Last of the Monster Kids

Last of the Monster Kids
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Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Director Report Card: Wes Craven (2005) Part 1

20. Cursed

After reviving the slasher genre with the “Scream” series, Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven decided to next resurrected another moribund horror favorite: The werewolf. Unfortunately, “Cursed” was a deeply compromised affair. Half the movie was shot when production was shut down and the script completely rewritten. When filming started up again, half of the cast had moved on to other projects, forcing recasting and replacements. When the protracted production was finally finished up, further studio meddling ensued. The R-rated film was cut down to a PG-13 for strictly commercial reasons. By the time “Cursed” finally limped into theaters in 2005, the mainstream appetite for “Scream”-style horror flicks had long since dried up and the hardcore crowd knew to stay away. The movie bombed and remains a low point in Craven and Williamson’s careers.

Like “Scream,” “Cursed” revolves around characters in a werewolf movie that have seen werewolf movies before. When Hollywood production assistant Ellie and her younger brother Jimmy are scratched by a strange animal, Jimmy immediately recognizes it as a werewolf. He looks up information through an immediately dated search engine and in an oddly helpful book. When both are in doubt, they pick up a silver pie server to see if it burns. The movie references “The Wolf Man,” prominently features the famous cane, and reintroduces the pentagram on the palm as part of the werewolf mythos. (Though it gets it backwards, with the pentagram appearing on the wolf’s hand, not the victim’s.) Williamson, once again, sets the film in Hollywood, allowing for bizarre cameos from Scot Biao, Craig Kilborne and Lance Bass, of all people. He rips himself off too, as the opening scene featuring Shannon Elizabeth as a special guest victim is an obvious attempt to recreate the opening of “Scream.” However, Shannon Elizabeth is no Drew Berrymore and “Cursed” can’t build a single molecule of tension.

Everything wrong with “Cursed” can be broken up into three clear categories. There are elements that are simply underwritten, oddly paced, or undone by shoddy special effects. The movie indulges in clichés like an evil-sensing dog, fake-out nightmare sequences, and repeated, exhausting jump-scares. Any time a character walks in to frame, it is accompanied with a loud musical sting on the soundtrack, over and over again. A genuinely subtle moment, like a victim snatched up into the ceiling, is immediately undermined by a loud blast of music.

The tone is frequently weirdly melodramatic. A confession of love in a hall of mirrors or shouted discussion through a car window feel hopelessly phony and off. The protagonists come to conclusions about characters with little evidence or proof. Christina Ricci’s pixie face bending into monstrous contortions provides laughter or bizarre looks of disbelief instead of fear. Despite seemingly wrapping up around the hour mark, the story drags out for another half-hour. These are miscalculations, the result of bad writing or an overzealous composer.

Normally, that would be enough to derail a film but “Cursed” has another problem. A streak of bat-shit insanity runs through the film. Deeply ridiculous things happen on screen with little warning. The tone shifts back and forth between overcooked horror and screwball comedy with abandon. A character wakes up naked on the lawn for no reason, a melodramatic blare of music playing on the soundtrack. A party full of people dressed as ostrich or giraffes features prominently. Dogs gather in front of their house, encouraging Jimmy to join them in a hearty howl. That leads up to the were-dog. As absurd as that premise is, the execution is actually worse. The CGI is wince inducing, a barely believable ball of computerized fluff, and the actors are seemingly nonplussed by it. Oh yeah, the were-dog is also named Zipper. Zipper. All the CGI in the film is terrible, as proudly displayed during an extended transformation sequence. Later on, Jimmy, on a wrestling mat, tosses people ten feet into the air, hard rock music blaring behind him. This sets precedence. Every punch and kick sends someone flying.

