Wes Craven's Cursed (Uncensored) Review
“Beware the moon!”
Werewolves, like their immortal brethren vampires, are rooted so deeply in pop-culture; so deep in fact, that cinema is never far from their grasp. Unfortunately, recent times have seen a slump in the sub-genre, and the brilliant Dog Soldiers aside, there hasn’t been a decent werewolf picture for years. Make that decades. John Landis pumped a great deal of irreverence and creativity into An American Werewolf in London - a classic which raised the bar for all subsequent efforts. Its mixture of grim humour and startling gore was a winning combination. Therefore, filmmakers have seen fit to “borrow” the formula, with varying degrees of success. No matter what, the main ingredients are usually the same; established by The Wolf Man back in 1941. Full moons, bloody murders, transformations, and silver-coated bullets are all part of the fun (the latter is supposedly the beast’s Achilles heel, though I’ve never understood why).
Now comes Cursed, a werewolf picture that offers little innovation. In fact, few things have changed since Lon Chaney’s bad hair day. Here, we follow Ellie (Christian Ricci) and her younger brother Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg), who get involved in a car crash after hitting an animal on Mulholland Drive. They rush to the aid of the other driver (Shannon Elizabeth), but they can only stand by and watch, as she is viciously mauled by a large wolf-like creature. They too, are injured in the attack. Life goes on, but the pair begin to adopt superhuman instincts. Jimmy theorises that they were attacked by a werewolf, and the evidence soon stacks up. With full moons on the horizon, and “Happy Meals with Legs” strolling about Hollywood, the pair become increasingly worried. If they can find their attacker, and sever the bloodline, their lives might return to normal...
Produced by Dimension Films, Cursed was supposed to be the eagerly-awaited reunion between Wes Craven and screenwriter Kevin Williamson. Their collaboration on Scream had produced a modern genre classic, which some horror fans have grown to hate - a rather mean fate, considering how fresh and subversive it was in 1996. It was a well-crafted and entertaining brew, reviving the genre, and making plenty of money for its distributor. Therefore, it’s hardly surprising that Dimension gave them the green-light to craft their own take on the werewolf formula. They probably expected a clever re-jiggering of monster movie clichés, but the eventual film is nothing more than a shallow rehash of better films; a hollow homage with little of the panache that gave Scream its vibrancy.
Of course, we should be happy that we got the film at all...
Cursed is best known for its chaotic production - a story that puts the shambolic finished product in perspective. It’s also a great cautionary tale about making horror pictures in the studio domain; something that has caused Craven heartache more than once. It seemed to start off so well, but it soon went to hell. The studio (read: the Weinstein’s) were displeased with the initial footage, and ordered a slew of re-shoots; which happened to be around 90% of the feature. Williamson hastily scribbled up new pages, which changed the plot drastically. This meant that certain characters hit the cutting room floor (including 80’s “legend” Corey Feldman), while other actors quit the project after their roles were changed so much (like Scream star Skeet Ulrich). The reshoots also forced creature effects genius Rick Baker to storm off the set. It was he who did the bravura make-up designs in American Werewolf, but for Cursed, most of the work was completed by old-reliable Greg Nicotero. Through it all, Craven was able to use his three decades of experience, and craft a highly flawed, but enjoyable film.
Yes, that’s correct - I did find Cursed enjoyable. No way does it come close to matching the best of Craven’s work, but it’s pretty far from his worst too. The dire monster mash Swamp Thing probably takes that honour (and people thought the creature in Cursed looks fake!). The problems with this film are mostly on a narrative level; there’s no imagination here. Many have called Williamson a hack, though I’ve been reluctant to agree until recently. His story for Cursed has been done to death. At least Scream took a very familiar story, and tweaked the formula to surprise the audience. This is simply predictable. One could argue that it’s an excuse to reference the werewolf films of times gone by - there’s rarely a scene that doesn’t include a sly nod to a classic.
