Thoughts On The Original (!) Version Of CURSED
Among "can't miss" prospects, few in horror history ever seemed as promising as when it was announced that Wes Craven and Kevin Williamson would reteam for a werewolf film in the same vein as their original SCREAM, the trend-setting slasher that continues to draw audiences and inspire horror filmmakers today, 25 years later. Unfortunately, that resulting followup, aptly named CURSED, would be met with total indifference when it was released in February of 2005, grossing less than even the SCREAM wannabes that their previous success had inspired. Hell, it didn't even outgross (the much cheaper) AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN PARIS, which was lambasted by critics as trying to be "the SCREAM version" of a werewolf movie.
So what happened? Well that story could make for a full article itself, and I can't ask you to be here all day reading this, so I'll just sum up. The short version is that Craven and Williamson may have put Bob Weinstein's Dimension on the map, but it didn't mean they would be trusted and left alone by the notoriously reshoot/re-edit prone producer. With about 90% of the film shot and assembled, the slightly less awful of the two Weinsteins decided he wasn't happy with the results and ordered reshoots, the extent of which meant having to overhaul much of the cast as well, as some weren't available to return or simply didn't fit into the new version. So out went Skeet Ulrich, Mandy Moore, Wilmer Valderrama, Omar Epps, Robert Forster (...it might be easier to just list the handful who DID return than the ones who didn't), and in came Mya, Joshua Jackson, Nick Offerman, Michael Rosenbaum, and a different werewolf to boot. Nothing against those new performers, but come on - on what planet does someone think they're making a movie *better* by REMOVING Robert Forster?
And yet it still wasn't enough for ol' Bob. After the film was finally finished with the new script and cast, the producer decided he still wasn't happy, and ordered a new ending, forcing some of the actors to come back a third time to shoot scenes for a film that no longer resembled the one they signed up for. Finally, for one last indignity, Weinstein opted to cut the film - always meant and shot for an R rating - to meet PG-13 standards, as a means of letting in more ticket buyers to help recoup the cost of what was now a very expensive movie. The DVD version offered an unrated cut, which one can assume is more or less what Craven and his longtime editor Patrick Lussier had turned in before it was trimmed of its R rated fare, but the original (well, "original") ending was not included, and the version with Ulrich and the others has never seen the light of day.
Thanks to a sympathetic acquaintance who knew that the original cut was something I frequently wished on social media that I could see someday (and knew how I could see it), I was allowed to see rough cuts of those two unreleased versions: the one with Skeet and the others (hereby called the "A" cut), and the one with the original ending ("B" cut), comparing them to the unrated version that I had on my rarely viewed DVD. (I should note here that I have never seen the PG-13 theatrical version, though I consulted a guide on the changes and it seems the restored bits were only of the gore variety; as far as the story/characters, the theatrical and unrated cuts that were officially released are, for all intents and purposes, the same.) And as it turns out - big shock coming in - both were superior to the one that actually got released.
Devil's Advocate time: I can see why Weinstein wasn't thrilled with the first cut, as it didn't have a lot of action in it. After the opening scene, in which Mandy Moore fills the now obligatory "Drew Barrymore slot", flirting with a stranger then being killed a few minutes later, no one died for nearly an hour. One can levy the same "complaint" at SCREAM, but that had the pair of attacks on Sidney (her house and the school bathroom) to keep the pace up, and lowered expectations for good measure. Now with everyone *expecting* the "next SCREAM", it's clear that this version wouldn't have found as much love from audiences, as it's more character driven than action heavy, with less emphasis on humor. But when you strip it of the producers' desires and judge it on its own terms, it's actually an interesting take on the familiar werewolf mythos, with the three leads (Skeet plus Christina Ricci and Jesse Eisenberg, who both remained onboard for all its incarnations) dealing with the curse in their own way - and largely on their own - before finally uniting to take on the beast that attacked them in the first place.
