Few film festivals can match the prestige of having a film debut at Sundance. Each January, the festival kicks the year off with a bang by premiering critically acclaimed titles that go on to dominate the award season conversation.
Sure, films like Little Miss Sunshine and Boys Don’t Cry receive most of the mainstream spotlight. But if you dig a little deeper, Sundance’s Midnight section has a stellar track-record unveiling horror gems. Last year the program delivered several standout scary flicks: Relic, Impetigore, Run Sweetheart Run, Bad Hair, and His House.
Go back a little further, and you’ll find titles like Hereditary, The Babadook, It Follows, The Witch, and The Blair Witch Project. You never know which movie will be the next horror classic, so I always look forward to binging through the festival’s Midnight program.
The most promising film on this year’s slate is writer-director Sean Ellis’s intriguing new horror-mystery, Eight for Silver. This haunting period-piece works both as an anti-colonialism takedown and a violent and pulpy horror-thriller.
Eight for Silver takes place in a remote European village during the 1800s. When an entitled land baron (Alistair Petrie) discovers a Roma clan on “his” land, he’s not too pleased. Being a ruthless bastard and all, he doesn’t just drive them off; he massacres them. His men murder the entire clan, torch the camp, and even bury one woman alive. But before the buried woman breathes her last breath, she curses the village.
Soon after, the townsfolk begin having the same nightmare, local children go missing, and mutilated bodies start turning up. It seems like the work of a wild animal, but brooding pathologist John McBride (Boyd Holbrook) knows better since he’s tangled with these malevolent forces once before.
Eight for Silver’s visuals and incredible sense of atmosphere are the stars of the show. It’s one of the most transporting horror movies I’ve experienced in a long while. Think of the spooky town in Tim Burton’s Sleepy Hollow reimagined as a place that exists in the real world. Ellis loads his frames with stunning compositions that wouldn’t look out of place as horror novel cover art.
Early on, Eight for Silver reminded me of Robert Eggers’ The Witch and Jennifer Kent’s The Nightingale, but that comparison doesn’t hold up past the movie’s midway point. Whereas Eggers and Kent’s films use atmosphere and tension to psychologically terrorize viewers with what’s unseen, Ellis doubles down on visual effects, both practical and CG.
This movie is over-the-top violent and doesn’t hesitate to let the blood and guts fly. Skip this one if you’re even a tiny bit squeamish. Ellis depicts live amputations, rotting corpses, and of course, monstrous werewolf-like creatures. While Eight for Silver is billed as a werewolf movie, the plot takes enough liberties with its creature mythology that it feels like its own thing — something closer to a skinwalker.
While the first half of the film is a tense, anxiety-inducing slow burn, the second half switches gears and picks up the pace. The story loses its intrigue once it reveals the creatures and what unfolds after that crosses into action-thriller territory.
Unfortunately, the script fails to bring any of its characters to life, making the story feel cold and clinical. It’s not that I didn’t like Holbrook’s haunted monster hunter, but I never rooted for him either. Regardless of its forgettable protagonist and generic second half, this chilling monster flick is still worth checking out.
Eight for Silver doesn’t rise to the level of other Sundance horror classics, but few films clear that high bar. Its creepy atmosphere and stunning production design are worth the admission price and the story’s unique take on werewolf mythology packs some added bite.
Sundance 2021 runs from January 28th until February 3rd. Click here for more Sundance coverage.