A Masterpiece of Old School Horror: The Cursed

A Masterpiece of Old School Horror: The Cursed

My son Tim and I went to the movies yesterday, as we do most Saturday nights. I wanted to see Tom Holland’s Uncharted, but the crowds were a little daunting, so instead we opted for a low-budget horror film that neither of us knew anything about: The Cursed. We settled into a virtually empty theater with a bucket of popcorn and no expectations.

Turned out to be a splendid choice. I doubt The Cursed will get much attention, as it was released with a virtually non-existent marketing budget — and I don’t expect a larger one would have done much good anyway, as it’s a claustrophobic little tale with few of the things modern horror fans seem to care about.

But those who love classic horror? Ah, that’s a completely different story. The Cursed is positively packed with all the delicious ingredients of top-notch vintage horror: a terrifying monster, a torch-wielding mob, a gypsy curse, a village with ghastly secrets, mist-covered countryside, a (very) creepy scarecrow, a monster-hunter with a tortured past, sinister clergy, wide-eyed children who stumble on things they shouldn’t, and a whole lot more.

Boyd Holbrook as the diligent monster-hunter in The Cursed

The Cursed is the fourth outing from writer-director Sean Ellis, whose most recent production was Anthropoid, the 2016 thriller about the Czech assassination of infamous Nazi Reinhard Heydrich. It’s set in… uh, you know, I’m not really sure? The English countryside? Rural France? Luxemburg? A brief opening segment sets up the action as a man identified only as The Captain makes his way through the trenches at dawn before the Battle of the Somme in July 1916, and if I’d paid a little more attention to the brand of epaulet on his shoulder I could probably tell you.

But then he gets shot, field docs struggling to save him yank an ancient silver bullet out of his chest, everyone exchanges startled looks, and suddenly the narrative leaps back 35 years to 1881, and we settle in for an extensive flashback that comprises the bulk of the story.

Ellis gets things underway quickly once the preliminaries are out of the way, and that’s as it should be. In a dark room in a sprawling manor, a bunch of village elders gather to discuss the small band of Romani (here referred to as gypsies) squatting on a valuable piece of local real estate. The Elders stand to lose a sizeable investment if things continue, and so dark events are set in motion.

Nothing good comes from scarecrows in horror movies, and The Cursed in no exception

This is a horror movie, and the next 100 minutes or so are destined to be filled with the gruesome payload of a diabolical (and refreshingly original) curse, but there is no supernatural horror that eclipses the next few minutes, as a band of cold-blooded mercenaries efficiently slaughters every man, woman, and child in the Romani camp. The camera doesn’t flinch, and Ellis captures the proceedings with a chillingly-effective long-range single take of the moments the mercenaries arrive in the camp and begin the slaughter.

As the last surviving male has his hands and legs cut off and is hoisted in the field to serve as a scarecrow, an old Romani woman clutching a small box is buried alive while shouting dire warnings. The die is cast, the curse is laid, and all we’re left is the cold conviction of veteran horror moviegoers: That coming events — bloody and twisted as they’ll surely be — are as inescapable as they are richly deserved.

It doesn’t take long. Within a few weeks, every child in the village begins to experience the same dream: A field, a scarecrow, and a small box filled with silver. Soon enough the children gather in the field, one of them dares another to dig up the box, and without any further spoilers, we’ll just say that that’s where the curse really begins to gather steam. Before long a terrifying creature is stalking the fog-covered hills surrounding the village, and everyone bitten by the thing experiences a horrifying transformation at night.

Every good horror movie should have at least one torch-wielding mob

The advertising for The Cursed (what little there is of it) strongly implies it’s a werewolf film, but it that puts you off, don’t let it. While the setting and tone for this film are decidedly old-school, with more in common with Hammer films than Wes Craven, the creature is much more original. Think The Thing, rather than The Wolf Man.

While the creature effects are fairly minimalistic (and one area where the low budget is sadly more noticeable), the creature’s on-screen appearances are chillingly effective, largely due to Sean Ellis’ skill with the camera, and his disciple in hiding the film’s few twists until they’re most impactful.

While many of the characters are children, and the film follows their adventures (separately and in groups) for long periods, I want to be clear this isn’t a kid’s movie. There are brutal murders, and the monster attacks are gory and over the top, with a very high body count. As one of the children observes, “We will all pay for the sins of our elders.” If you’re looking for the lede for your Summer Movie report, that’s it right there.

In a fair world, The Cursed would experience a lengthy theatrical run and spawn an entire sub-genre of re-imaginings of 50s classics. Based on the crowd I saw at the Saturday night showing, I think that’s sadly unlikely.

If you’d like to see it — and I urge you to, especially if you’re a fan of old school horror — I suggest you do so while it’s still in theaters. You should probably do that quickly.

The Cursed was written and directed by Sean Ellis and produced and distributed by LD Entertainment. It premiered at the 2021 Sundance Film Festival under the title Eight for Silver, but was retitled for wide release. It stars Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Alistair Petrie, and Roxane Duran, and runs one hour, 51 minutes.

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Joe H.

Sounds like it’s set in Universal Hammerland.

I’ll have to add this one to my list.

Steve A Oerkfitz

I have seen other positive reviews. As for Uncharted, it’s terrible. I would give it a D+ at best.

Duane

That looks awesome. I think the last true horror movies I saw in a theater were ALIEN and THE HOWLING.

James McGlothlin

Just streamed this last night, on your recommendation. Excellent! Creepy, intense, and surprising. Great acting too! Thanks for the recommendation.

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