In the original "A" version, Ricci has just broken up with her boyfriend (Scott Foley, another SCREAM vet who wouldn't return for the revised "B" version) when - as in the finished version - something hits her windshield and causes her to crash into another car. Originally, the other car was driven by Skeet's character Vince, driving home drunk from a Hollywood nightclub (the reshoot changed the other car's owner into Shannon Elizabeth's character, who is in both versions but used very differently). As for Eisenberg, he just happens to be driving by and stops to help. If that sounds confusing to those who have seen the finished version, that's probably the weirdest change from one to the other, as originally he and Ricci's characters were total strangers, while the reshoots turned them into siblings. Anyway, after this it's somewhat similar for a bit, the trio is attacked by a beast of some sort, with only Eisenberg's Jimmy suspecting a werewolf. The next day they are all trying to shake off the experience, but are noticing things: Ricci's Ellie is attracted to the smell of blood and can catch flies with a bare hand, while Jimmy finds himself getting stronger and more confident.
However, now that they have been retconned into siblings, Ricci and Eisenberg's characters interact far more often, have a different backstory, etc. Ultimately, most of the changes from the "A" to "B" version stemmed from either this change, or (more drastically) removing Vince entirely. In the released version, Vince was more or less replaced with Jake (Joshua "Pacey" Jackson, reuniting with DAWSON’S CREEK creator Williamson), Ellie's boyfriend and an artist who is about to unveil a new club called Tinsel, which is peppered with wax replicas of famous TV and movie characters. Unlike Vince, Jake is already cursed and has been since birth, and has seemingly learned how to control it to avoid hurting anyone. When he learns Ellie has been attacked, he knows what's going on even before she does, but doesn't say anything at first because he knows he'll sound crazy.
It's not the worst idea to have a sympathetic character being already cursed, so the backstory/mythology can be filled in by someone we know as opposed to a random supporting character or what they can find in books or the internet, but the problem is Vince's arc was more interesting than Ellie or Jimmy's, so removing it robbed the movie of much of its dramatic pull. In the original version, Vince tries to continue his rich kid lifestyle, getting drunk and bickering with his father (James Brolin) about being so aimless, but is noticing changes as well and starting to get concerned. This comes to a head when he attacks his father during an argument and also discovers that Shannon Elizabeth's character has been killed, seemingly right after the two of them had a date that ended with him blacking out and waking up without any clothes on. Did he wolf out and kill her? It's clear that Williamson had a three-pronged idea here with regards to the curse: Jimmy embraces it, Ellie tries to ignore it, and Vince fears it. Taking Jake out means none of our protagonists are particularly scared, leaving the story less engaging.
Plus, with her and Jake already in a relationship, there's less of a romantic angle, which is something that helped the first two SCREAM films find a wider audience. Those crowds would have probably enjoyed watching Ellie and Vince's burgeoning romance grow, as the two meet up a few times and eventually have sex (set to Evanescence's song du jour, "Bring Me To Life"), with Skeet's casting giving horror fans a reason to believe that he might turn bad again after. In the released version, with its breakneck pace, there's barely any time for Ellie and Jake to come off as an actual couple, as we never see them together normally as in his first scene he is already acting weird due to the incoming full moon. Jackson is a charming performer and mostly makes it work, but it's clear that Ricci's character was hampered by the switcheroo.
As for Eisenberg, his scenes are more or less the same as they were in the finished version; in fact, the one character in the entire thing who wasn’t overhauled in any way is Brooke (Kristina Anapau), Jimmy's love interest. Anapau apparently didn't take part in the reshoots, but her role was essentially untouched (though she originally would have played a part in the climax instead of disappearing before it occurred), as if she was the one thing Weinstein thought they got right the first time. Milo Ventimiglia as her boyfriend/Jimmy's rival Bo also managed to more or less escape unscathed, though like Anapau he would have factored into the ending a bit more had it not been changed. The only big change for him is when/where he comes out as gay to Jimmy (who he wrongly assumes is also gay), as it originally occurred after they've escaped from Jimmy's wolfed out dog instead of before (I'll give the studio credit for not excising it entirely as it was rather progressive for the time). Otherwise, as far as Eisenberg's performance goes, the only thing of note that was lost are scenes with his abusive father (John C. McGinley), who had to go when they randomly decided to make Jimmy and Ellie (orphaned) siblings. As with Forster, you have to wonder how anyone - let alone a successful producer - comes to the conclusion that cutting a great and dependable performer like McGinley is going to improve the movie.
