It’s a bad sign when a studio declines to have screenings for press before a film opens. But it’s an even worse one when a studio schedules a press screening and then abruptly cancels it. In the former instance it means that the executives never had any confidence in a picture (or simply wanted to sabotage the project, perhaps because it had been green-lighted by some previous administration), but in the latter it means they’ve seen a product they had hopes for and decided that the hopes were unfounded. Which brings us to “Cursed.” Initially Dimension announced a pre-screening of Wes Craven’s werewolf tale; then it was suddenly removed from the schedule. And since Craven and the Miramax subsidiary have had a close and remunerative association since the “Scream” series, the decision probably wasn’t based on malice.
Of course studios have made mistakes before, failing to show critics movies that have proven to be perfectly respectable, if not great. (And even more frequently they’ve pre-screened pictures that are utter rubbish.) But this, unhappily, is not one of the exceptions. One can discern the glimmer of an effort to do something different and interesting in “Cursed”–an attempt to modernize werewolf convention and combine it with the knowing, wink-and-nudge sort of in-jokes that “Scream” managed so well. But the mixture just doesn’t come off this time around, and the movie ends up a pallid exercise in the all-too-familiar, into which some puerile jests are occasionally inserted. (“An American Werewolf in London” did the job a lot better.) In the end the title seems to refer to the filmmakers–and the audience–rather than the characters.
“Cursed” begins in a way that might remind you of “Jeepers Creepers,” a picture that revived old thriller formulas much more successfully than this one does. Parentless siblings Ellie (Christina Ricci, giving a terribly arch performance and in her black garb looking oddly like a grown-up version of her “Addams Family” Wednesday), a staffer on the Craig Kilborn show, and high school geek Jimmy (gawky but insufficiently likable Jesse Eisenberg) run into “something” while speeding home along Mulholland Drive and push another car off the road. When they try to rescue the woman trapped inside, she’s dragged off and ripped to shreds by a mysterious animal. Even worse, both are scraped in the incident and soon begin exhibiting strange symptoms that suggest that lycanthropy is involved. The rest of the movie is concerned with the duo’s trying to save themselves from the werewolf curse by finding out who the beast that bit them was (Jimmy learns–on the internet, of course–that lopping off the creature’s head will rescue them from the condition). There’s no lack of suspects: Ellie’s boyfriend Jake (Joshua Jackson, pretty impassive and dull), a strangely subdued sort who’s setting up a kind of haunted house where one prominent exhibit is devoted to Universal’s monsters of the thirties, including the original wolfman; Ellie’s near-stalker co-worker Kyle (a drab Michael Rosenbaum, the Lex Luthor of “Smallville,” but here with hair); and Scott Baio’s press agent, the aggressively obnoxious Jonie (the really awful Judy Greer) are but the most notable.
Since “Cursed” was written by Kevin Williamson, there are plenty of twists and swerves as the plot plods on, but in this case they have a peculiarly ill-structured feel, since most are either telegraphed far in advance or simply arbitrary. The scribe’s comic interludes, moreover, are more tasteless than funny. The worst of these certainly involves a homophobic jock named Bo (Milo Ventimiglia) who bad-mouths Jimmy relentlessly (the kid has a crush on the fellow’s girlfriend–the beauteous Brooke, played by Kristina Anapau) but turns out to have a deep secret that’s revealed in a scene that panders to the adolescent target audience’s worst instincts in a way that even a reversal toward the close can’t compensate for. It’s also not clear whether the extraordinary banality of the dialogue and the frequent melodramatic excesses, especially in the first thirty minutes, are meant to be humorous or not. And when it comes to the series of confrontations that end the picture, the crudity of the gags and the clumsiness of the special effects, along with the jagged editing, sink the picture completely.
To be fair to Craven, whose use of the most ordinary scare tactics (utterly benign people suddenly lurching into the frame accompanied by loud music–the score by Marco Beltrami really works overtime–and even a chase sequence set in a hall of mirrors!) seems truly beneath the fellow who made not only “Scream” but “A Nightmare on Elm Street,” it’s been reported that “Cursed” was severely re-cut shortly before release to get it from an R to a PG-13 rating. Perhaps that explains some of the structural and visual problems. But it’s clear from the ninety-odd minutes that remain that even a pure director’s cut wouldn’t represent a modern horror masterpiece. There are a few mildly effective moments in the picture that keep it from the absolute bottom of the barrel, but the mere fact that it’s not quite the nadir of the genre is hardly a reason for celebration.