The last act goes completely fucking nuts. The werewolf attacks in a swanky Hollywood night-club, decorated with odd wax mannequins of celebrities and fictional characters. There’s a cat fight, a ridiculous sucker punch, and the villain explaining its motive with blatant exposition. The movie has no idea what it’s doing, which is best illustrated when a character sweeps in with a sword, heroic music swelling on the soundtrack. This has no effect on the plot and is in the movie for no discernible reason. Just how clueless the movie is can be illustrated by its treatment of the werewolf. The beast wears eye-shadow, talks in a deeply silly human voice, and, most infamously, flicks somebody off. “Cursed” grinds you down with its goofiness. By the time giant toes explode through sneakers and people are scaling ceilings like Spider-Man, you are completely desensitized to the film’s ridiculous tendencies. Nothing in the film’s first half prepares you for this lunacy. “Cursed's” tonal shifts make “Shocker” look balanced and well-paced by comparison.

The drastic tone shift suggests that two screenplays that handled the same subject in vastly different ways were hastily cut together. Which, from what I’ve read, might as well be true. The film is buried in the stink of executive meddling. The film opens with a fast-paced montage of LA landmarks, a god awful cover of Sam Sham and the Pharaoh's “Little Red Riding Hood” from playing over it. These quick montages are returned to several times, including once at the end of a nightmare which uses scenes shot for the original version of the movie. This is another sign of studio tinkering. The werewolf plot wraps up with about a half and hour left to go. Out of thin air, a second climax is pulled together. A main character’s personality completely shifts, a love interest transforming with little explanation into a villain. The way that newly acquired villain is defeated is highly anti-climatic. The film ends with a total shrug. All of this is clearly the result of rewrites and recuts.

Most frustratingly, buried under all the wacky slapstick and messy rewrites, are signs that “Cursed” was once a decent film. The very first werewolf attack builds some decent suspense, focusing nicely on twigs breaking in the distance. A stalking scene through a parking lot makes a decent attempt at generating tension. At first, we only have fleeting glances of the werewolf. The wolf scratching the car hoods in order to lure his victim out is clever. Mya, otherwise known as the other-other one from the "Moulin Rouge" music video, does a surprisingly good job of acting terrified. (Enough that she earned a, uh, MTV Movie Award nomination.) Creature effect master Rick Baker once again has to play second fiddle to shitty computer generated images. The film’s werewolf design is uninspired but the practical puppet is preferable to the CGI creation. Even in the depths of the picture’s second half insanity, there are still signs of inspiration. The execution isn’t good but, I’ll admit, fighting a werewolf in a classic horror dungeon kind of works for me.

The final nail in the film’s coffin are its performances. I’ve long been a defender of Christina Ricci. In truth, Ricci was made for the horror genre. She has Barbara Steele’s eyes, Winona Ryder’s sardonic wit, (used to have) Ingrid Pitt’s bust line, and Boris Karloff's forehead. Sadly, Ricci’s performance is dreadfully tone-deaf. Any time she has to summon up genuine emotion, her performance is hopelessly unconvincing. Ricci’s strength has always been her snark which the film gives her little opportunity to use. Part of being a werewolf in “Cursed” is a new found sexual allure. While Ricci is quite capable of being sexy, aside from a surprising finger sucking scene, you have to take the movie’s word on it.

Jesse Eisenberg, before he became the poor man’s Michael Cera and before “The Social Network” made people stop calling him that, plays the second lead. He plays up the nasally neurotic bit decently but, once shit gets goofy, he’s lost. A brief, underdeveloped subplot involves a crush he has on a girl, which pays off as transparent wish fulfillment. Joshua Jackson as the primary love interest is deeply flat but even he isn’t the worse performance in the film. That dishonor does to Milo Ventimiglia’s Bo. Bo is introduced as cartoonishly homophobic. He’s obviously meant to be unlikable but Ventimiglia takes it far over the top. The way this plays out is predictable and just as broad.

It’s hard to say if “Cursed” ever could have been good. The film was screwed around with so much that you can’t blame it on Wes Craven or even Kevin Williamson. A fiasco of a major scale, Williamson and Wes’ careers survived but both were undeniably stained. [Grade: D]

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