Wes Craven’s follow-up to the Scream trilogy – and his last film, along with Red Eye, before My Soul To Take in 2010 – is one of the most perplexing horror films I have seen for some time, partly because I was completely unaware of the back story before I watched it. Since then, one of my friends – a horror afficionado – has told me that this collaboration with screenwriter Kevin Williamson was designed to be Craven’s next big statement after Scream, and the beginning of a franchise that would hold its own alongside his later works. Instead, for some inexplicable reason, Harvey Weinstein forced Craven to discard virtually all of the original shoot, with the result that there is now effectively a great lost Craven film lying in a Hollywood vault somewhere. If there was ever a time to release it and restore Craven’s original vision, you’d think it would be in the wake of his recent passing, but so far no moves have been made, possibly because the final version of Cursed turned out to be one of the biggest horror flops of the twenty-first century, both in terms of audience numbers and critical acclaim. Listening to this friend of mine describe how breathlessly he was anticipating it as a burgeoning high school horror fan – as well as how bitterly he was disappointed with the studio-dictated version – has made me fascinated with the alternative history within which this might have become a stalwart part of the Craven canon, possibly generating a franchise that would have kept him in regular work throughout the 2000s. Indeed, Craven himself has said, on multiple occasions, that the fate of Cursed prompted his unofficial retirement from big-budget horror, with only the staying power of a franchise like Scream inducing him to return once more to Dimension during the last stage of his career.
Watching Cursed, then, is bound to be a poignant and somewhat melancholy experience for a horror fan – an experience that was only intensified for me by finding out about this troubled history retrospectively. At the same time, that pathos is also intensified by the fact that this is clearly Craven’s last film that is directed at an era where multiplex viewership still has some claim to being the dominant cinematic experience. In new media, everything can change in half a decade, and by the time My Soul To Take came out in 2010, it was clear that Craven was addressing a new kind of horror distribution, dynamic and demographic, just as Scream 4 had to make quite a conscious effort to incorporate digital media into its classically analog – or proto-digital – scenarios, something that the Netflix adaptation arguably does better, even if it doesn’t come close to Craven’s charismatic timing and suspenseful panache. On top of all that, it’s clear, at certain moments in Cursed, that is very much a continuation of the Scream project, just as Scream itself was in some sense a continuation of the Elm Street project, opening up the possibility of a grand trilogy in Craven’s already quite venerable body of work that simply never came to pass. In the same way that it can be something of an epiphany to discover a song you never knew by your favourite band, there is something about the way in which the Scream trilogy is still “felt” here that is even more revelatory than Scream 4, just because it takes place in the spirit of organic continuity rather than conscious homage. For those whose teenage years were defined by the leafy quarter-acre blocks of Woodsboro, there is something quite misty-eyed about the way in which those lush, oversaturated, hyperspatialised coordinates start to work their way into a new configuration over the course of Cursed.
I’ve realised, however, that I’ve got all this way without even describing what Cursed is about, although that’s somewhat reflective of my experience of the film as well, since as it now stands it plays as a couple of discrete horror ideas that never exactly gel – or, rather, a single horror idea that has been twisted and distorted out of its original shape. On the face of it, it’s a werewolf film set in Los Angeles, starring Christina Ricci and Jesse Eisenberg as a pair of siblings who are bitten by what appears to be a stray dog after a car crash on Mulholland Drive, only to gradually find themselves developing symptoms as the moon begins to wax. Only a director of Craven’s stature could open a film with a car accident on Mulholland Drive so shortly after the release of Mulholland Drive, and yet it’s a testament to his auteurist vision, as well as to the auteurist ambition of Cursed as a whole, that even in its butchered form this is still one of the more atmospheric scenes in his career, recalling David Lynch’s iconic opening sequence without ever feeling like anything other than Craven’s vision. It made sense, then, when I discovered that this scene was originally intended to play an even more foundational role in the film, which initially centres on three teenagers all meeting through a car crash and then developing symptoms in tandem without having any clear memory of having been bitten or infected in any way. Nevertheless, aspects of that original threesome – which purportedly featured Skeet Ulrich, as if the Scream connection wasn’t strong enough – still feature here, most uneasily in the quasi-sexual vibe between Eisenberg and Ricci, who were rewritten as siblings as the last minute, giving all their interactions an incestuous intensity that’s only enhanced by the fact that their own parents are also presented as having died in a car accident shortly before the story begins.
