Looking Back: Cursed (2005)

The two most intriguing horror genre films of 2005 were Paul Schrader’s “Dominion- Prequel to The Exorcist” and Wes Craven’s “Cursed,” both of which had scandalously troubled productions and seemed in danger of never being released. I’ll explore “Dominion” in a later Looking Back but want to give “Cursed” the evaluation it deserves. Few films have been through the post-production nightmare this one has and, truth be told, the end result is messy but a lot of fun and displays indications that it was headed in the right direction.

According to various news reports, sad accounts and Craven himself, the story goes like this: “Cursed” was to be the red-hot collaboration and re-teaming of Craven with his “Scream” author, Kevin Williamson. Their werewolf tale had a colorful ensemble cast, the financial backing of Dimension Films (who funded and distributed the “Scream” movies) and a novel, updated take on lycanthropy. Apparently, at some point near post-production, the powers-that-be decided the film required massive re-shoots with a mostly new cast. Suddenly, Skeet Ulrich was out and his role was now played by Joshua Jackson. Jesse Eisenberg (in his first major film role) was no longer playing Christina Ricci’s boyfriend but her brother. Among those cut entirely were “A Nightmare on Elm St.” star Heather Langenkamp and Corey Feldman. After the highly compromised, second version wrapped filming, Craven had the indignity of his R-rated film not only being cut down to a PG-13, but also dumped into theaters in February, without a critic’s screening. It got creamed at the box office by “Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman.”

Craven’s latter films have been inconsistent, to say the least, but he is in no danger of having his Master of Horror title revoked and there’s lots in “Cursed” to suggest, minus the studio tampering, the film could have worked in full instead of in part. Ricci plays a car crash survivor who, along with her brother, is attacked by a werewolf. That this happens in Hollywood leads to a highly skeptical reaction: Nick Offerman has a funny cameo as a medic who improbably reveals “there hasn’t been a wolf attack in 70 years.” Ricci, post-wolf bite, is acting strangely at her job, working at “The Late Late Show With Craig Kilborn” (yes, it’s awkward to note that Kilborn wasn’t even the host by the time this opened and has an unfortunate cameo appearance). Eisenberg, playing Ricci’s equally bitten and slowly transforming brother, is quick to realize what’s happening (in the same way Jamie Kennedy in “Scream” was a know-it-all doomsayer). Meanwhile, Ricci’s boyfriend (played by a never-better Jackson) notices how odd she’s acting, as bodies and werewolf sightings begin to stack up in The Entertainment Capitol of the World.

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Even with the jumbled narrative, it’s clear Craven and Williamson were aiming to make “The Player” With Werewolves. It’s even possible to see shreds of his masterpiece, “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare,” which also explored the nature of identity in the lives of those who play make-believe for a living. Using Hollywood as a springboard for the werewolf lore provides a few ripe targets, particularly Judy Greer’s juicy role as a caustic star agent: I encountered someone like her character at Comic Con a few years back and can vouch that the sort of real monster she’s playing, while a necessary evil in show business, is spot-on. The scenes of Eisenberg going Teen Wolf at his high school are very funny, with much of the credit going to the actor, who gives an inspired comic turn.

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The missed opportunities are also in plain view: why cast Scott Baio as “himself” (he presumably took over for Feldman) if he isn’t going wind up playing a werewolf? Why offer two big, extensive, action-packed climaxes but no real ending? The final fade-out is a stop, not a real narrative closure.

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Ricci is a major talent and a darling of the independent film world, whose career get sidelined by appearing in too many sub-par horror movies (though this is the best one she made). She has a great scene where her character (not unlike Jack Nicholson in “Wolf”) uses her wolf powers to go hunting at work. Likewise, Eisenberg has a hilarious bit where he discovers his dog is also going through a drastic change. For all the good scenes scattered throughout, it still feels like a first cut. The visual effects range from impressive to painfully unfinished: the werewolves sometimes appearing vivid, through CGI or creature effects, but there are a couple of regrettable shots in which actors appear dressed in fuzzy monster costumes.

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For Craven completists (I hope I’m not the only one out there), this is better, more ambitious, funnier and sharper than “Shocker,” “Deadly Friend,” “Scream 3,” or “Vampire in Brooklyn.” That may sound like faint praise, as the film itself is a missed opportunity overall, but the blueprint for a great horror/comedy is in plain sight. Even as a miss, it’s more fun than its reputation would leave you to expect.

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