Tuesday, October 04, 2022

Sins of the Fathers

"Henry, your sovereign, Is prisoner to the foe; his state usurp'd, His realm a slaughter-house, his subjects slain, His statutes cancell'd, and his treasure spent; And yonder is the wolf that makes this spoil" -- William Shakespeare, Henry VI part III

The Cursed (2021, directed by Sean Ellis) is a full-bore Gothic that seems more critical of wealth and power than is usual for the genre. I mean, speaking truth to power is baked into the form even going back to its earliest days, but rarely are Gothic works so explicit and up front with the sins that motivate their plots. Unlike more traditional Gothics, it doesn't conceal its sins behind a veil of plot. It is an inheritor of films like The Fog and The Nightingale in which the villains and their sins are laid bare. It turns the xenophobia of so much of the genre on its head, and shows us the true face of evil: rich white men protecting their stolen wealth from the peoples they stole it from. As such, this is a fantasy, because the villains in this movie get their just deserts. Maybe I'm just being cynical.

The story opens at the Battle of the Somme in World War I, where a platoon of soldiers is about to go over the top during a mustard gas attack to assault a German trench. The casualties are horrendous and in the aftermath at the field hospital the officer who led the attack lies on a table as the medics pull bullets out of his body. There are three bullet holes, but the doctor removing the bullets finds a fourth bullet: not German and made of silver. Thirty years earlier, a Romani caravan arrives on an estate in rural France, where they have a historical claim on part of the lands ruled over by the local gentry. The local gentry for their part are unwilling to part with even one square foot of their land to Romani, and when their offer of a financial settlement is refused, they use the money to hire mercenaries to forcibly evict them. The mercenaries, under the baleful eye of lord of the manor, Seamus Laurent, go a good deal further than simply "evicting" them, instead visiting massacre upon them and burying them in a mass grave. Only two "escape" the massacre, both of them captured by the mercs. The chieftain is hung up on a cross and made to look like a scarecrow, an example and dire warning to others. The witch woman is buried alive with her talisman of silver teeth set in the jaws of a human skull in her arms. She curses those responsible for the massacre. Soon, the children of the settlement begin dreaming of the scarecrow and the silver teeth. A band of children, against the orders of their elders, find the site of the massacre and dig up the earth at the base of the scarecrow and find the teeth. One of the children puts the teeth in his mouth and bites Edward, the son of Seamus Laurent. Later that night, Edward vanishes. During the search for Edward (or his body), other townsfolk are attacked by an unseen animal. This is all familiar to pathologist James McBride, who saw a similar course of events in the province of Gévaudan. He is invited to investigate, whereupon he discovers that the beast in this case has a definite agenda...

This movie is an excellent example of a film set in horror movie land. It's a completely ahistorical piece that mixes and matches its images from wildly different eras while providing a baffling sense of where it even takes place. The opening of the film has a startling specificity. The Battle of the Somme is fixed in both time and location. So too is the horror of that battle, which the filmmakers detail with remarkable historical precision. The mustard gas attack that starts the film carries with it a remarkable sense of impending doom, one punctuated by the sequence's final image of gas-masked German gunners opening up with a machine gun. The scenes at the hospital with their in-progress amputations and screams of the dying begin the story proper with a flourish of revolting images. When the movie recedes a bit in time, it becomes a problem. The movie is maybe set in France? Or somewhere in the UK? A name like "Seamus Laurent" suggests both Ireland and France, while the presence of Kelly Reilly as the lady of the manor tends to place the film in Ireland. It was shot in France, though. The subplot of James McBride's vendetta against the Beast of Gévaudan further unmoors the film, given that the film is set roughly in the 1880s while the Beast rampaged through Gévaudan in the 1760s, a hundred and twenty years earlier. The social structures seem off for the 1880s, too, but the attitude toward the Romani was certainly current in the 1880s. So, fine. This isn't a real place. It's a time and place of the Gothic imagination rather than something to be found on a map and a calendar, although some gestures toward the real world exist. A lot of Gothic stories are set here. In truth, the specifics of the World War I scenes are more horrific than most of the Gothic scenes which follow.

The massacre of the Romani early in the film points an accusing finger at the values of moneyed European conservatives, both in the film's universe and in our own. The Romani people were targeted for extermination by the forces of fascism in Europe in the first part of the 20th Century, so as outrageous as this sequence is it's of a piece with the persistent bigotries of the Europeans of the day. If this film is truly set in the 1880s, then it is contemporaneous with the atrocities in the Belgian Congo and the genocidal conquest of Tasmania. The murder of Romani on European soil is indicative of a broader political sickness across the globe, perpetrated mostly by white men under the flag of queen and country, and of capitalism. This political sickness persists to this day, redressed as hostility to "illegal" immigrants. It has been said that magic is the last weapon of the oppressed, and so it is here. All of the imagery associated with the actual curse--save for the film's monster--are familiar tropes from various folk horror movies. The idea that the silver teeth are made from the coins given to Judas Iscariot underlines the sense of betrayal, but also one that ties to the werewolf myth. It's not a new idea, having cropped up in vampire fiction and movies before, but it works here, too. The emphasis on land and on something visiting terror on white civilization from within the Earth has echoes across the genre. This film's revenant scarecrow is a more frightening figure than the werewolves that are the story's primary threat. These scenes have an oneiric quality that's absent when it turns more practical in the last act.

This has handsome production values, shot with a relentless gloom on 35mm rather than digitally, though there has obviously been a lot of noodling with color in post-production. The actors are mostly very good, even the kid actors, with a particular nod to Alistair Petrie's performance as the reptilian Seamus Laurent. Kelly Reilly is mostly wasted until the end of the film, while Boyd Holbrook is fine as McBride. The film is edited faster than I would expect from a period piece, obviously cut for pace rather than clarity. Clarity would be a complete disaster once the film's monster comes on screen. The monster is the weak link. It's not a traditional werewolf, but rather some accommodation to the fact that realistic fur would be expensive. The beast is never described as a werewolf in the film--one character even describes it as a "dragon"--but the mythology screams werewolf and the filmmakers aren't kidding anyone. When they eventually bag the monster--not the main monster, but one that was bitten by the main monster--they give the audience a good look while the characters perform an autopsy. This might be a mistake, even if the scene itself is an homage to the dog autopsy in The Thing.

When the film is playing in the folk horror sandbox, it's compelling. It might be the best "scarecrow" film I've ever seen and it might have been wise to center the scarecrow as its monster. Once it becomes a werewolf movie in the second half, it loses some of its coherence. When it eventually comes back to its opening scenes as an epilogue, it seems jumbled and unsatisfying. The filmmakers have constructed the film in a tidy circle, but the end of the film inspires more questions than it answers.

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