As a result, there is something about the opening scene of Cursed that recapitulates the opening scene of Mulholland Drive in terms of its thwarted seriality. Although Lynch’s film has been more or less cemented, solidified and canonised as a film it’s hard to underestimate the overwhelming awareness, when it was first released, that this was almost a television series. For me, at least, that imbued my first experience of the film with a certain bittersweetness that is hard to recreate from within our current media moment, when even the most minor directors are afforded a shot at television, and even the most minor series stand a decent chance of being renewed for a comeback. If part of what made the image of Laura Palmer’s body wrapped in plastic so pregnant was the prescience that it alone was capable of launching two whole seasons of Twin Peaks, then part of the poignancy of watching Mulholland Drive lay in experiencing an opening tableau of comparative ambiguity and ingenuity, but never having the opportunity to experience all its implications and complications unfold in a serial format. In many ways, the car crash in Cursed functions in much the same way, all the more so because the original opening scene – a solitary werewolf attack in the Hollywood Hills, featuring Mandy Moore – is utterly absent from the version as it now stands, which takes us through the most cursory of prologues before launching us straight into the accident. If reports are anything to go by, this was designed to be as memorable and spooky as the opening scene of Scream, with Moore drawing on Drew Barrymore’s one-scene performance to craft a show-stopping horror scene that would usher in the next phase in Craven’s career. As a result, Cursed doesn’t even offer the same amount of closure as Mulholland Drive, where we at least have the serial potential of that opening limousine ride. Of course, as Lynch has himself pointed out, the filmic condensation and displacement of the television version of Mulholland Drive has a certain poetry in itself, whereas Cursed, as it stands, just feels incomplete, inconsistent and, above all, frustrated.
What Mulholland Drive and Cursed do have in common, however, is their fixation with Los Angeles. For Craven, Los Angeles has always been synonymous with the plastic, prosthetic possibilities that linger around the fringes of his more pastoral suspense. As a result, it has formed the destination of his two most pastoral franchises, with Elm Street and Scream finally ending up in the Hollywood backlot by way of New Nightmare and Scream 3, which reimagine the most pastoral moments in their respective franchises as a series of Hollywood sets. Just as Scream followed on from New Nightmare, so Cursed follows on from Scream 3, and so it feels right that Craven’s third franchise – what could almost be described as the beginning of his third trilogy – opens in Los Angeles, effectively internalising the devolution pastoral into prosthetic tendencies that has defined his entire career, just as the city itself lurches between real and hyperreal terrain. Nowhere is that contradiction clearer than in the landscape around Hollywood itself, which Craven here presents in terms of two contiguous yet incommensurable spaces: the Hollywood Hills and Hollywood Boulevard. On the one hand, the Hills are presented a kind of epitome of Craven’s pastoral spaces, a free-floating chunk of suburbia that seems to have little to do with the scale or spectacle of the city glittering away in the distance. While we often hear about how Los Angeles is merely a series of suburbs in search of a city, most depictions of the L.A. sprawl are nevertheless invested in the idea that each discrete area is connected in some kind of organised, structured and continuous way – if not hierarchically, then at least as an extended network, which perhaps explains why there are so many ensemble dramas about Los Angeles, as well as why it is – somewhat ironically – that these ostensibly distended ensemble casts are often the most committed to a more or less conventionally “knowable” conception of the cityscape itself.