It's kind of fascinating to watch the three versions back to back and see how things survived but were used in different spots. Editors Lussier and Lisa Romaniw should be commended for how well they were able to salvage bits and pieces of otherwise discarded scenes, not to mention blend the old and new footage (from at least three shoots spread out over a year) so seamlessly. For example, Shannon Elizabeth's scene at the beach where she encounters a fortune teller is the opening scene of the released version, but originally this took place around the halfway point of the film, and she was with Skeet's character, not her friend Jenny (Mya). The fortune teller was also recast; out went Illeana Douglas, in came Portia de Rossi. So a lot of this original sequence was no longer usable, obviously, but snippets of it survived in the final, like when she is looking for Vince/Jenny and wandering around near a Bowling for Soup concert. And they were able to use some of the footage of the opening scene, featuring Mandy Moore as a server at a PETA party, for the replacement scene that occurs much later, allowing me to discover that - surprise! - Moore actually still appears in the film for a second thanks to an establishing shot.
For those seeing only the finished version of the film you would never know it was her, but if you saw her scene you'd instantly recognize her white cat outfit, talking to a guy dressed as a werewolf. And that costumed character she is speaking to is none other than Scott Baio, playing himself! Baio had nothing better to do at the time (a meta joke that's in all versions of the film) so he remained in the finished version even though they removed the entire point of his character, which is that he was recently cursed and was attempting to get his first kill. The werewolf mask doesn't fully disguise that it's him (anyone who saw the cast list would be able to figure it out through process of elimination), but Williamon's script still offers a twist in that Baio is not the bad werewolf. Through all versions of the movie, the werewolf who killed Moore/Mya and Shannon Elizabeth was Baio's assistant Joanie (Judy Greer), who ended up finishing the job he couldn't bring himself to do. In the finished version, Joanie is working alone; Baio remains uncursed and she is simply killing anyone she considers competition for Jake's affections, as she had an affair with him (and was cursed in turn) and wants him back.
All due respect to Craven and Williamson (and Greer, for that matter), but this never really felt like a satisfying resolution to the mystery. Joanie is barely seen in the "A" version and for the "B" and released versions she is just among all the clutter, as there are just too many characters coming and going throughout the film for the mystery to ever get to the forefront. You could even be forgiven for forgetting that there was ever a whodunit type mystery to solve in the first place. If you go back to things like THE WOLFMAN or AMERICAN WEREWOLF IN LONDON (both being heavy influences on the film that were whittled away with each new cut), the "original" werewolf is never much of a concern and is settled pretty quickly so you can focus on the newly cursed person. Presenting this sort of story as a full blown mystery is fine, but with so many characters fighting for screentime you not only end up with a situation where any reveal might yield a "Wait, who was that again?" type of response, but it also takes time away from the central characters. "Aimless" is a word that one could levy at any version of the film, it simply became more so with each new pass.
While we're on the topic of the reveal, it should be noted that the "A" version I watched doesn't actually have an ending, as it was never shot. Like the released version, it would have ended in the wax museum/nightclub, but the cut I saw ends as all of the principal characters run inside after realizing that their nemesis is on the premises (if you compare to say, SCREAM 2, it'd be like if it ended when Hallie died, re: how much more was left). The only way to know how it would end is to read the script, which is easy enough to find online. I can verify the authenticity of the online script as it more or less matches the cut I saw (save a few minor differences in dialogue and the odd extended/removed scene here and there, i.e. a slightly earlier draft than what was used for the shoot) and from what I understand this scripted ending was the one they were planning to shoot before Weinstein shut things down. It's here we'd learn that Baio was cursed but innocent while Joanie was the killer, and our hero trio would take her on, with Baio surviving and getting a career boost. As for our leads, Jimmy and Brooke would become an item and remain friendly with the no longer cloested Bo, and Vince and Ellie would seemingly continue their relationship; a nice happy ending that could have worked just fine and, with a little more TLC on the film as a whole, resulted in a perfectly enjoyable entry in everyone’s filmography.
