February 17, 2022 1:01 PM EST

The werewolf movie may be a horror staple, but the sad reality is that compared with vampires, our furry, fanged friends lag in popularity by a moonlit country mile. Werewolves don’t ignite the erotic imagination like vampires do; voraciousness isn’t as sexy as neck-biting.

But there’s still poetry to be found in the idea of doomed beings stuck in a cycle of perpetual hunger. The Cursed, written and directed by English filmmaker Sean Ellis, isn’t a werewolf picture in the strict sense: there’s nothing shaggy or wolflike about the beasts in question. But they are, as the title suggests, beings brought to life by a deadly bite, their unearthly cravings an affliction foisted upon them by an unnamed ancient spirit. Set somewhere in 19th century France, this is a movie low on cheap jump scares and high on atmosphere; its polished gloominess is one of its chief attributes, situating you in a time and place where you don’t feel quite right in your own skin.

The trouble starts when wealthy landowner Seamus Laurent (Alistair Petrie) rounds up a bunch of thugs to murder a group of Romani families who claim his land really belongs to them. The goons notice that the elderly Roma matriarch (Pascale Becouze) has in her possession a set of silver false teeth, each sharp little spike marked with a cross; they decide the things are too scary to seize and melt down. Before they kill and bury the old woman, she hisses a warning: “We will poison your sleep until you summon the dark one. Then you will know what death is.” And before you know it, Laurent’s children—sweet-natured Edward (Max Mackintosh) and his protective older sister Charlotte (Amelia Crouch)—begin having nightmares. They dream of a human scarecrow, by far the movie’s most horrifying image, and of that set of silver choppers. It’s only a matter of time before Edward, Charlotte, and the other kids of the village make their way to the site of the massacre, where the old woman’s curse takes its full, grisly effect.

Read more reviews by Stephanie Zacharek

The Cursed is your classic cautionary tale about the price of greed and bigotry, and less an allegory about the unruliness of nature. Still, in most werewolf lore it seems that young people—like poor, sweet Edward Laurent—are more susceptible to mystical wolf power than adults are. Werewolfdom is sometimes a manifestation of adolescent confusion, of bodily changes that are bewildering and scary. That’s how we got movies like the 1957 teenybopper fave I Was a Teenage Werewolf, and it’s a factor in the Twilight movies as well: Taylor Lautner’s Jacob Black is the werewolf boy that Kristen Stewart’s Bella Swan just can’t resist. Then there’s John Fawcett’s brilliant 2000 Ginger Snaps, in which a goth teenager is attacked—and transformed—by a wild beast on the same day she starts menstruating. The movie’s tagline, “They don’t call it the curse for nothing,” says it all.

The werewolves of The Cursed are different: they carry the weight of history, and of discrimination, on their hunched shoulders. At one point before her death, the Roma grande dame explains the bargain she and her people have made with the beastly spirit behind the curse in question: “We have protected it for generations, and it has protected our generations.” There’s nothing cuddly about the were-creatures of The Cursed. But there’s no question that they get the job done.

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