A perfect example would be the fictional club owned by Joshua Jackson’s “red herring” boyfriend. He takes Ellie on a tour early in the film - a horror-themed club, with waxworks and set replicas. And, as you’d expect, “The Wolf Man” lingers in the background. The actors seem to get into the silly atmosphere quite well. Ricci is above material like this. In fact, it’s a little disheartening to see her selling-out, but her reputation remains more or less intact. The scenes where she begins to take on werewolf attributes are a great deal of fun; especially the sequence in which she sniffs around her office, only to find a colleague with a bloody nose (shades of Mike Nichol’s Wolf). Eisenberg is also a dab hand at these scenes. He’s stuck with the “geek becomes cool” stereotype, but he provides a few half-hearted laughs. One segment has him taking on the school bully in a session of wrestling; hurling him through the air to the crowd’s applause. Perhaps it was just me, but I got a major Teen Wolf vibe from this display. *Shudder* Audiences might also notice Portia de Rossi, and Smallville’s Michael Rosenbaum; who has quite the diabolical wig.
Unfortunately, the screenplay doesn’t fully harness the werewolf-as-puberty metaphor, and goes off on a tangent. The last act is poorly-scripted to say the least, as Williamson tries in vain to excite the audience, and tie up those loose ends. The search for the werewolf is dragged out, and not terribly involving. We want to see Ellie and Jimmy spout teeth and claws, but apart from some feral activity in the conclusion, we never get to see it. Yes, the expected werewolf smackdown is absent - one of Cursed’s more disappointing oversights. While the “story” slowly grinds to a boring chug, I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to liking the first half; with Craven on fine form during the stalk n’ kill sequences. The best of these is the parking lot attack, in which singer Mya is hunted by the beast. It’s the only segment of Cursed that raises the heart-rate a notch. But the film is never scary - the fear factor is seriously diluted. Even this “Uncensored” cut fails to cause butterflies (but more on that in a moment).
So, what of the werewolf? It’s both convincing and utterly ridiculous depending on the scene. Stunt performer Derek Mears was on hand to get into the wolf suit, for some great close-ups, but much of the action is clearly CGI. The latter is quite poor, and the transformation fails to live up to the landmark metamorphosis in American Werewolf. It also fails to convince as a killing machine, and you haven’t seen everything until you see a werewolf give someone the finger! Yet, on a technical level, Craven’s picture has a lot to recommend it. Cursed works best as mindless eye candy, and Craven has developed a deft visual touch over the years. It’s light, breezy, and very silly. A comedy/horror that is deeply flawed, but not the total disaster some led you to believe. I haven’t given up on Wes yet...
* Note: This review refers to the Canadian release of the film.
After the critical backlash, poor box office returns, and fan whimpering, we finally get an “Uncensored” Cursed DVD, to help reassess Craven’s flop. Those who loathed the film upon its release won’t take too kindly to the “new” cut, but for collectors, it’s probably the one to get. Still, gore-hounds are likely to feel twangs of gut-churning disappointment - the bloody cut is still pretty tame.
So, what does the “Uncensored” version contain?
-- The death of Shannon Elizabeth is longer, and much more sadistic; as her torn body tries to crawl across the floor, before dying a slow and painful death. It’s easily the films only real “shock scene”, so it’s good to have it retained. Sadly, there’s no more flattering cleavage shots.
-- The dream sequence with Ricci and Jackson is a little gorier; as Ricci takes a bite from his neck, followed by an upward-stream of claret. Imagine the blood erupting from Johnny Depp’s bed in A Nightmare on Elm Street, and you should have a pretty good idea of the effect on show here...
-- After killing Mr. Rosenbaum, Judy Greer’s hungry werewolf decides to taste his guts. Yum! But it’s not as barf-worthy as you hope.
-- The death of Jackson is much better in this cut, with a cool
decapitation-by-shovel. At least you can tell what’s going on this time.
