Review: ‘The Cursed’ is a serious, bold and artful werewolf movie

A man holding a torch walks in front of a woman through spindly woods.
Boyd Holbrook in a scene from the 2021 horror drama “The Cursed.”
(LD Entertainment)

A unique take on werewolf folk tales, the arty monster movie “The Cursed” journeys to late 19th century Europe for a story that ties a persistent evil to the enduring stain of bigotry. A true auteur project for genre-hopping filmmaker Sean Ellis — who wrote, directed, co-produced and serves as the cinematographer — this period piece is slow-paced yet peppered with enough gory attacks and smartly staged scare sequences to appeal to horror connoisseurs.

Boyd Holbrook stars as John McBride, a pathologist who lost his family to a werewolf outbreak years ago. When he hears about a similar-sounding wave of humans turning into beasts at a French country estate run by the aristocratic Laurent family, McBride arrives to investigate … only to discover the Laurents aren’t exactly innocent victims.

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Ellis makes some bold choices with “The Cursed,” beginning with his opening scene set on a World War I battlefield. The death of a soldier — and the ominous retrieval of a silver bullet from his body — cues a flashback to decades earlier and the childhood of two privileged siblings living with their sour, lordly father, Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie), and their meek, sweet-natured mother, Isabelle (Kelly Reilly).

The trouble starts for the Laurents when Seamus and his peers hire a band of goons to slaughter the inhabitants of a Romany encampment on their lands. Ellis shoots the chilling scene in one long take, from a distance. Not long after, the elite’s children — beginning with the Laurents’ son Edward — start going missing, just as some locals turn up dead.

“The Cursed” features some superior body-horror moments, including one involving a particularly deadly set of metal dentures and another in which McBride cuts a mid-transformation werewolf victim out of a throbbing membrane. On the whole though, this is a fairly sedate and serious film, low on pulp thrills.

But it is engaging, thanks to the way Ellis captures its era: not just through striking low-light images but also through a pervasive sense of menace. In addition to the community’s werewolf problem, it’s also enduring a cholera epidemic and dealing with challenges to the old class system.

As problems mount, people like the Laurents keep making rash, shortsighted choices — and as “The Cursed” makes clear from the start, those kinds of mistakes can echo across generations.

'The Cursed'

Rating: R, for strong violence, grisly images and brief nudity

Running time: 1 hour, 55 minutes

Playing: In general release Feb. 18