The Cursed (aka Eight For Silver when it played at Sundance)
Written and Directed by Sean Ellis; Starring Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Alistar Petrie
Rated R; 1h53m; Theatrical release February 18, 2022
In 1882 Europe (filmed in France, the characters are English, and there is an Irish folk song, so take your pick – but it doesn’t matter really), a set of landowners have an issue. A band of Romani (the film uses the g-word slur, as would be the language of the time, but I’m not going to) have moved onto their land and wish to make use of their legal claim to part of it. The landowners take action. A violent action. The wrong action. Thus cursing the people and their land, particularly the central Laurent family, and starting a terrifying chain of events in a very well put together, mean, and serious Hammer-esque gothic/folk-horror from writer-director Sean Ellis.
The elements are all here for an eerie gothic atmosphere (lensed also by Ellis). Windswept fields and woods with an omnipresent bank of eerie fog, lit by a shrouded sun during the day and pitch dark at night. Isolated brick buildings stand out like monoliths. Nature looms. Nature encroaches. In said buildings. In people.
The atmosphere is paid off in the action. It’s bloody. It’s nasty. Everyone is capable of being violent or having violence thrust upon them – men, women, and children. (if child injuries/death is a trigger, here’s your warning. I’m not being cheeky, I know it’s an issue for some folks and I want you to know) . More limbs are rent from bodies than a Star Wars marathon. Ellis holds on to the grotesque practical effects, unflinching but not gratuitous, forcing the audience to take in the nastiness.
An eerie atmosphere and bloody violence can only take so far without a decent story behind it. Luckily The Cursed delivers there as well. The turns to the genre are unique and made several shifts from my thoughts of where the story was going. I was reminded in part of Brotherhood of the Wolf, in a good way. The films are different but share similarities, but the 2001 film resonated with The Cursed. Funny, as I first thought this right before a character references the Beast of Gevaudan, the historical basis of that film. The continued dread is carried through the characters of the beleaguered families. The central focus is on the Laurent family: dad Seamus (Alistar Petrie), mom Isabelle (Kelly Reilly), kids Charlotte (Amelia Crouch), and Edward (Max Mackintosh) along with outsider pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) who is haunted by his past. All performed admirably, keeping the serious, often nasty and mean, tone of the film without sliding into melodrama. Add in impressive sound design (including a Lewton Bus type jump – that made me happy) and The Cursed is a very well put-together film.
The Cursed isn’t a perfect film, though. The characters are pretty static. Many drop away for much of the film, which leads to some questions about how the curse itself works. There are interesting ideas brought up but not followed upon. Some creatures are bland, poorly rendered CG creations; but Ellis seems to be aware of their lack of convincingness by showing them at a minimum and cutting/shooting around if possible, in comparison to the lingering of the practical effects. There is also an unnecessary wrap-around featuring World War I. Funny that last week’s Death on the Nile reflects into this week’s films – in an unneeded World War I sequence here and a mustache origin story in Uncharted.
The Cursed is an impressive small film with a strange and creepy ethereal folk-horror atmosphere, a very satisfying level of gore, and unique shifts to genre expectation. Harking back to the traditions of the Hammer films, of old, The Cursed is well worth your time, especially for genre fans looking to bite into something original.