Declawed, by Reed Lackey

14 Feb

The new film from writer-director Sean Ellis seeks to build upon both a renewed recent interest in folk and historical horror and the classical mythology of the werewolf while delivering a frightening, atmospheric morality nightmare. While its returns on the former efforts are a mixed bag, it firmly delivers on the latter. The Cursed begins in the trenches of the first world war where, after surviving several gunshot wounds, a soldier endures an operation to remove the bullets. However, after a strangely shaped bullet of silver is removed, the story goes back 35 years to its primary narrative of greed, vengeance, and – of course – a curse.

When Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) brutally murders the Romani gypsies who lay claim to land he possesses, his family begin to be tormented by horrific dreams. When a young boy is brutally murdered, they fear a wild animal is to blame, but a pathologist named John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) suspects a more malicious and supernatural explanation, pointing to a powerful curse which defies both brute force and rationality. Many more deaths will accumulate before the ultimate truth – and the connection to the future wounded soldier – is revealed.

The Cursed has a lot to praise when it comes to truly chilling visuals and the tactics of building tension. The creature is well designed and given enough screen time to showcase its menace, but not enough to dilute its impact. Ellis’s visual flair does an effective job of establishing the ominous atmosphere of a gothic folk thriller, though it still sits in the muted color palate that might as well be black-and-white to which so many of its peers are drawn. Some of the most impressive frights in the film involve the visuals of a recurring transformation, unconventional to werewolf stories and genuinely unnerving.

The script and narrative are bit tougher to praise quite so broadly, although Ellis’s instincts around pacing are remarkably strong. The problems arise mostly from balancing the sense of mystery of the events and character’s interpretations of them with the efforts to add new layers to the common lycanthrope mythology. The dialogue too often leans upon direct exposition or characters speaking blandly about tensions which should carry more flavor. Thankfully it is never very long before another authentically suspenseful scene distracts any distaste from the overly talky moments.

Its credibility as a morality nightmare is somewhat uneven, as it is never quite certain whether the story is sympathizing with the Romani victims or exploiting their stereotypes. The film’s very final moments may leave some scratching their heads unnecessarily, owing to an interesting trope subversion that should have perhaps been better established to really pay off. But the climactic horror scene, wherein the survivors of the growing carnage are confined to a church with the beast looming outside, fulfills the promise of a hunting creature story with ease, even while subverting certain elements which were long held as automatic in werewolf stories.

All told, The Cursed is an assured and unsettling fright tale, which delivers real suspense and a rich period atmosphere. I’m uncertain it will connect with those who aren’t already affectionate towards the genre, but fans of gothic, historical horrors – or fans of unconventional werewolf tales – will find a lot to enjoy. 

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