactly the wrong ways.

So much independent horror is made on a shoestring budget these days that it’s honestly surprising to see how richly appointed and casually expensive The Cursed looks, first in an opening sequence set on a World War I battlefield, then in a flashback that takes up most of the movie, set 35 years earlier. When a band of Romani set up camp near a British settlement, wealthy aristocrat Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) and his peers send a group of bloodthirsty, sadistic thugs to massacre them. The Romani have a legitimate legal claim to the land that would compete with those local elites’ use of it, so simply forcing them to move on won’t do — Seamus and the others conspire to wipe them out, alter the land records, and bury the evidence in the field where the camp once was.

Shortly after that, all the children in the area start to dream about an eerie scarecrow in that field and an occult item buried under it, and Seamus’ children, Charlotte (Amelia Crouch) and Edward (Max Mackintosh) join the village kids in nervously visiting the site. Events escalate, Edward disappears, and it becomes obvious that something unnatural is stalking the town. When pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) arrives, asking questions about “gypsies” in the area, he patches together the recent events and goes into full Witcher mode, setting up to battle the creature while holding onto his own secrets about what he knows.

Alistair Petrie in an incredibly dark room in The Cursed, lit only by the candelabra he’s holding Photo: LDEntertainment

The Cursed has its own mythology and some unnerving, bloody innovations around what’s basically a werewolf story, but Ellis gets a lot of his mileage around the standard creature-feature horror-story things he doesn’t do. John doesn’t bother explaining the were-beast to Seamus and his pallid, subdued wife Isabelle (Kelly Reilly) up front — instead of piling up the exposition, he smoothly deflects or dodges most questions, in ways that both make him seem more mysterious than the average horror-movie protagonist, and a whole lot wiser. In particular, he seems to have a firm grasp on small-town politics and how men like Seamus respond to events outside their control. Ellis also doesn’t bore the audience with “There’s no such thing as werewolves” wheel-spinning, or by making the characters’ knowledge lag behind what the audience has already seen. Which leaves more time for the beast tearing people apart, in a series of memorable and visually striking attacks.

Ellis’ eye as a cinematographer is the film’s greatest asset, and the place where The Cursed most stands out in a crowded field of gory genre exercises. His talent for creating rich imagery is crucial to the mood he’s trying to set. When John or Seamus nervously edge out of a manor house’s protection at night, they seem as dwarfed by the vast weight of the pre-industrial dark around them as if they were falling off a ship and into the sea. Scenes like the one where three workers brave an oppressively bleak fog-enshrouded orchard after the first beast attack add a sullen beauty to the chaos that follows. And the craft that went into the extended long-distance shot of the Romani massacre boosts the movie far above the more indifferently shot slashers crowding onto streaming services lately. There’s a sumptuous feel to the staging — the costumes and sets all have weight, and the cast brings a compelling, convincing intensity to the material, but this is primarily a movie to watch for the visuals.

But Ellis does get stuck on far too much repetition around jump-scare nightmares and seemingly endless real and imaginary trips out to see that haunted scarecrow. So many characters visit the spot so many times that it starts to feel more like a running gag than an arcane echo. That dark joke has a decent punchline — there are so many scarecrow visits that they start to blur, and so does the line between reality and dreams. But as a recurring image representing the horror Seamus and his type have visited on the world, it feels both too generic and too forced to have the impact Ellis seems to crave.

A lot of The Cursed has the same problem. The set-dressing here is too familiar: those tedious nightmare fakeout scares and wake-up-gasping moments, kids singing an eerie nursery rhyme that’s immediately relevant to the events at hand, generic CGI crawliness overlaying the more convincing practical work. Ellis keeps repeating other elements as well, with three people in a row disappearing from bloody beds, and too many characters braving the dangerous outdoors to do work that could plausibly be postponed until there isn’t a monster at large.

Alistair Petrie and a group of other men with rifles hunt a monster through the dark woods in The Cursed Photo: LDEntertainment

That last element comes from the moral undercurrent visibly running throughout The Cursed, about the traumas of working-class life, and the disdain the wealthy and powerful show for anyone else’s lives and humanity. The film only gets full-force preachy about that theme once, in a moment where John’s frustration overwhelms his diplomacy, and by that time, it does feel welcome and overdue. But The Cursed does return to the idea again and again, as Ellis underlines the ways Seamus and his class oppress everyone in their power, and how everyone pays the price when a society allows the greediest, most amoral, most arrogant men in a community to take charge.

That theme gets a little exhausting, especially when it’s limited to such a shallow, surface-level presentation, meant only to give the story a hiss-worthy villain and a sheen of self-righteous indignation. However relevant and accurate the central point is, it’s still true that most of The Cursed consists of watching innocent people, especially women and children, suffer in grotesque and ghastly ways because of Seamus’ selfish choices. Knowing that it’s all a morality play doesn’t make the wall-to-wall anguish of the vulnerable and undeserving any easier to endure.

And for viewers with a sense of history, it’s also hard to escape how The Cursed puts a racist stereotype right at the core of its story, painting its Romani victims as occultists with hideous black magic at their disposal. Using a “gypsy curse” as a plot device was a hoary old horror cliché back when Stephen King did it in Thinner in 1984, or even back when Lon Chaney Jr. forged America’s screen werewolf tradition in 1941’s The Wolf Man. It feels astonishingly regressive to see the trope resurface in 2022, without examination or apparent thought. Compounding the problem: The Romani curse literally steals Seamus’ child, another widely spread racist stereotype that should have been buried long ago.

That unavoidable core problem with The Cursed sours an awful lot of the action, and makes a story that seems to aspire to the artful horror of Robert Eggers’ The Witch look retrograde instead of envelope-pushing. There’s a real old-school Hammer Horror vibe to this movie, with the garish fake red blood replaced by something a lot thicker and more arterial. But maybe it all could have used a little more thoughtful discussion about its basic ideas — both onscreen, among characters who take the lessons here for granted without offering any cathartic realizations or conclusions, and offscreen, before Ellis mixed up a horrifying fictional monster that refuses to die, and horrifying ethnic prejudices that have the same problem.

The Cursed is in theaters now.