“The Cursed” (2021) – “She was bitten? Where is she?” – John McBride (Boyd Holbrook)
Both brave and fearful folks will ask these two questions when hearing that a woman is hurt due to “something” terrorizing a small village and regularly ripping human flesh like a twisted animal. McBride resides in the former camp.
Set in rural 19th-century France, writer/director/cinematographer Sean Ellis’ (“Anthropoid” (2016)) horror movie feels like a throwback to tangible, soiled Hammer Films and a rich, atmospheric 21st-century production. Many outdoor shots trigger unsettling memories of Robert Eggers’ “The Witch” (2015). Just replace that movie’s mud with wispy grasslands.
Filmed in Cognac, about halfway down the coast and 40 miles from the Atlantic, Ellis fittingly consumes this setting during (probably) February or November when trees have shed their leaves and gray, gloomy clouds make a 6-month residence and seemingly sit only about 100 feet in the sky.
(Find yourself a trampoline, reach high, and grab a handful of ashen cotton.)
This movie feels like Ichabod Crane will traipse into the frame during lonely images of sandy horse pathways, although Ellis mainly filmed during daylight hours, not always in the dead of night.
No, “The Cursed” doesn’t trot out a headless horseman. Instead, a select few townspeople are the real villains in this story: the men in charge, those who make the rules and also bend them in their favor. Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) – the closest person the residents would call a mayor – and his local confidants face a land dispute with a ragtag but proud assembly of gypsies. These nomads have a legit claim dating back 80 years. However, Seamus and the other “gents” planted recent roots – families, farms, and budding commerce – in this disputed ground, so a fierce clash might be the only answer to drive back the travelers’ petition.
In the cruelest terms, Seamus and his gentlemen double as violent sadists in an unspeakable response, but their lawless cruelty won’t go unpunished. Not immediately. However, the villagers are now cursed and soon to be afflicted – through paranormal channels – with sick transformations and bloodshed.
“The Cursed” is a werewolf movie, one with almost a half-dozen curious bents, and let’s mention a couple but not all of them.
The werewolves do not turn solely at nightfall or during a full moon, and they cannot change back and forth from human to wolf (and wolf to human) at will.
There is no choice here.
Once a creature of the day or night, you stay in that form. On the positive side, the new predators aren’t ripping up their attires after repeatedly metamorphosing into freakish ruffians every evening or during specific lunar cycles. They aren’t dropping precious francs on new wardrobes, so hey, they can save up for trips to the butcher shop! Okay, these killers aren’t asking permission to eat, as they take swift, vicious steps to garner their meals.
The beasts also don’t resemble traditional wolves, as they have a lizard-like appearance. In fact, one survivor refers to one as a dragon.
Ellis has a few other distinctive tricks that should be saved for your viewing experience, but make no mistake, he includes some creepy, sicko treats.
Although “The Cursed” splatters specific moments of gruesome gore, it’s a film built on suspense and intrigue. The script calls for many minutes inside the Laurent Estate, as creaks, squeaks, and scrapes that go bump in the night (and day) give us pause, as we partially shut our eyes and wince for fear of what will creep around the corner. Experienced horror movie fans have felt these familiar rhythms hundreds of times, but these four-legged threats have unpredictable, unsettling airs.
Broadly speaking, the film is a mystery to the locals, not to the audience. We witness the genesis of this menace, and townsfolk must play catch-up. In that sense, the film doesn’t keep us guessing. We become voyeurs to their discovery, and the elders – quite frankly – aren’t sympathetic in the slightest, but their wives and children are. The women and kids – along with the aforementioned, harmless wanderers – are the unfortunate victims here. Hence, the script provides morsels of comeuppance for the initial perpetrators and compassion with the rest.
McBride, a pathologist by trade, is the most compelling character because Ellis feeds his backstory throughout the picture – bit by bit – as we discover his distinctive know-how and mettle. Is John only one step ahead of the villagers, or has he already climbed the entire staircase? Either way, he’s the sole best bet into righting wrongs here, or in a more practical sense, saving lives.
With Holbrook and a more-than-capable cast – including Petrie, Nigel Betts, Roxane Duran, the always reliable Kelly Reilly, and two child actors Amelia Crouch and Max Mackintosh – “The Cursed” delivers a strange and spooky horror film, one that emphasizes a morality tale rather than a creature feature.
Ellis also features significant layers to his 113-minute lore. Add pieces of silver – with an infinitely sorted history – that play THE key trigger into the gypsies’ revenge, a surprising pair of narrative bookends, and a solemn saga of lineage, and “The Cursed” effectively conjures up a cinematic hex.
⭐⭐⭐ out of ⭐⭐⭐⭐
Written and directed by: Sean Ellis
Starring: Boyd Holbrook, Alistair Petrie, Nigel Betts, Roxane Duran, Kelly Reilly, Amelia Crouch, and Max Mackintosh
Runtime: 113 minutes
Image credits: LD Entertainment