‘The Cursed’: A New Moon Rising for Werewolf Movies

The period horror film from Sean Ellis wants to change the game for lycans—for starters, it gives them a shave

The Cursed Courtesy of Sundance Institute

The werewolf has been a staple of creature horror since Universal’s classic horror film The Wolf Man in 1941, which established many of the tropes of the genre, from the gypsy curse that starts it all, to the look and behavior of the wolf itself. Even after 80 years, few werewolf movies have dared stray away from the path carved by the Lon Chaney Jr.-starrer. One of the movies trying to do something different is Sean Ellis’ latest period horror film, The Cursed, which throws away much of what you’ve come to expect from and instead howls at a new moon.

It all starts with a set of silver teeth (later melted to be bullets) that give the film its title. It’s the late 19th century, in the middle of a pandemic, and a landowner brutally massacres a Roma encampment whose people have claim to his land, with the last victim cursing the place. Days later, the kids from the area start having nightmares about the set of teeth, and one gets bitten. Though that kid isn’t seen again, reports begin pouring in about huge beasts attacking the townsfolk. 

Right from the start Ellis plays with our existing knowledge of werewolf stories, subverting our expectations. The silver teeth, which here cause the werewolf curse and have the power to end it, are not some random artifact; they are connected to the 30 pieces of silver paid to Judas. When Ellis spoke with Observer shortly after the film’s world premiere at the 2021 Sundance film festival, he explained he wanted to ground the film by mixing its fiction with facts or beliefs from outside its genre. The film’s opening scene is set during the Battle of the Somme in WWI, and much of the plot is inspired by the true story of the Beast of Gévaudan, in which an 18th century French town was terrorized by an unknown beast and dozens died (also the inspiration for the 2001 French film Brotherhood of the Wolf).

Like the best horror movies, Ellis hides the creature for most of the film, only teasing the bare minimum, just enough to make it clear to the audience that this is nothing like Lon Chaney Jr.’s lupine beast—it’s hairless, for a start. For Ellis, it was important that his beast felt different from Rick Baker’s titular monster in An American Werewolf in London, which won the first-ever Academy Award for Best Makeup. “One of the first things I said was that it shouldn’t be hairy, and it shouldn’t walk on two legs,” Ellis explained. “We wanted it to walk on all fours, and to look more like a cross between a wolf and a shark.” 

The result is something a bit more alien, with enough lupine features to still manage to fit the werewolf legend and narrative. For most of The Cursed, the creature also looks to be a practical effect, but the more we see, the more CG-heavy it seems. Turns out, the film added digital effects late in production. “We had three practical beasts on set, and we had an attack beast that was a guy in a suit on a wheelbarrow that moved the legs,” Ellis said. “And then we had another beast that was completely animatronic, with facial expressions and everything, and another rubber beast to throw at the actors.” 

When the production took a break, Ellis and his team looked at what they already had to fix any mistakes while on the go, one of which was the practical beast. “It started to look a bit like a puppet, and I showed it to a few people I know and at one point someone called it a chicken. I think at that point I decided to go back and tweak it with the concept artists, who came up with new drawings that were applied to full-body scans of the wolf that we already show, and we started to insert it more and more.” According to Ellis, the final cut that was shown at Sundance only had “about three or four shots of the practical beast.”

The Cursed also makes a big change to the lycan mythos by never having the landowner himself transform into a wolf; instead his family suffers from his mistakes. Ellis explained his intention was to make a werewolf movie about addiction “and how you become a slave to addiction, a prisoner to it.” Thus the wolf-creatures never transform back into humans; they remain beasts until they get killed. 

But how do the townsfolk realize the beasts are people if they don’t change back? In arguably the best, most gruesome, and most memorable scene in The Cursed, the visiting pathologist/Van Helsing-type (played by Boyd Holbrook) performs an autopsy on a dead beast and in a clever bit of body horror, we see a human corpse emerge from the entrails of the creature. According to Ellis, the entire scene is practical, and judging by the audience response at Sundance, very effective. This scene serves to illustrate Ellis’ metaphor of addiction imprisoning the addicted, and also a very different sort of transformation than something out of An American Werewolf in London. There’s no bones stretching or hair growth, but people being slowly and painfully covered in vines, like a reverse Alien where the xenomorph engulfs the victim and traps them inside its slimy entrails. 

By connecting the silver that creates the wolves to the biblical silver, The Cursed carves its own mythology that feels fresh, even if it still falls into tired tropes about the Roma people. Still, the werewolf transformations themselves are very inventive, tying back to the theme of addiction and how it hurts your loved ones first, and eventually affects the entire community. And that autopsy scene is one hell of a calling card for a filmmaker that dares to do something new with a decades-old story, showing there are still new moons to howl at. 

‘The Cursed’: A New Moon Rising for Werewolf Movies