For a horror flick about a hardass English landlord losing everything due to werewolf problems to leave me largely cold is kind of a feat in and of itself, but against all odds Sean Ellis’s Eight for Silver manages to seize the ring. Its paper-thin characters, scattershot continuity, and lack of focus cut off at the knees what could have been rich, engrossing genre fare. There’s a rushed feel to the entire film, a sense of missing connective tissue as we skip from scene to scene, talking circles around the dirt-simple plot until it takes up twice the time a more confident script might have necessitated. Throw in some truly bizarre and poorly explained hokum about the thirty pieces of silver paid to Judas for his betrayal of Christ and the resulting whirlwind of mediocrity is just too much. The cast is game, especially scowling, repressed patriarch and landholder Seamus (Alistair Petrie), but with virtually nothing in the way of character development and precious little down time in which any sort of moment might land or trait make itself evident, there’s only so much they can do.
The film’s single strongest element — aside from its gorgeous costumes — is the inciting slaughter of a Roma clan by local English landholders. Ellis frames the entire massacre in a single unmoving distance shot, the voices of victims and perpetrators alike reduced to hushed babble by distance as things swiftly deteriorate from intimidation to savagery. The shot lasts hardly a minute, but by the time it’s over it feels as though you’ve been watching this senseless cruelty for hours, trapped in the knowledge that no one escapes, that this place is so isolated and these traveling folk so devoid of social connection or currency that we can watch the terrible crime of their murder disappear into the landscape in real time.
A better movie might have built something truly impressive around such an affecting scene, but Eight for Silver plods on from it without ever really saying much about the Roma people, the systematic exploitation of the weak by the strong, or the UK’s history of xenophobic violence. Its intermittently beautiful shots of hunting parties and the misty, windswept countryside can’t make up for its essential emptiness.
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There’s a muddled but engaging transformation sequence in the film’s back half, but in general the creature effects fall flat in spite of an admirably nasty basic design. Eight for Silver’s raw-skinned werewolves prove far more frightening out of sight than they do in focus, a lesson Spielberg and Scott learned over forty years ago and which directors have been resolutely ignoring ever since. Petrie spins a measure of gold out of his action scene opposite one of the things using little more than short, sharp body language and a cold expression, but Ellis’s attempt to wring a compelling physical performance out of the inert Boyd Holbrook falls especially flat when the camera follows him into peril. Holbrook’s tepid screen presence is one of the film’s sourest notes, and his repeated introduction perfectly illustrates the problems plaguing its script. Eight for Silver has all the pieces necessary for a gripping and socially incisive werewolf yarn; that they never come together is a genuine disappointment.