Grabbing a page from the Robert Eggars playbook, Sean Ellis creates a masterfully shot and paced horror film. The Cursed is expertly crafted in its mise en scène to make it stand above other gothic period pieces. The authenticity of rural 19th century France complements the exceptional production design by Pascal Le Guellec and Thierry Zemmour.
The Cursed is a monster movie that feels nothing like one. The story opens with World War I, where a battalion is gassed. We then cut to a hospital room where the limbs of injured men are hacked off. The camera shifts its focus on one particular soldier with bullets being removed from his body. The final bullet isn’t a German one, but something much odder.
Next, we cut to a small town whose residents are brutalized, murdered, and taken by force—an event that doesn’t go unpunished. The past comes to haunt the entire village for its evil. The victims in the film can be anyone. Men, women, children, it doesn’t matter. That’s how horror should be, unpredictable. Too often, we know the children will live. Knowing they can and probably will die makes everything more terrifying. The plot follows the path of a family in this town. When the Lorrent’s youngest member, Edward (Max Mackintosh), goes missing, detective John McBride (Boyd Holdbrook) takes it upon himself to find the child.
Although the immediate horror rests in the guts of the film’s victims, the absolute terror stems from societal collapse. The father/husband of the Laurent family, Seamus (Alistair Petrie), is a wise, cold man whose poker face can’t hide his secrets for long. McBride is a detective whose past brings him closer to the family he’s trying to protect. The relationships between the characters evolve as more secrets are confessed throughout the narrative. The curse unleashed on the town stems from the natives it destroyed. Like America, this unnamed French village is founded upon those who took it for themselves. The houses built are made thanks to the spilled blood of civilians trying to maintain a community. Humanities tribalism leads to its downfall.
For their wickedness, a furless beast is unleashed on the town to consume every inhabitant there. Man must repent for his sins, as no sin shall go unpunished. When retribution is sought, the gore fills the screen like candy. Blood, bones, and guts are plentiful. Sean Ellis depicts such violence to emphasize the pain man inflicts on others. To cut or look away from it would be a disservice in honoring those who died in their native by the hands of the wretched.
The Cursed is close to being an anti-violence picture depicting helpless victims being murdered, followed by the non-sanctimonious consumption of its victimizers. Rather than celebrating their demise as we do with a Tarantino revenge film, there’s nothing celebratory about anyone dying in this story, no matter how heinous the individual is. Violence is unnatural and is depicted as so. We give birth towards manslaughter, unaware of the karma it will bring. Through that birth, we deliver a monster that will kill us all.
The pacing is top-notch. Each act places a piece of the narrative’s puzzle together without feeling confusing or disjointed. Little trinkets or plants in the script are inserted that don’t feel obvious. Ellis focuses on minimalism. Operating the camera himself, Sean Ellis photographs a stunning image. Shooting in primarily natural light with only a few extra bulbs added for contrast, Ellis’ 19th century France feels lived in. Additionally, the color data is minimally tampered with to capture a close to pure image of a pre-electric world.
Mr. Ellis doesn’t settle for a simple master to over-the-shoulder setup. Instead, the frame often breaks the rule of thirds intentionally to emphasize the uneasiness each character is feeling. At times Ellis does get sloppy. During sequences where the beast is eating its prey, the camera is removed from the tripod and shaken intentionally to capture the intensity of the act. Suffice it to say, those moments feel more dull, even cheap, than exhilarating, robbing me of some of the terror. Another issue is the design of the beast itself. Going with an all C.G. character in a moderately budgeted film doesn’t yield the most convincing results. Thankfully we don’t see much of the monster himself nor the cheesy shaky-cam moments very often.
A well-photographed image can only take a film so far. The sound design, like the cinematography, opts for less is more. Long stretches of silence puts the audience on edge while Robin Foster’s score creeps up with simple, recognizable strings playing the film’s theme like its background noise. From the sounds of horses galloping to boots loudly thudding on the wooden floors of the Laurent estate, the auditory world of a time now gone, is hauntingly conceptualized.
The Cursed is a horror film unlike many others. It’s one with something to say about humanity’s affinity for bloodlust. We reap what we sow and shall continue to do so until we all meet our imminent demise. No act in The Cursed feels sluggish nor rushed. Sean Ellis takes his time, allowing the film’s atmosphere to soak over the crowd before drenching them in red liquid. I can’t recommend a better movie that can not only give you a hell of a fright but something to think about upon exiting the theatre.
The Cursed opens in theaters on February 18