Cursed: Unrated Version (2004)

You know, it’s the postmodern horror film.
— Joshua Jackson, “Behind the Fangs: The Making of Cursed

That’s probably the most I’ve screamed in my life, and I enjoyed it.
— Mya, “Behind the Fangs: The Making of Cursed

“This is just a fun, entertaining, scare-you-out-of-your seat movie that has a great sense of humor about the genre.” At this point, given Cursed‘s critical drubbing and unsuccessful theatrical run, you’re guessing that Christina Ricci’s take on Cursed, packaged for the making-of documentary, “Behind the Fangs: The Making of Cursed,” is something like wishful thinking. Perhaps, at some point, Kevin Williamson’s script (even unfinished, which it was rumored to be as shooting began) looked promising or “fun.” Perhaps actors didn’t entirely not get along or were cut for legitimate reasons, as was also rumored. And perhaps Miramax’s meddling with the edit, to get it down to a PG-13, was as devastating as has been reported. Or maybe none of this is true, and the film was never so “fun” to begin.

Cursed opens with a moment that resembles fun — a fortune teller bearing bad news. Zela (Portia de Rossi) wears a gypsy get-up as a way to make money off her true “gift.” Though Becky (Shannon Elizabeth) and Jenny (Mya) are just looking for a little fun at the Santa Monica Piers amusement park, they’re not scared enough when they stumble on Zela. “Blood,” she mutters, in a throaty, vaguely campy homage to Maria Ouspenskaya. “I see blood… so much blood.” The girls dismiss the messenger (“Lay off the crack pipe!”) and proceed to their inevitably bloody ends.

In between the gypsy and these first werewolf assaults, you meet the star players, namely, tv producer Ellie Hudson (Ricci) and her high-school-aged brother Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg). He’s got a crush on a popular girl at school, Brooke (Kristina Anapau), and she has a bully of a boyfriend, Bo (Milo Ventimiglia), neither circumstance making Jimmy’s dweeby adolescent existence any easier. The dweeb factor may be a function of a stereotypical plot tweaking, but it’s replayed in Eisenberg’s contribution to the DVD, a documentary he directs, writes, and stars in, “Becoming a Werewolf.” Also not so fun, it traces Eisenberg’s cutesy efforts to be bitten by a werewolf off screen so that makeup master Greg Nicotero can copy down the results in order to perfect the werewolf look.

The film essays a similar bridging of Hollywood artifice and lived experience, with similar lack of success. In “Behind the Fangs,” Williamson lays out a thematic framework when he notes that setting a werewolf movie in Hollywood makes sense, because the place attracts “dysfunctional personality types, it’s an industry that’s riddled with wolf-eat-wolf type behavior.” Just so, it would appear, the filmmakers decided that they needed to study up on the creatures at hand. In another documentary on the DVD, “The Cursed Effects,” werewolf performer Derek Mears describes his process: “To get into the wolf, I watched different videos, movement videos of wolves. I just watched how the wolf moved and breathed, I did a lot of psychology of the wolf, trying to figure out why he would be chasing this or how he’d actually try to kill somebody.”

Such psychology isn’t exactly evident in the finished product (and for what it’s worth, the theatrical version ran 97 minutes, the “unrated” one adds two minutes, most in an extended death scene). Last girlish type Ellie is typically good, having looked after Jimmy since their parents died in an apparent car accident (vague references are made, a family photo displayed, and glances averted, but no particular backstory emerges). She bears up stolidly under typical high-pressure job issues (at not-so-lamented The Late Late Show with Craig Kilborn). She also has boyfriend issues, having dated brash nightclub designer Jake (Joshua Jackson) for a couple of months, and only now learning that he’s loathe to “make a commitment.” His excuse at the moment is that he’s just exhausted (“I am drowning in stress,” he moans), because he’s spent months designing a latest club, Tinsel.

