Ah, the werewolf. A tortured creation made monstrous against his or her will, controlled by the lunar cycle, prone to hairballs, and averse to silver projectiles. We don’t get enough werewolf movies these days, and most more or less follow the “rules” to one degree or another, but oftentimes the better films are the braver ones willing to stretch beyond the expected. Last year’s The Wolf of Snow Hollow is the most recent example of a werewolf movie finding its own howl, and now a new contender has arrived with Sean Ellis‘ period-set horror, Eight for Silver. It takes some big bites, but some parts taste far better than others.
Life is good for the Laurent family in late 1800s France. Seamus (Alistair Petrie) is a powerful landowner with hundreds of people living and working on his large estate in the province of Gévaudan, but when a small band of Romani travelers arrives claiming ownership he authorizes their violent ouster. The sins of the fathers are soon visited on the children as a curse leads to nightmares and worse — a child is transformed into a vicious beast whose bite turns others into similar creatures, provided they survive the brutal attack of course. Chaos and carnage spill across the land, but a visiting pathologist named John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) is all too familiar with the curse and knows the only way to stop it is with silver bullets.
So much of Ellis’ Eight for Silver works beautifully to create a world of disorder and brutality that it’s especially unfortunate when the lesser elements rear their head and take control. The events are a fresh take on real-world events which transpired in 1700s France, but where 2001’s brilliant Brotherhood of the Wolf succeeds across the board with its own spin on the subject, this one gets as much right as it gets wrong. But yes, both feature unexceptional CG effects.
The film’s front half is its strongest as Ellis crafts an atmosphere carrying viewers back in time and place to a world of privilege, pain, and period details. The simplicity of life is available only to the wealthy, and when that empire is threatened the blades come out with a fury. The assault on the Romani camp is captured in a single static shot as people are trampled, shot, sliced, and set ablaze, but Ellis ups the ante with a more personal attack as one of the men is turned into a human scarecrow. It’s a horrifying scene, and it sets up one of the film’s recurring disturbing images as the scarecrow comes to haunt the children’s dreams.
As effective as that scarecrow is, though, the monster at the heart of the film is somewhat less successful. The beast’s attacks result in practical gore which both plentiful and beautifully executed, but while partial glimpses of the monster itself feature equally practical creations its eventual full glory reveal is something of a letdown. The design is fine — this werewolf is hairless — but the CG is underwhelming. Brotherhood of the Wolf faced a similar issue, but as the only fault in that film it’s quickly forgiven in the face of everything else. Eight for Silver doesn’t have that luxury.
Ellis relies far too heavily on repetitive dream sequences and jump scares, and while both have their place in genre fare they’re used so frequently here as to essentially neuter themselves of any effect. The film’s wraparound also feels somewhat extraneous — trimming it would tighten the film without lessening the drama or story — as it opens in World War I which only serves to spoil an end reveal. The nearly two-hour running time is just barely sustained as it stands.
Most of the cast is given too little to work with, but both Holbrook and Kelly Reilly stand apart from the crowd. Holbrook proves himself as a pathologist bored by the ongoing cholera epidemic and intently focused on this new threat, and he’s deserving of the kinds of roles currently going to the likes of Charlie Hunnam or Miles Teller. Reilly gives life to a character who could easily have faded into the background. Isabelle is Seamus’ wife, kept apart from the dirty details of his business dealings but trying hard to prove her worth, and the trauma that befalls her youngest breaks her.
Eight for Silver can’t quite find its way past its troubles, but Ellis fills it with enough freshness and style to make it worth a watch all the same. It works as a reminder of mankind’s missteps and our ultimate lack of meaning in the face of the unknown, but it works best as a nightmare fuel for folks terrified of scarecrows. Not the intended outcome I’m sure, but like the land barons of Gévaudan, you take what you can get and worry about paying the price later.