Why Cursed Failed to Become the Scream of Werewolf Movies

The fact that Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson teamed up to make a werewolf movie just a few years after they resurrected popular horror with Scream should be something that more people talk about. The iconic blood-and-guts director and the acclaimed writer of 90s teen dramas like Dawson’s Creek managed to make slasher movies hip again, so who wouldn’t be excited to see them revitalize a classic Hollywood monster? Unfortunately, their efforts were largely wasted, as Cursed languished in development well past its expiration date and failed to make much of an impact, becoming a movie typically only discussed within the context of its notoriously troubled production.

After watching Cursed for the first time this week, I can say without question that it is a bad movie. Ludicrous, even. Like watching a corporate talent show where participation was mandatory, I just felt embarrassed for everyone involved. That said, not all its ideas are bad – when it was released in 2005, sexy teen monsters were just a few years away from taking over the entire entertainment world, so you can’t say the instinct to make a movie about hot young werewolves living their best lives in Los Angeles was misguided. And while Craven’s direction is mostly muted here, there are a few decent scares, and Williamson’s script occasionally rises above the bullshit around it to deliver some memorable moments. Cursed is a frustrating film not because of how bad it is, but because it came so close to being good and ate itself to death in the process. And I’m not sure studio meddling is really to blame.

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Image via Miramax Films

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Ok, quick plot rundown for anyone who hasn’t seen the movie (which, statistically speaking, is most of you) – siblings Ellie (Christina Ricci) and Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg) get into a car accident in the Hollywood Hills with Becky (Shannon Elizabeth, making a brief and baffling cameo). In the immediate aftermath of the crash, they are attacked by an angry werewolf who kills Becky and wounds Ellie and Jimmy. The rest of the movie follows the siblings as the curse of the werewolf begins to alter their personal lives – Ellie is suddenly more assertive in her job working on Craig Kilborn’s talk show (that’s how old this movie is), and Jimmy beats the bejeezus out of his bullies at the local high school. A few maulings later, we learn that the werewolf who bit them was Ellie’s new boyfriend Jake (Joshua Jackson), who wants Ellie to be his eternal wolf bride. Jake attacks them in their home, and they chop his head off with a shovel, breaking the curse. His body bursts into flames in their living room and nobody calls the police.

I mentioned earlier that Cursed had an infamously chaotic production, and I’m not going to go into too much of that here. Honestly, the sheer level of behind-the-scenes catastrophe involved deserves its own leather bound multi-volume history and subsequent docuseries adaptation. But essentially, Miramax got cold feet over the film’s hard R content and demanded the entire thing be rewritten and reshot at the 11th hour, resulting in a dramatically different story and several actors and characters being deleted entirely (for instance, originally Skeet Ulrich was the third lead, and Ellie and Jimmy were total strangers). According to interviews with Craven and some members of the cast, there were multiple reshoots, including at least two different endings. And creature effects designed by none other than seven-time-Oscar-winner Rick Baker were replaced by digital werewolves. (Baker notably won his first Oscar for creating the werewolf effects in An American Werewolf in London, and the category for Best Makeup was literally created because of his work on that film.) That’s a whole lotta shenanigans, and I’m barely scratching the surface. Go read about it, there’s plenty out there.

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Image via Miramax Films

In any discussion about a movie with a broken production, we tend to lament the version that might have been, had the dimwitted moneymen but left their artists alone to create. I can’t comment on that film, because I haven’t seen it and odds are I’m never going to. I have seen the 2005 theatrical release of Cursed, and I can say that the movie’s biggest problem is that it’s in a constant tug-of-war with its own tone. That’s almost certainly a product of all the rewriting and reshooting, but there’s a big flaw in the core premise that would’ve still been present in Craven and Williamson’s original version – the movie is trying way too hard to be hip. Gone is the wry, ironic deconstruction of horror movie tropes that made Scream so refreshing. What we get instead is a bunch of buzzword-laden dialogue that was already dated by the time this shapeshifting hulk hit theaters, and a massive chunk of plot devoted to a werewolf in high school. And what other infinitely-more-famous film covered that topic? Teen Wolf, folks. The answer is Teen Wolf.