By contrast, Craven’s vision of Los Angeles suburbia is as detached from the rest of the city as if it were in Woodsboro, Elm Street or any of the other free-floating suburban spaces that have made up the pastoral element of his career. Far from feeling like a node in some great, if inscrutable network, the Hills – and, more specifically, Ricci and Eisenberg’s home, which is the main space in the Hills that the film elaborates – feels like an entirely self-contained, self-sufficient archetype of what suburbia looks like in the United States. It reminds us, then, that Craven’s suburbia is archetypal, which is why it becomes more plastic and prosthetic whenever Craven handles it – whether over the course of a single film or an extended franchise – since it is essentially an imaginary space, a vision of what suburbia purports to be rather than what suburbia actually is in reality. What makes Craven’s vision of suburbia so striking, however, is that he never quite dissociates these two things, since he’s prescient that suburbia’s fantasy of itself is in some sense what constitutes suburbia, turning his talents to drawing out those fantastic elements until they are indistinguishable from horror. In that sense, Craven was one of the great realists of contemporary American cinema, in the way that Steven Shaviro has identified both horror and melodrama as the most realistic of American cinematic genres, just as Los Angeles is the city where this fusion of reality and fantasy is most pronounced. In effect, you might say that, in Los Angeles, suburbia fulfils its mission as lived fantasy, which is why Craven’s suburbs always converge on Los Angeles, but also why Cursed feels like his most “realist” film to date, a continuation of Music of the Heart as much as Scream 3.
As a result, the suburban spaces around the Hills, and the house that Ricci and Eisenberg inhabit, simply never turns prosthetic in the way that is so characteristic of Craven, which is all the more remarkable in that it more or less functions as the main space in the film. Whereas part of the suspense of both the Scream and Elm Street franchises lay in the way in which they featured a rotating cast of houses and domestic spaces, Cursed features the most sustained focus on a single house since The People Under the Stairs. Recalling how drastically that films turns prosthetic should be enough to capture the uncanniness of the way in which Cursed always seems set to reveal something more inherently plastic about its sprawling suburban house only to recognise that the sheer fact of being in Los Angeles means that that plasticity has already somehow been incorporated into the cityscape itself. It works perfectly, then, that the only people we ever see in this house are Eisenberg and Ricci, since their unusual and compelling faces – let alone the quasi-incestuous rapport between them – also produce this retrospective response, especially at this moment in their respective careers. Watching them, you feel as if their expressions are a harbingers of a post-human plasticity, a physiological modification, that has somehow already happened, which is perhaps why this also feels like the beginning of Eisenberg’s golden era and the conclusion to Ricci’s, wrapping the film in a pair of incommensurate timelines that distorts any straightforward sense of these two characters being siblings in any recognisable way.
That refusal of the Hills to denature into something more prosthetic is all the more extraordinary in that the film offers us a quite plastic counterpoint only a couple of miles away: the Boulevard, where Ricci’s boyfriend, played by Joshua Jackson, spends most of the film preparing for the opening of a nightclub that will be decked out in props from the golden era of cinematic horror. Time and again, the film moves between these two spaces – in fact, that movement is what produces the opening accident, as well as the entire plotline that follows – but at no point do they feel remotely continuous. If anything, by maintaining the distance between these pastoral and plastic spaces, Craven also detaches suspense from catharsis, with the result that the Boulevard always feels too cathartic, an exercise in melodramatic hyperbole, while the Hills often feel too suspenseful, or at least never ever lose their suspenseful intensity. If L.A. is suburbia intensified to pure fantasy, then Craven’s vision of L.A. – at the moments at which it really comes into its own – offers up the prospect of a suspense unlike anything else in his career, a suspense that is so incapable of being satiated that it really seems to point towards the extended and experimental serial horror of so much contemporary television. It feels weirdly appropriate, then, that the film often seems to confuse vampire and werewolf iconography, since while this may be a legacy of Weinstein’s efforts to make Cursed speak to a world in which lycanthropy was increasingly superseding vampirism as the supernatural angle of choice, there’s also something undead about the vision of suburbia that Craven elaborates as well, just as there’s something undeadly insatiable about the suspended suspense with which he decks this supreme suburban space in his career.
