Among monster movies, is there a sub-subgenre as scare-free as the werewolf movie? Even the acknowledged classic lycanthrope films tend to be light on frights. Instead, they tend to focus on giving their tortured wolf-men (and women) a sense of humanity to counteract their animal urges while generating the audience’s sympathy. It also doesn’t help that wolves aren’t especially scary (unless you happen to run into one in real life). Sean Ellis’ Eight for Silver attempts to rectify this problem by overhauling the werewolf design to the point where it barely resembles the creature. His film is certainly chilling and elegantly made, but he sets up themes that are abandoned along the way in favor of violence and gore.
The film opens in the trenches of World War I, where Captain Edward Laurent leads a group of British soldiers out of trenches seething with mustard gas into the fire of a German machine gun. He’s struck down and dies on the operating table after a surgeon removes three bullets — along with a curious silver bullet that he notices can’t be from the German artillery. Morbidly, the silver bullet removed from his abdomen is mailed back to his family with his personal possessions. The film then jumps back 35 years to when Edward was just a boy on a country estate. It’s part of a massive area owned by his father Seamus (Alistair Petrie), who has multiple families farming the property for him. But a caravan of gypsies has rolled onto the land, claiming that it belongs to them. There are documents verifying their ownership going back decades, but Seamus can’t imagine parting with it, so he and the other men running the estate attack the gypsies. After a scene of shocking brutality, they bury what’s left of the gypsies, along with a curse cast against Seamus’ family by a dying matriarch.
Seamus’ children know nothing of the massacre, yet they and other children in the area begin having the same nightmares about the field planted with corpses. The children are the first to pay the price for Seamus’ transgressions, with one boy gruesomely killed and Edward injured before he disappears. Enter John McBride (Boyd Holbrook), a pathologist who just happens to be in the area in search of gypsies. He doesn’t find them, but he has at least an idea about what plague has befallen the village. In contemporary echoes, his relatively sound advice is ignored by Seamus and the village elders, all of whom are trying to hide their terrible misdeeds.
Ellis, who wrote, directed, produced, and lensed Eight for Silver, takes his time before introducing his version of the werewolf, and it’s even longer before we get a substantial look at it. The beast looks more like an extraterrestrial than a wolf, but it’s a welcome and unexpected change that verges on Cronenbergian body horror. The film also boasts a strong, understated performance from Holbrook, but the people of the village are anonymous. Seamus has shown himself capable of great evil, but we never get a glimpse into what drives him, and a brief turn toward self-awareness seems forced. Ellis hints at the dynamics between the peasants and the village elders just as the bodies start to pile up, but he leaves that behind once the werewolf has been seen. Whether or not the curse has been vanquished isn’t even settled, but not because Ellis means for it to be ambiguous. He just seems to have forgotten. Eight for Silver offers a tantalizing vision for how to revive the werewolf movie, but it’s lacking once you get past the great atmosphere.