The Cursed

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A lot of the most innovative and interesting horror is coming from the independent world. The Cursed is the latest example of that. The movie marries an ambitious story with a pervasive mood of dread. It's become a cliché to say that something “gets under your skin,” although that's certainly true in this case. With every minute that goes by, the ominousness grows, to the point where you nervously wait to see when and how the plot's events are going to explode. This isn't a picture for people who want easily-digestible, Hollywood studio horror. If you liked Robert Eggers' The Witch, though, prepare to have your nerves frayed.

After a brief prologue set during WWI, the setting shifts to the late 1800s. A group of land barons, led by Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie), run a group of Romani off land that rightly belongs to their people. He and his cohorts slaughter the majority of them in the process. One of the women vows revenge in the form of a curse. Soon after, the village's children all begin having the same nightmare involving a silver fanged mouthpiece buried at the base of a creepy old scarecrow out in the middle of that land. When one of the kids is bitten with those fangs and another disappears, visiting pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) is asked to look into the gruesome occurrences.

The most disturbing idea in The Cursed is that to make someone pay, you have to go after their children. Kids aren't the only ones who meet gruesome fates, but the notion that the curse would impact them is harrowing. Adults in the movie start dying in a manner that suggests wolf attack. Blood and gore are pervasive here. Director Sean Ellis isn't being gratuitous, though. Running underneath the story is the theme of “an eye for an eye.” What Seamus does to the Romani is unfathomably vicious; the curse is merely doing to him what he did to them. Because he showed no mercy, he is shown none in return. That will be a tough idea for some viewers to swallow. Those with a strong constitution will appreciate the film's exploration of vengeance.

In between the shocking sequences of violence, Ellis focuses on building a sense of impending doom. I was reminded of Ridley Scott's classic Alien, where you knew something bad was coming, and then it didn't for the longest time, and then suddenly it did, to jolt-inducing effect. The Cursed does something similar. Dark, atmospheric cinematography combines with moody sound design and appropriately panicky performances from the actors to keep you on edge throughout. There are no moments where you can rest.

Adding to that is the dynamic between Seamus and McBride. The former keeps thinking something can be done; the latter keeps trying to get him to comprehend that everyone is screwed. Petrie and Holbrook are both good portraying different sides of the same coin – denial and reality. Kelly Reilly offers strong supporting work as Seamus' wife Isabelle, who appears to realize that a bad situation is rapidly getting worse and worse.

The Cursed becomes a full-on monster movie during its climax. CGI creatures tend to be less terrifying than the suggestions of what they do, or seeing the aftermath of their attacks. That's true here, even if the story does build honestly toward its finale. Slow-burn horror is hard to pull off, but Sean Ellis does it well. Terror looms for a long time. When all hell finally breaks loose, it's a legitimately unnerving sight to behold.

out of four

The Cursed is rated R for strong graphic violence. The running time is 1 hour and 52 minutes.