While one can speculate eternally about how the original film might have looked, this categorical distinction between the Boulevard and Hills makes me wonder whether race may have played more of a role. While there are traces of that racial angle here – the first major “victim,” for example, is an African-American woman who is “punished” for passing for white – it’s more the werewolf iconography itself, and the way it forms both a supernatural bridge and a supernatural gulf between these two incommensurate zones, that makes me wonder how that might have played out in Craven’s director’s cut. In Ecology of Fear, Mike Davis notes that late twentieth-century Los Angeles was galvanised by two equally catastrophic events: the droughts of the late eighties, unprecedented in the city’s history, and the race riots of the early 90s, also unprecedented in both scale and media coverage. During the high period of the riots – that is, between the acquittal of the police officers charged with beating Rodney King and the acquittal of O.J. Simpson – it became typical, Davis argues, for a particular kind of media frenzy to equate these two flashpoints, representing white suburbia as threatened by predators from the desert and African-American agitators from the inner city. In fact, you might even say that the very presence of the riots drew attention to the fact that L.A. did in fact have an inner city – if not geographically, then certainly demographically, with one of the most troubling conclusions being that Los Angeles’ urban core was as dispersed and amorphous as its suburbs, distributed across a series of disenfranchised neighborhoods that were suddenly galvanised into a common identity. During the riots, then, the city contracted to something like the dimensions of a regular city. Combined with the gradual encroachment of desert animals into suburban enclaves, the result was a finely-tuned media hysteria that was forced to find a way to both articulate and disavow this continuity between previously incommensurate urban spaces.
At Davis points out, that resulted in a situation in which “the unruliness in the center of the metropolis was figuratively recapitulated at its periphery” – or, rather in which Los Angeles became discernible, momentarily, as centre and periphery – as the tabloid media increasingly used the language of biological predation to refer to inner-city African-American gangs and the language of mob violence to refer to the actual predators that were ravaging the parks, streets and gardens of the fringe suburbs in search of some kind of food. It’s no surprise, then, that the various werewolves of Cursed tend to come closer to their canine selves in the suburbs, since the film as a whole feels like something of an effort to take stock of this situation some ten years later, not necessarily in the spirit of explicit racial critique, but more in the sense that the self-contained visions of the Hills and the Boulevard – here more or less collapsed into the inner city – that Craven is promulgating rely on racial stratification and segregation for their very existence. As a result, it also doesn’t feel very surprising that the segments in which the characters morph into werewolves visualise a certain white nightmare of becoming African-American, or incorporating African-American qualities into a white facial structure, something that was perhaps a bit lost amongst the aggressively bland CGI with which Weinstein insisted on replacing Rick Baker’s prosthetics, but is still there at the few moments when that more plastic brand of horror comes to the fore. In some ways, this fear of becoming African-American – so pervasive and yet so unspeakable in American cinema – is the real horrific kernel of the film, and is only exacerbated by two leads – three, if you count Ulrich – who are so white that they are virtually transparent, suffused with a pallid, undead sheen that makes you wonder whether the whole subsequent battle between vampires and werewolves, and between languid supernaturalism and prosthetic artificiality, that would define the 2000s, wasn’t in some sense an extension of the buried racial tensions so artfully unearthed here.
At the end of the day, too, I wonder whether it was this sense of some uneasily unspeakable racial and social critique that prompted Weinstein to pull the plug on Craven and Williamson’s original vision – a sense that it was somehow too “serious.” Certainly, it would be hard to believe that even the most incompetent producer would been reluctant to let the duo have their way after they’d produced the most financially successful and artistically influential horror franchise of the previous fifteen years. Of course, the decision may have also stemmed from Weinstein’s suspicion that werewolf horror wasn’t especially fashionable – but then again, it has never really been fashionable, with even the original Wolf Man films forming something of a second tier within the Universal horror repertoire, just as the lycanthropic 80s unfold as a kind of subsidiary counterpoint to the more visible and expansive slasher aesthetic that Craven himself helped pioneer. Nevertheless, even in its diluted and fragmented form, it’s clear that this was never intended to be a ordinary werewolf film but instead an attempt to continue the aesthetics of both Scream and Elm Street while also shooting the first great Los Angeles horror film after Mulholland Drive. For all those reasons, I can only assume that Weinstein saw something in Cursed that was too auteurist, too “serious” or too “horrific” only to promptly water it down while claiming to be performing quality control. Whether or not that unspoken element was racial or not is hard to definitively say, but whatever it was, it lends the film, as it now stands, a different kind of horror – the horror of something it was never permitted to say – that makes it a striking oddity in Craven’s body of work, even if was never permitted to be one of his more memorable films on its own terms.