A Hollywood Planet-style joint, Tinsel features industry memorabilia, including wax figures of famous monsters (Wolfman, Pinhead, Freddy Kruger) and divas (Diana Ross, Latoya Jackson), and a few eventually-implemented-as-weapons props. The fit between the monster and divas categories is probably obvious to most of the film’s viewers, as they will be looking for more of writer Kevin Williamson and director Wes Craven’s biting wit (they made the Scream trilogy). Cursed doesn’t quite achieve that level, but it has moments, including several insider jokes occasioned by “Tinsel” as a visual backdrop for a late, violent showdown.

Of particular note are the allusions to Lon Chaney’s Wolfman, for the curse in question is indeed lycanthropy. This becomes obvious when Ellie and Jimmy are driving home on the twisty, hilly Mulholland Drive, arguing about her lateness to pick him up (she blames him for not having friends to drive him places; he blames her for working too much) when their windshield is smacked by a large animal-like entity, soon to be called “the beast.” This encounter isn’t as grisly as you might think. Cursed is short on gore and long on spooky wind, rustling leaves, and lights going out at conveniently alarming moments (in “Creature Editing 101,” editor Patrick Lussier vaguely explains how he made cuts for the PG-13 version, leaning on the old adage that what you don’t see is scarier than what you do).

The car wreck gives Ellie and Jimmy the chance to do a right thing: they attempt to get Becky out of her car, when the beast doesn’t quite appear (a large, dark shadow makes a lot of noise and incites much frantic editing of hard-to-read images) and rips her from the driver’s seat, dragging her off into the woods to have its way with her. Jimmy and Ellie come out the other end of this fracas scathed — he has a claw slice across the chest, she has a bite on her arm. And this means they are “cursed,” a term that in this film also means “infected,” as the werewolf affliction appears to lie somewhere between AIDS metaphor (“I guess there’s no such thing as safe sex with a werewolf,” whines one victim) and bad attitude. (A smarter, if raunchier and more violent, form of this story is available in 2000’s Ginger Snaps, concerning two sisters, one bitten by a werewolf and so becoming her high school’s resident man-killer.)

The combined intimacy and tension between Ellie and Jimmy is Cursed‘s most engaging and unusual aspect, a sibling relationship exacerbated as they must cover up a shared misfortune. The film frames their lycanthropy as an infection so dreadful that it can jump species, demonstrated when Jimmy’s golden retriever Zipper bites him and is turned into a spazzy, poorly CGI-ed wolf-dog, capable of ripping their house to pieces. While Ellie initially takes the denial route, Jimmy doesn’t have that option; he wakes the morning after the attack naked “in the bushes,” which suggests he went out rampaging during the night, though without a visible body count.

This worries Jimmy, as does his newfound taste for raw meat and fighting back against Bo’s abuses (Jimmy worries that he is so eager to wrestle Bo, even to toss him in the air and throw him to the ground). Ellie, meantime, adapts to some changes, as her new inclination to wear slinkier outfits earns compliments from her coworker Kyle (Michael Rosenbaum), who calls her “saucy!” She’s even glad that now she feels more able to take on Jake’s former squeeze and “psycho publicist” Joanie (the ever game Judy Greer), who becomes the stand-in target for all things bad about the movie industry. Hardly troubled by her new ability to sniff out (and lust after) someone’s bloody nose, Ellie only starts to fret when her body hurts and her veins pop out. She’s inclined to dismiss her scary dream, in which, unable to control herself, she savages Jake’s neck.

Jimmy’s approach is more head-on: he starts researching on the internet. Here he learns some basic useful facts, like how to kill werewolves (you need to separate the head from the body). He also faces what turns out to be the movie’s cleverest turn of events, though borrowed from any number of sources (Buffy’s coming out to her mom as a Slayer being most memorable). When a friend decides to come out to him (as gay), assuming that Jimmy, so girlishly recessive for so many years, is similarly inclined, Jimmy has to go through his own self-identification. “I’m not gay,” he explains, “I’m cursed! I’m a werewolf.” When the other boy persists, trying to kiss him, Jimmy sighs, exasperated. “I’m appealing, it’s part of the curse.”

Such exchanges suggest that, as has been widely reported, Cursed was once a different movie. Given that it was scheduled to be released last year, the cast went through changes, and the screenplay was revised during production, it’s not surprising that it’s so jumbled. Sadly, this cursedness has not resulted in much appeal.