Producers: Pete Shilaimon, Mickey Lidell and Sean Ellis Director: Sean Ellis Screenplay: Sean Ellis Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Alistair Petrie, Roxane Duran, Nigel Betts, Stuart Bowman, Simon Kunz, Amelia Crouch, Max Mackintosh, Tommy Rodger, Áine Rose Daly, Pascale Becouze and Jicey Carina Distributor: LD Entertainment
Someone, or something, is stalking the locals of the nineteenth-century French countryside in Sean Ellis’ atmospheric but slow-moving horror thriller, which has its roots in werewolf mythology but introduces monsters that more closely resemble gruesome extraterrestrials. Though it boasts cutting-edge creature effects from a team led by Christian-Axel Vollard, “The Cursed” plays rather like a 1960s Hammer film in which Peter Cushing would have been the lead. Here, though, that part is taken by Boyd Holbrook.
As self-styled pathologist John McBride, however, Holbrook doesn’t appear in the film immediately; his introduction is preceded by a prologue involving a wartime massacre and then another massacre, though a peacetime one.
The first is set at the Battle of the Somme in 1917, when a squad of French soldiers are ordered out of their trenches to cross no man’s land. But unlike the similar scene at the start of Kevin Branagh’s “Death on the Nile,” the charge ends in disaster as the troops are cut down in a fusillade of German machine-gun fire. One of the wounded is brought into a makeshift field hospital, and the doctor removes a strange-looking bullet not of German make. Where did it come from?
The rest of the movie explains, in a roundabout fashion. The answer starts with another slaughter back in 1882, when a caravan of Romani led by an aged woman (Jicey Carina) invade land owned by Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie), claiming that it belongs to them. When they refuse to be bought off, Laurent and his fellow wealthy landholders ride into the Romani camp and brutally kill them all off, burying the old woman alive and setting up a grotesque scarecrow over her grave. (The massacre, shot mostly from a distance, is genuinely unsettling.) They also bury a box containing a metal jaw fitted with teeth melted down from silver coins that were, it appears, the very pieces of silver given to Judas for betraying Christ. (The original title of the film was “Eight for Silver.”) The gypsy woman has used their supernatural power to lay down a curse on Laurent and the region he lords it over.
The curse falls first on Seamus’ son Edward (Max Mackintosh), a lad obsessed with tales of swordplay and derring-do. He, his sister Anne-Marie (Áine Rose Daly) and the other neighborhood children have all begun to be haunted by the same frightening dreams. They’re taken out to the scarecrow by Timmy (Tommy Rodger), the son of one of Laurent’s tenants, who unwisely digs up the box and, seemingly possessed, puts the metal teeth into his mouth and bites Edward with them. The poor boy immediately falls desperately ill with fever, much to the distress of his mother Isabelle (Kelly Reilly), and soon disappears from his bed into the surrounding forest. Grisly attacks on locals then start.
It’s at this point that McBride appears on the scene, inquiring about incidents involving gypsies. The magistrate enlists him in his inquiries about the Laurent business, and he quickly diagnoses what’s happening because, it will be revealed, of a prior outbreak in which his own family was involved.
From here the film follows a fairly predictable course, with scenes of further mauling alternating with McBride’s dogged efforts to get people to act responsibly against their common menace. Narrative logic sometimes suffers—a scene in which the Laurent maid (Roxane Duran) ventures out of the boarded-up mansion to retrieve laundry serves only as an excuse for Ellis (acting as his own cinematographer) and editors Yorgos Mavropsardis and Richard Mettler to confect a sequence in which she’s attacked in quick cuts among sheets whipping in the wind, and the final confrontation, which explains the prologue, doesn’t make much sense within the context of the usual werewolf mythology. Nor is the connection of it all with Judas’ payment made clear.
One might also be confused about where the story is occurring. It’s France, of course, but everybody speaks with British accents (as they did in Hammer pictures, wherever they were set), and some of the names of supposedly French characters are very odd. Would a great French landowner have plausibly been christened Seamus? And John McBride is a Frenchman, too. (On the other hand, there are characters called Anais and Moliere!) The solemn pacing will also strike many as sluggish rather than suspenseful.
On the other hand, the film is visually elegant, with the individual images evoking Ellis’ background in still photography. The production design of Pascal Le Guellec and costumes by Madeline Fontaine are important contributions to the mood of foreboding that Ellis achieves through both his direction and his lensing. Robin Foster’s score adds to the darkly menacing tone. Though all of the performances are competent, only Mackintosh really stands out as tortured young Edward.
In the end, though, “The Cursed” falls between two stools. It’s neither frightening enough to satisfy those looking for a gorily old-fashioned horror movie, nor sufficiently strange and exotic to join modern examples of “artistic” cinematic horror. What might have been an extraordinary reworking of the werewolf formula emerges instead as an intriguing asterisk to it.