One of the biggest surprises coming out of this year’s Sundance Film Festival has been “Eight for Silver”, a gory old-fashioned horror movie that offers a fresh spin on the age-old werewolf story. The film comes from British writer-director Sean Ellis who is no stranger to debuting his films at Sundance. His latest film looks at the werewolf idea not so much as an individual curse but as a communal one. This novel perspective opens the door for Ellis to get into some meaty themes while still enjoying the sub-genre’s nuances.
The film opens on a World War I battlefield where French soldiers prepare to leave their trenches to storm a German fortification amid a hail of gunfire and mustard gas. Within seconds we’re moved to a medical tent where a surgeon removes lead from a wounded soldier’s abdomen. As the bloody extracted bullets clang into a pan, a final one looks much different than the others. “This isn’t a German bullet,” he says of the large pure silver slug gripped by his forceps. Oh how right he is.
From there Ellis travels back 35 years to the late 1800’s. He sets his story in Victorian England in the middle of a cholera pandemic, a little detail that fits the kind of atmosphere he’s going for. Seamus Laurent (Alister Petrie) owns a lavish country manor where he lives with his emotionally detached wife Isabelle (Kelly Reilly), their daughter Charlotte (Amelia Crouch) and their son Edward (Max Mackintosh). The wealthy and powerful Seamus is the leader of a group of property owners who have gobbled up most of the land in the area. It quickly becomes evident that Seamus is far more interested in tending to business matters than being a husband and father to his family.
One of the film’s more stinging themes considers the abuse of the lower class by the powerful and more directly colonialism, ethnic cleansing, and the mistreatment of indigenous groups. This comes to light after a caravan of gypsies set up camp on a patch of Seamus’ land. The Romani clan make a legitimate claim as the land’s original settlers and rightful owners. But Seamus and the other property barons will have none of it. They hire a group of mercenaries to intimidate the gypsies into leaving the area, but the confrontation turns violent. The impending savagery is captured in one of the film’s best shots. The static camera sits at a distance watching the twenty or so horseback riders approach the gypsy camp. It doesn’t move until the entire camp is ablaze.
Afterwards the mercenaries gather up the stragglers, executing them for their own amusement. Included in the barbaric purge is woman who uses her dying breath to place a curse the land. Days pass but then local children begin having the same nightmare, one that draws them to a grotesque scarecrow in the very field of the slaughter. Things get more disturbing from there. A child’s mangled body is discovered and Seamus’ son Edward is bitten by what’s believed to be the same ravenous creature. That same evening Edward begins having violent reactions before vanishing into the night.
All of that uncoils in the first thirty minutes or so and serves as a nice setup for Boyd Holbrook. The Kentucky-born actor sets aside his American accent for a well-tuned British one playing John McBride, a traveling pathologist who takes a personal interest in the strange goings-on around the area. Seamus calls on him to help find his son and track down who or what is responsible. McBride agrees but is soon butting heads with Seamus and other members of the local hierarchy over what’s really terrorizing their land.
From its earliest frames you can tell “Eight for Silver” is handsomely shot. It impresses both as a lush period piece and as gruesome gothic horror. Ellis serves as his own cinematographer and his camera plays an essential part in setting the film’s mood and creating its dread-soaked atmosphere. From his fog-cloaked exterior compositions to the cramped hallways of Laurent Manor. And Ellis makes a number of visual choices that payoff – his crafty his crafty use of light (or lack of it), his cold four color palette, the use of (mostly) practical effects.
When questioned about his qualifications by a skeptical landowner McBride explains “Our bodies speak even after death. I listen.” With “Eight for Silver” Sean Ellis gives him plenty to listen to. The movie has a good time tinkering with the werewolf mythos, changing it up in some cool and interesting ways while still embracing the gory goodness utilized in films like “An American Werewolf in London” and “The Howling”. And if you remember anything about this review let it be ‘AUTOPSY SCENE’. It’s unforgettable and I’ll leave it at that.
VERDICT – 4 STARS