The "B" version also ends at the club, albeit without Brooke's involvement and having Baio run outside with everyone else instead of playing a part in the proceedings. And despite the lesser quality of this version as a whole, the ending was actually kind of great in its own way, as after dispatching Joanie, Jake would realize that this sort of thing would keep happening unless he was killed as well. He begs Ellie to kill him, and she refuses, so he instigates her by suddenly rushing over to Jimmy and wiping a wound on the boy's mouth, forcing him to swallow and activate the curse. With Jake's death being the only thing that can save her brother (the movie's mythology dictates that if the original wolf is killed, everyone he cursed will be saved), Ellie gives in and kills him, with his head landing at the foot of Larry Talbot's statue in the wax museum. It's a well done, tragic ending that would fit in with the films that inspired it, and - in its own way - almost made the reshoot worth all the trouble. The movie wasn't necessarily better, but a slightly downbeat, meaningful finale would at least be more daring than everyone almost literally walking off into the sunset as it was before.
Alas, Weinstein had to screw that up as well, demanding a new ending in which Jake turns evil for no reason whatsoever, adding more bad CGI to the mix and trimming more "fat" out of the movie to keep the runtime about the same now that he added a second climax (a move he'd also do on BLACK XMAS and SCREAM 4; the man loves his fourth acts!). For example, when Ellie hits the other car, in the "B" cut it's clear that it's Shannon Elizabeth's character in it, but the final version removes just about all of the shots establishing the other driver, so we don't even realize it's her until after she's rolled down the hill. Craven and (I assume?) Williamson worked miracles to give the studio a second version that still worked, but Weinstein, in all his idiocy, managed to keep hacking at it until there was nothing left of its creators’ signature imprints. The "A" cut in particular was filled with Williamon’s trademark ironic dialogue ("You think you're MORE cursed than me? That's... arrogant." Ellie says to Vince after he tells her that he thinks he might be the killer but that she couldn't be), and while, again, there wasn't much action in it, the best scare scene across any version occured in that original version, in which Elizabeth's character is killed on some stairs, with the wolf smashing up the boards she’s standing on and eventually pulling her under. It's not that the film was perfect and ruined; it's more that Weinstein made every wrong choice with how to fix what were not insurmountable problems.
It's a shame the original ending was never shot at all, because it would be nice to compile this footage into the best possible version, but alas without all that footage of Skeet taking part in the action, or of Baio's reveal, there's really no "saving" the original take on the story (you can't use the finished ending with the old footage because too much of it revolves around Jake, who didn't exist in the earlier form). However, one could possibly at least make an improved version of the one they ended up going with, by restoring the tragic ending and some of the other character beats that were removed along the way. Even the final cut isn't a terrible movie, exactly - just a messy one that was reworked so much that it no longer had much of a soul left to it. With Dimension being in tatters it's unknown if any of the original film footage has survived (the cuts I watched were on VHS tape, which means they are barely even suitable for viewing let alone official release), and Craven is of course no longer with us, but over the years we've gotten restored versions of similarly mangled films like NIGHTBREED and (Dimension's own) HALLOWEEN 6, so it's not impossible to think it could happen.
But honestly, they should just clean up the cuts that exist and release them as is in one package, as a revealing look (and cautionary tale) at how a movie can be overhauled to the point of pointlessness by too much second (and third) guessing. The only equivalent I can think of is the fourth EXORCIST movie (originally made by Paul Schrader, almost completely reshot by Renny Harlin), but even that is a bit different as they replaced the creative team, which wasn't the case with CURSED. Obviously Renny Harlin is going to make a different movie than Paul Schrader, but here we see Wes Craven have to come up with ways to fix the work of Wes Craven. If a 3rd party company (i.e. Scream Factory) could find the original footage, it would be easier to get Williamson, Lussier, and/or some of the actors to speak candidly about the experience, as opposed to on a disc coming from Dimension itself. Even if they were left alone, I don't think CURSED would ever have placed high on most fans’ rankings of Craven's work, but the story of its nightmarish production deserves more than a handful of articles like this to tell its tale.