So, half of Cursed is a retread of Teen Wolf, following Jimmy as he deals with the comedic side effects of going through puberty and lycanthropy at the same time. Dogs follow him, he has an increased sex drive and appetite for red meat, and he’s suddenly awesome at varsity sports. He stops short of breakdancing on top of a van, but only just barely. It’s…silly. And we’ve seen it all done before, and done better, in a comedy. That’s not a great instinct for your horror film, and it seems as though Jimmy’s journey would’ve been more or less the same in any version. (Williamson’s original draft is easy to find if you want to read it for yourself.)

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Image via Miramax Films

Ellie’s story, meanwhile, is about the dog-eat-dog world of television production, which is wholly impenetrable to 99% of Cursed’s audience. Dropping a werewolf into a highly-competitive corporate environment seems like a great satirical setup, but I couldn’t stop thinking of another badly misguided werewolf picture – Mike Nichols’ 1994 film Wolf, starring Jack Nicholson as a werewolf book publisher. Unleashing an actual alpha creature in a professional world that thrives on the artifice of savagery is an interesting idea, but it overlooks the fact that office politics are boring as shit and most of us simply can’t relate. Cursed wants us to pump our fists when Ellie starts giving as good as she gets in her high-stress job at the *checks notes* Craig Kilborn show, but it just seems like she works with a bunch of cartoonish assholes, and the minor comeuppance she delivers is deeply unsatisfying. Beyond that, nobody buys a ticket to a werewolf movie to watch an even more Caucasian version of The Office.

That said, good writing can make people care about even the most alien situations, and the idea of following multiple werewolves through different walks of life in Los Angeles is genuinely compelling. Maybe Williamson’s original version of Ellie’s story had a bit more teeth to it or was at least more accessible. But that doesn’t help the film’s whiplash tone, which seesaws between shopping mall soap opera and full-on Scooby-Doo.

Despite its clear intention of being a “sexy teen horror movie” in the vein of Scream, the main characters are weirdly chaste, and they approach the situation like a bunch of kids who suspect their neighbor is a vampire. Jimmy literally looks to comic books for answers, which is another thing we’ve seen done better in a more successful film with a firmer grasp of its tone (Joel Schumacher’s excellent horror comedy The Lost Boys). The incisive wit of Scream is reduced to cutesy adolescent sarcasm, which is counterintuitive to why Craven and Williamson blew up in the 90s – because they made horror cool again for older teens and young adults. Several scenes of graphic violence were undeniably scrubbed away in favor of a PG-13 rating, but pretty much any suggestion of a mature theme seems to have been erased as well, leaving a bunch of high school seniors and hot people in their 20s behaving like they’re in a slightly more menacing Goosebumps movie. While you could certainly assume this is yet another result of Cursed getting cut and reshot and rewritten into oblivion, the movie’s mismatched tone doesn’t feel out of place with Craven’s and Williamson’s other projects. Scream hit as big as it did because it was a breath of fresh air, but the meta-commentary of that film ultimately gave way to broad comedy and a truly confounding Jay and Silent Bob cameo by the time Scream 3 rolled around, and Williamson’s writing always toed the line of YA melodrama. That seems perfectly aligned with Craig Kilborn and Scott Baio playing ironically hyperbolic versions of themselves in Cursed (Baio himself is revealed to be a werewolf in the original version). Miramax undeniably torpedoed this movie’s chance of success with gorehounds, but it sure looks like it would have been a bungled mess of cannibalizing meta jokes and campy self-awareness even without their help.

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Image via Miramax Films

As I stated earlier, not all the ideas in Cursed are bad. A cleverly staged sequence involving a werewolf attack in a parking garage and its attached bank of elevators is one of the film’s lone scenes of genuine horror, and Judy Greer’s performance as a prickly clout-chasing lycanthrope is a god damn delight. And on a related note, the humor isn’t all bad either – Williamson’s script has fun with the werewolf legend, and what a pain in the ass that curse would be if you’re a young professional working in L.A. He also plays around with the different ways the curse could be passed between consenting adults, treating it almost like a uniquely inconvenient form of HPV. You can see glimpses of a landmark horror film in its bones, which is what makes Cursed so frustrating. Unquestionably a victim of studio meddling and arguably a victim of its own hubris, Cursed is ultimately a werewolf movie that begins with the band Bowling for Soup playing “Little Red Riding Hood” on the Santa Monica Pier for dozens of polite fans. And it has no one to blame but itself.

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