Imagine a thinking man’s Sleepy Hollow with mucus-y gore effects, or a feature-length X-Files episode produced for HBO and you might have something close to Eight For Silver, writer-director Sean Ellis’s riff on Victorian werewolves premiering at Sundance this week. Like Game Of Thrones or The Witch before it, Eight For Silver is so beguiling as a straight period piece that the elements of the fantastic just feel like icing. Ellis combines Robert Eggers’ historical meticulousness with Ari Aster from Midsommar‘s flair for exuberant gore in a movie that’s arguably a little more “pop” than either.
One of the quirks of a virtual Sundance is that you can just switch to a different movie if one isn’t working for you without gathering your things in the dark and trudging through the snow to another theater. Without naming any names here, in a year of drab streamers, Eight For Silver‘s vivid yet icy compositions immediately stood out. It opens in the WWI trenches, on the front lines of the Somme where French soldiers are masking up for a charge as mustard gas explodes overhead. We cut to a surgeon removing bullets from a dying soldier. The surgeon pulls one bullet, two, and then a shiny third that doesn’t look at all like the others. “This isn’t a German bullet,” notes the surgeon. “Eight for silver,” croaks the dying man in his last breath.
From there we flash back to the 1800s, where a dour landlord — Seamus Laurent, played by Alistair Petrie — and his fellow landowners are having some trouble with a band of gypsies squatting on their land. They probably should’ve just asked the gypsies nicely to move along, or figured out a way to coexist peacefully, but this being Victorian England they definitely don’t do that. Thus, the die is cast.
With the townspeople having some… er… trouble, a handsome stranger arrives, Ichabod Crane-like, to investigate. Boyd Holbrook, the thinking man’s Garrett Hedlund, plays John McBride, an out-of-town pathologist. “Men keep speaking even after they’re dead. I listen,” he explains.
McBride shacks up with Seamus and his wife and daughter (Kelly Reilly from Flight and Amelia Crouch) at their manor house while he tries to figure out what’s going on, and even though he’s playing things pretty close to the vest, it’s obvious that he believes the trouble is something supernatural. Gypsy curses, hot people, and werewolves, oh my!
The beauty of Eight For Silver is that it’s hard to decide whether Sean Ellis is better at shooting restrained Victorian stoicism or balls-out gore; whether the next scene will bring arthouse restraint or multiplex schlock. Like Sleepy Hollow before it (though without Burtonian preciousness), Eight For Silver is a little bit of both. It works wonderfully together. It’s a movie that offers thrills, chills, and just the right amount of thinking.
‘Eight For Silver’ is playing at Sundance this week with no release date set as of this writing.