Writer/director Sean Ellis may have filmed his werewolf creeper Eight for Silver before the pandemic, but it certainly arrives at an opportune moment. A mysterious contagion befalls the members of an English settlement in the 1800s — people are disappearing, either mauled or bitten by a wolf-like creature that stalks the moors. Those that survive their bites soon disappear, only for another werewolf to show up in their place and repeat the cycle. John McBride (Boyd Holbrook), a pathologist new in town, recognizes the cause immediately: an ancient Romani curse, likely spurred by land baron Seamus Laurent’s (Alistair Petrie) brutal genocide of the Romani people who called that land their home.
Creaky stereotypes about the Romani people aside (and it’s an element that shouldn’t be ignored when discussing this film), there’s a lot to like about Eight for Silver’s proof of concept and spooky, atmospheric presentation. Ellis, who also serves as his own DP, drenches the English countryside in reams of fog and candlelight, allowing for all manner of spooky, gory moments to leap out from the shadows.
The twists on the werewolf myth are similarly interesting, morphing the beasts into strange, muscular, hairless creatures who act more like a carapace to the infected human host than the full-body transformations of the past. And, of course, it serves as a well-intentioned fable about the horrors of colonization and English imperialism — the film’s most harrowing shot involves not werewolves, but a minute-long uninterrupted long shot of the methodical massacre of the Romani village.
But for all the appeal of a sumptuous, bigger-budget take on Hammer horror, Eight for Silver suffers from an overabundance of patience. At two hours, the premise is strained far beyond its limits, and the audience often finds itself waiting just as impatiently as the characters for something to happen.
It doesn’t help that the film takes itself a bit more seriously than it should, overcommitting to its haunting horrors and not taking enough moments to relish in its schlocky premise. The cast — including Holbrook, who’s admittedly really charming here — plays through this thing like it’s Downton Abbey, when I wish it was 10% more like The Curse of the Werewolf. And for all its atmosphere, it leans a little too hard on the jump scare as a method for horror, even though Ellis admirably keeps the wolf itself largely out of sight, reserved mostly for quick flashes of blood-splattering gore. It’s also partly due to the comparative rubberiness of the CG creature, a likely project of the film’s modest budget.
Still, there’s plenty to enjoy when Eight for Silver cares to lean in on its gruesome strengths. A mid-film examination of one of the creatures features some suitably squicky practical creature effects a la Carpenter’s The Thing, and the werewolf’s attacks are deliciously rendered with buckets of blood and severed limbs.
“It should have been a short” is a well-worn homily for most films accused of being too long, but Eight for Silver might do well to heed that advice. Save Holbrook (whose McBride should immediately launch a monster-hunting franchise), none of the characters are memorable enough to sustain a slow-burn atmospheric thriller, and the slow burn nature of the scenario might well strain even the most patient horror fans. There’s also a poorly-calculated framing device that goes for Gothic intrigue but just ends up letting us know who’s probably going to be alive at the end.
But if Ellis had just trimmed the fat and left us with the good stuff, he’d have something absolutely fantastic on his hands. He just needs to learn how to kill his darlings — preferably with silver bullets melted from a cursed set of werewolf dentures.
This review is from the 2021 Sundance Film Festival. Image courtesy of Sean Ellis / Sundance Institute.