“It’s an atmospheric, visually striking period piece that thrives most in the quiet moments of unease.”
In a small village in rural 19th century France, a string of violent attacks against the locals warrant a traveling pathologist, John McBride (Boyd Holbrook), to intervene, and investigate the potentially supernatural source behind what are being labeled “animal attacks”. So begins the central mystery of Eight For Silver, director Sean Ellis’ reimagining of classic werewolf lore. Clouded in heavy fog and dread of the unknown, the film establishes itself early on as more of a slow burn tale of suspense, laced with moments of shock and grotesque imagery but not outright frightening. It relies less on jump scares and more on the promise that something is about to happen, keeping you on edge until you get a glimpse at what’s lurking just off-screen.
The conflict begins when Seamus (Alistair Petrie), the owner of an estate, enlists mercenaries to help him scare off a clan of Romani people camping on land that he insists is his, after he learns that their claim to the land can be disregarded because it isn’t officially documented. The threats to the clan escalate into merciless bloodshed, as the men torch the camp and inflict torture on individuals at random. It is particularly painful to watch one of the victims be turned into a human scarecrow, bound to watch over the land that was stolen from them, and another be buried alive with a set of silver teeth that appear to be an ancient, cursed object.
With Seamus and his men making it a point to “eliminate the gypsy problem”, it’s easy to assume that the violence against the Romani and the tension between the groups will be an integral part of the story, or at least be built upon more. Aside from the silver teeth later coming into play and the human scarecrow inspiring a pattern of nightmares for the townspeople, we don’t see or hear much about the people who were targeted, or the Romani culture. Instead, Eight For Silver shifts its focus to the supernatural folklore, and how that influences Seamus’ family, including his wife, Isabelle (Kelly Reilly), and his children, Charlotte (Amelia Crouch) and Edward (Max Mackintosh). They are sheltered from the barbaric actions of the patriarch of the family and the brutality of the world outside until the curse from the Romani pierces through. When Timmy (Tommy Rodger), a friend of Edward’s, digs up the silver teeth and is taken over by them when he tries them on, he bites Edward like a rabid animal, causing him to experience strange and concerning symptoms.
After Edward goes missing, John the pathologist takes on the burden of trying to find out what happened to him, and what is behind the violent attacks. It’s a personal vendetta for him after bearing witness to similar attacks in another village that were said to be caused by wolves. Credit is due to Ellis for constructing a lore that incorporates elements not often used in traditional stories about werewolves, especially factoring in the design of the werewolves themselves. The reveal of not only what they look like but also what is going on within their bodies that separates the monster from the human is what makes the creatures feel truly gruesome, and quite unlike anything we’ve seen before in this type of film.
But even with it’s cleverly imagined werewolves, Eight For Silver lacks the needed depth that makes us truly care about what happens to the characters we are meant to be concerned for, causing the stakes to feel less high than they should in a film about literal monsters ravaging a town. Perhaps it needed to incorporate more of the struggle between the social classes and ethnic groups it hinted at in the beginning, and would be a stronger film if it allowed the Romani characters to exist outside of their folklore. There’s a fine balance and sensitivity that’s needed if the film wants to be both a creature feature and a historical drama that touches on real life violence and cruelty. It struggles to fully get there in that respect, making certain storylines feel incomplete or unnecessary. But in what it does well, Eight For Silver stands out. It’s an atmospheric, visually striking period piece that thrives most in the quiet moments of unease, capable of crafting terror in your mind from anticipation and imagination alone.
Dir: Sean Ellis
Prod: Sean Ellis, Pete Shilaimon, Mickey Liddell
Cast: Boyd Holbrook, Kelly Reilly, Amelia Crouch, Alistair Petrie
Header image courtesy of Sundance Institute