Directed by master horror-maker Wes Craven (2000's "Scream 3
") and written by Kevin Williamson, "Cursed" has faced an uphill battle reaching screens. Originally filmed in 2003, the movie went back into production months later and was extensively retooled and re-shot (with certain major characters being completely cut out and new ones being created). If that wasn't enough trouble, notorious money-grubber (read: Dimension Films chairman) Bob Weinstein took Craven's finished product and insisted on shredding its R-level gore and violence in the name of a kid-friendly PG-13 rating. This sort of story has been recently repeated so often in Hollywood that there is definitely cause for alarm from both genre enthusiasts and just about any other audience who believes in the pure art and vision of cinema over censorship and the almighty dollar. Supernatural pictures may be able to get by on a PG-13; slasher pics and werewolf tales, which "Cursed" falls into the categories of, have no excuse for such materialistic evisceration.
To be fair, the after-effects of the chopping block are not quite as annoying and detrimental as they could have been. Key sequences are less effective and visceral than they should be, and the payoffs to certain stalk-and-slash scenes are akin to sex without orgasms, but the core of "Cursed" appears to have been mostly unharmed. An R-rating and a no-holds-barred attitude toward its lycanthropic spin on the "Scream" trilogy would have easily pushed director Wes Craven's latest into the realm of a big success. As a PG-13, "Cursed" is a lesser, more cowardly effort, and unnecessarily so, but one that still has enough giddy buoyancy and slick thrills to lift above its last-minute studio tinkering.
Twenty-something Ellie (Christina Ricci) and teenage brother Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg) have barely had time to come to terms with their parents' untimely passing when they are involved in a car accident late one night on Hollywood's Mulholland Drive. While attempting to rescue Becky (Shannon Elizabeth), the driver of the other involved car, the siblings watch as she is violently attacked and killed by a hairy creature. They, too, are scratched by the animal, but walk away otherwise unscathed. Almost immediately afterward, however, Ellie and Jimmy realize something isn't right. Jimmy wakes up naked outside the house in the flower bed, while Ellie's senses become heightened. They are, indeed, slowly transforming into werewolves, their only hope of reversing the changes being to kill the source of their infection. Meanwhile, the body count is rising across Los Angeles, each victim savagely ripped apart by an out-of-control werewolf who may already be someone Ellie and Jimmy know.
With all of its well-reported production woes, "Cursed" has no reason to work, and yet it still does. In writing what amounts to "Scream" with werewolves, Kevin Williamson too often bogs himself down in trite clichescharacters bumping into each other to create false scares, a flurry of red herrings toward the identity of the killer, the climactic explanation where the exposed villain chats up their devious plans. These aspects of the film are tiresome, but mostly avoid going too far over the top, and what surrounds them is entertaining all the same.
It is in the story details and little touches that "Cursed" works best. It is inventive to have lead heroine Ellie work as a talent booker for "The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn," even if this now-defunct show has already outdated the picture. Ellie's boyfriend, Jake (Joshua Jackson), also works in the entertainment industry, preparing an extravagant exhibit of horror movie sets, villainous wax figures, and other film props. This allows for a special appearance of Lon Chaney's "The Wolf Man" character, the famous silver-tipped wolf cane from the same movie, and even clever tips toward Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger (Wes Craven directed the first and eighth entries in the "A Nightmare on Elm Street" series). The third-act, primarily set at the exhibit opening, includes a visually pleasing set-piece in a maze of mirrors, and a darkly funny comeuppance of its central lycanthrope meanie. The wolf nods don't end there, with allusions to other werewolf pictures and even Grimm's fairy tales; Ellie has a "Little Red Riding Hood" cuckoo clock that goes off at a particularly inopportune time.
Also appreciative is the expert handling of the creature effects. With modern motion pictures going the way of CGI, "Cursed" uses actual makeup effects. Computers may have a hand in a lot of the proceedings, but the first real close-up of the werewolf is rattlingly frightening because the viewer can tell it is as live-action as its surroundings. This is as scary as a werewolf has looked since probably the 1980s heyday of "The Howling" and "An American Werewolf in London." Furthermore, director Wes Craven is superb in building suspense, no more so than during a breathlessly intense showdown in a parking garage and elevator between the creature and his prey (Mya) that, regrettably, loses some impact by gutlessly cutting to black just before the intended money shot.
As tight-knit siblings Ellie and Jimmy, Christina Ricci (2003's "Monster
") and Jesse Eisenberg (2002's "Roger Dodger
") adeptly carry the film on their backs. They are likable, worth caring about, and plausible as brother and sister. As Ellie's boyfriend, Jake, Joshua Jackson (2003's "The Safety of Objects
") does the trick, but their scenes together are some of the more awkward because they fail to share any detectable romantic connection. The supporting cast is like a who's-who of young Hollywood, with Shannon Elizabeth (2004's "Johnson Family Vacation
") and R&B artist Mya (2004's "Shall We Dance
") as ill-fated friends Becky and Jenny; Judy Greer enjoyably spiteful as Ellie's coworker, Joanie, a character who seems to be an extension on the one she played in 2004's "13 Going on 30
;" Milo Ventimiglia (TV's "Gilmore Girls") as a high school bully harboring a secret of his own; and Michael Rosenbaum (2003's "Bringing Down the House
," TV's "Smallville") as Ellie's office friend, Kyle. Playing skewered versions of themselves in fun cameos are Craig Kilborn (2003's "Old School
") and Scott Baio (one-time heartthrob of TV's "Happy Days" and "Charles in Charge").
There isn't a doubt in my mind that "Cursed" would have been a superior film had filmmaker Wes Craven been rightfully given final cut. What has found its way into theaters is not the grisly, uninhibited werewolf flick originally intendedhas there ever
been a PG-13 werewolf flick before this one?so it is a testament to the skill and intelligence with which the film has been made that it still succeeds in occasionally getting your heart racing. In 2005 alone, "Cursed" is a much more accomplished and electrifying horror film than the hideous likes of "Boogeyman
," "Alone in the Dark
," and "White Noise
." It is a terrible shame, then, that American audiences will have to wait until "Cursed" reaches DVD to see the film in its entirety, the way Wes Craven wanted all along and the way Mr. Weinstein cruelly and selfishly denied him.