So, does the extra footage make Cursed a better film? Yes and no. The added gore gives the scenes an added punch, but it doesn’t make the film any more enjoyable. Unfortunately, we’ll never get to see Craven’s original cut, before Miramax got scissor-happy. Sad, but true.
The Look and Sound
Despite the films failure, Alliance Atlantis still provide audiences with an excellent transfer, which presents the film in admirable fashion. The anamorphic widescreen (2.40:1) picture is pretty impressive; with rock-solid blacks and strong colours. Detail is also very high, making Robert McLachlan’s photography really stand-out. Faults are minimal (some edge enhancement and haloes), but it’s pretty much a reference-quality job.
For audio, we get a Dolby Digital 5.1 mix, and it matches the video for overall quality. It’s a clear track, and LOUD too. The film opens with a rig-thumping Bowling for Soup track, and rarely quietens down. Still, this is probably a good thing; making Cursed seem more exciting than it actually is. Directional sound effects are above-average, with some “jumpy” design work. Yet, the track did bug me on occasion. The rousing score by genre-regular Marco Beltrami often overpowers the whole enterprise, and some dialogue is lost in the din. That said, it’s doubtful any fans of the film will complain.
The featurettes on offer here are much better than I expected, yet they also fail in one crucial area - they gloss-over the problems that plagued the production. The cast and crew probably have hundreds of tales about the doomed shoot, which we’ll never get to hear (well, probably). Instead, it’s a mixture of typical EPK-fluff, and genuine technical insight. Unfortunately, an audio commentary by Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson (which was hinted at in early news reports), is absent. Despite this, the featurettes are watchable.
“Behind the Fangs: The Making of Cursed” doesn’t really get into the nitty-gritty at all, and only offers a montage of talking heads. Among them, is Christina Ricci, Jesse Eisenberg, and Joshua Jackson; who put on a brave face for the camera, and seem to be enjoying themselves. This is only notable for the behind-the-scenes footage (with Craven directing the actors), which punctuates this relatively short vignette.
“The Cursed Effects” is better. Here, we have the brilliant Greg Nicotero, actress Judy Greer and werewolf thesp Derek Mears, who discuss the make-up and effects process. We get to see the make-up being applied, Nicotero sprinkling the set with blood, and Mears strolling the set in wolf regalia. There are some fun facts given, yet it’s still pretty light on actual content. Plus, they fail to mention Rick Baker’s work, and his dismissal of the project.
“Creature Editing 101” is hosted by editor Patrick Lussier, who actually bothers to mention the studio-enforced cuts that the film suffered. Again, there’s a fair bit of glossing-over the truth, but he seems like a genuine guy. He discusses the editing process well, and documents what Craven wanted from the films pacing. “Becoming a Werewolf” by contrast, is useless. It’s an excuse for Eisenberg to prat around, as he becomes a mythical beast with help from Nicotero. He tries hard to make us laugh, but little of the humour sticks. Craven pops-up at one point, and is clearly embarrassed. Depressing, indeed.
The last supplement is easily the best. Nicotero and Mears sit down for a technical commentary on four scenes - Car Wreck/Becky Dies, Tinsel, Parking Garage and Final Flight. They offer their thoughts on the footage, pointing-out the practical effects and CGI work (which is actually pretty blatant). Still, it’s amusing to hear Nicotero make fun of the computer boffins and their work. Those interested in effects work might enjoy this.
You’ll also find trailers for Sin City, Hostage and Scary Movie 3.5.
The Bottom Line
There’s no doubt about it - Cursed is a colossal missed opportunity. It could have been so much more, but it’s not the failure some have stated. It’s an enjoyable diversion, and this “gorier” cut enlivens the experience a little. The DVD is no kick in the teeth either, with a great transfer for Craven-completists to appreciate. Let’s hope that the director can reclaim his midas touch for the up-coming Red Eye, and put this affair behind him...