Studio Inferno: On Cherry Falls (2000) and Cursed (2005)

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Even at the best of times, making films is a blood sport, a mess of talent, ego and politics. Often those filmmakers who are truly successful find ways around the Hollywood system, making films independently or amassing such power and influence that their taste and ability aren’t questioned. Successful and iconic horror films have veered between major studio efforts and pure independence with massive success stories on both sides of the coin; for every Rosemary’s Baby (1968) there’s a Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974). 

The 90s were a strange time for horror, it wasn’t really one thing or the other. Slashers had been overtaken by their monsters (Freddy, Jason etc); body and extreme horror was still bubbling under the surface; and horror-comedy was still popping up as blips on the radar. It wasn’t until Dimension, Miramax’s B-movie off-shoot released Scream in 1996 that studios were reminded of the financial power that horror could yield. Scream was a smart and fresh look at high-schoolers who had actually seen the movies their lives were becoming, as a killer stalks and kills them. Granted, this post-modern light had been done in horror before with the likes of There’s Nothing Out There (1991) and Wes Craven’s New Nightmare (1994) to name a couple. Scream however was a slickly produced feature with a recognizable cast that audiences connected with, and wound up with a worldwide gross of $173,000,000. Immediately, a sequel was put into development and knock-offs were pumped out fast and furiously. After a smattering of I Still Know That Your Final Destination is an Urban Legends hit theatres, independent cinema reared its head again with The Blair Witch Project (1999), which garnered a healthy box office on a microscopic budget, making it one of the most profitable films ever made.

When seeming anomalies like The Blair Witch Project happen, studios get nervous. Though involved to some degree with all of their productions, when they get worried they micromanage in an attempt to make films as commercial as possible. Many have fallen victim to “studio interference,” some of which have wound up costing the studios money in off-loading the strange works created when too many people get involved.

In 1998, it was announced that Australian director Geoffrey Wright—who helped launch Russell Crowe’s career with Romper Stomper (1992)—would helm a black-comedy slasher starring Brittany Murphy, Jay Mohr and Michael Biehn entitled Cherry Falls. Set in the titular small town, the film follows local high school students that are being killed because they are virgins. Outside of the flip where virgins are in danger, Cherry Falls follows the slasher formula – a small town, a dark secret and a Final Girl who can end things, but the threat still looms lover her at the end. Cherry Falls had a good budget and the backing of USA Films. However, when the film was submitted to the MPAA, the ratings board in the States, they deemed the film far too violent and threatened to slap it with an NC-17 rating, generally equivalent to a kiss of death for a film looking to make back its money. Struggling to get an R Rating (Scream also had similar problems) the film was cut to exclude extraneous violence and sexuality. For a film that is ostensibly about sex and characters actively seeking to lose their virginity once the killer’s targeting is revealed, it’s hard to lose the parts that actively deal with such. By omitting the violence, we’re left with limp scenes where the killer strikes and the shot cuts away to a reaction shot, with overt sound effects overlain.

Cherry Falls is a strange film. It’s neither a full-fledged Heathers-style comedy, nor a winking nod to the genre like Scream. It occupies a space somewhere in-between. The conceit of a killer targeting virgins is a clever twist, but the overall picture is so tonally odd that it never settles comfortably into telling its particular story. The film is soon mired in a bizarre sexual tension between fathers and daughter, aggressive toe sucking that’s played straight and a bombastic score only pierced by Murphy’s screams. 

Cherry Falls received some positive reviews that admired its twists and stabs at subversive humor, but it was never theatrically released in North America (though it did play in cinemas in Europe). It unceremoniously debuted on the USA Network and the memory of it only exists among the genre fans who’ve sought it out. Cherry Falls never reached its potential and USA Films became too scared of the reception of a film that, while flawed, is still far better and weirder than most of the similar offerings that were soon forgotten by mainstream audiences.

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While Cherry Falls is an interesting, watchable mess, Wes Craven’s Cursed is an unmitigated disaster. Financed by Dimension Films, Cursed seemed like a no-brainer. Pair up Wes Craven and his Scream screenwriter Kevin Williamson to tackle werewolves with a recognizable, WB television approved cast. It could have worked, if it had been 1998. Cursed found itself in 2005, not only well after The Blair Witch Project, but the J-Horror remakes that terrified audiences in the early 00s. Cursed was a decided throwback to the goofier elements of Scream 3. Swap out Ghostface with a werewolf and you’ve got something close, but with none of the menace. A werewolf stalks and turns young Los Angelenos into werewolves and the film focusses on Ellie (Christina Ricci) and her younger brother Jimmy (Jesse Eisenberg) as their newfound lycan tendencies affect their everyday lives.

Almost from the beginning, Cursed couldn’t escape its name. The script was massively rewritten before and during production, which stopped shooting and delayed the film for over a year. In that time, the production had to recast several actors who had already filmed scenes, due to scheduling conflicts. The result is a sadly unwatchable paint-by-numbers post-modern 90s horror film made by the two people who launched the sub-genre. 

To be fair, Craven’s made some doozies (see: Deadly Friend), but they were fun and strange. Cursed is a wasted opportunity that was passé before production began.  In his previous films, Williamson, a life-long horror fan, had taken care to establish the rules of the world that the film plays in; Cursed does away with trying to explain anything as characters meander through scenes with no purpose or clarity. Often, scenes and set pieces feel in direct conflict with rewrites. The film then wound up with a worldwide gross of $30 million, was quietly swept under the rug and all involved hoped to forget about it.

Both Cherry Falls and Cursed’s problematic elements stem from interference, which either softened or lost sight of subversion. Cherry Falls’ dependence on sexuality and violence, which would have enhanced the film’s subversive qualities, never saw the light of day, forcing the film to skirt around the exact issues it wanted to address. Cursed is the result of much bigger structural problems, accompanied by the Weinstein Bros. who bought and sold Hollywood on the “independent spirit” of the early 90s. The egos involved in the production of Cursed must have thought that it was a formula that couldn’t fail, but it was a formula that barely made sense to begin with. Cursed couldn’t see past the potential box office grosses of the late 90s in a current cinematic landscape. Horror at its best strives to subvert and by doing so, reinvents itself time and again. These titles now occupy a space in horror where those who seek them out may not be satisfied by the films, but the space to wonder what might have been.

Alexandra West is a freelance horror journalist who lives, works, and survives in Toronto. Her work has appeared in the Toronto Star, Rue Morgue, Post City Magazine and Offscreen Film Journal. In December 2012, West co-founded the Faculty of Horror podcast with fellow writer Andrea Subissati, which explores the analytical side of horror films and the darkest recesses of academia.