After the success of Xavier Burgin’s Horror Noire— the documentary that explored the history of black horror films— Shudder returns with yet another compelling documentary in Jay Cheel’s Cursed Films. The five part docuseries explores the troubled productions of five beloved horror films: The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Omen, The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie. Each film gets a half hour slot to discuss the surrounding controversies, never allowing it to not overstay its welcome.
As Esquire journalist Matt Miller pointed out, thinking of The Exorcist as ‘cursed’ “adds to the legacy” of the film. The film’s production was riddled with problems from the start—sets caught on fire, actors were injured and the topic of demonic possession created a sense of unease. A priest even came to bless the set after everything but the demonic possession room was destroyed by a the fire. Although the film was made a decade before ‘satanic panic’ took over, interest in the occult was still growing in the early 70s and the blessing gave those on set a peace of mind. Even so, some of the cast, crew and people relating to them died during and after the production, further adding to the hysteria. It’s possible that this film has the heaviest connotations to a curse, especially when we consider that the film’s story is based on a real life event.
The Poltergeist curse is attached to the full trilogy as four of the cast members passed away in tragic ways. The rumours originate from the original film using real skeletons from India which cursed the set and subsequently led to the deaths of 12-year-old Heather O’Rourke, who died from intestinal stenosis, and 22-year-old Dominique Dunne, who was murdered by her boyfriend. This episode in particular debunks that such a curse would exist, with special make-up effects artist Craig Rearson stating that it’s an insult to the memory of those young women: “It’s not only conceptually ridiculous, but is personally offensive to me.” He goes onto explain how human skeletons have been used in films for years, especially in low budget productions, and adds that O’Rourke and Dunne’s untimely deaths had “fuck all” to do with a skeleton.
The Omen had a religious advisor on set who told them that if they’re going to be dealing with the subject matter of the devil, then you’re inviting the devil into it and bad things are going to happen. This episode is quite chilling to watch, as the cast and crew felt like the incidents they experienced grew beyond coincidence. Two planes, carrying two crew members respectively, were both hit by lightning on the way to set. There was also another incident with a plane, one with a bomb and other deaths relating to cast and crew members. However, psychology professor Clay Routledge explained that when you’re watching a horror film, you’re often watching something that’s outside of logical understanding. You can become more open to supernatural ideas and it “puts you in the right mindset to want to see patterns or believe in conspiracies or believe in curses.” Curse or no curse, there’s no denying that The Omen had an eerie amount of strange incidents relating to it.
The last two episodes are possibly the most heartbreaking. Brandon Lee’s accidental death while shooting The Crow was a huge shock to everyone, but especially to those who witnessed the tragedy in person. Instead of buying commercial dummy rounds, the film’s prop crew created their own from using live rounds—but instead of removing the lead tip, they kept it for the close-up shots. Unbeknown to anyone on set, the lead tip got lodged in the barrel, and this gun was later shot by Michael Massee’s character Funboy, which killed Lee. Actor Michael Berryman, whose scenes were cut from the film, said The Crow was not cursed and was instead “created out of love and loss,” adding that Lee died because the studio decided to cut corners. It was a hugely distressing experience for everyone, and the pain visible from those recounting the accident makes you realise that any talk of a curse is just absurd.
While shooting Twilight Zone: The Movie, a helicopter crashed killed Vic Morrow and his young co-stars, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen. Footage of the accident is actually shown in this episode, which is a truly harrowing end to an entertaining and thought-provoking docuseries. This episode also manages to bring a sense of realism to the table as cast and crew members recount the events with emotion and difficulty. It’s heartbreaking to watch production designer Richard Sawyer give a tearful account of his experience witnessing this awful tragedy that killed three people right in front of his eyes.
What’s great about Cursed Films is that the docuseries doesn’t only talk to film historians, critics and cast and crew members—it talks to people from all walks of life. There are practising occultists such as witches, magicians and exorcists; there are authors and professors with backgrounds in science and mathematics talking about varying laws of thoughts and belief systems; and there are those with religious backgrounds. This gives a voice to everyone and allows the docuseries to not poke fun at anyone who holds genuine belief in things considered to be supernatural or otherworldly. Doug Cowan, a professor of religious studies, described horror and religion as “cultural siblings” because horror doesn’t build upon religion, they’re dealing with the same questions: where do we go when we die? Is there a God? Why do we suffer?
Many horror fans will be familiar with the lore here already, but the episodes don’t just focus on the controversies surrounding the films—they aim to explore the origin of the curses and provide a rational reason for them. As film critic April Wolfe said, conspiracy theories can help us deal with the fragility of human life. Anyone can leave us at any time, which can be difficult to process. Curses can be a way of making sense of the harsh realities of life, as they are often much scarier than any horror film could be. Phil Nobile, EIC of Fangoria, said that maybe the “accident isn’t a result of the curse, but that accident is a curse.” It’s something that everyone involved has to live with—they have a life sentence of having that accident in their brain for the rest of their lives.
Cursed Films is such a fantastic idea for a documentary that it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been done before in this medium. While it remains an intriguing exploration for horror fans, the only thing that lets it down is that some episodes are a little thin and it often ventures off course, thus losing focus. The best episodes are arguably Poltergeist, The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie as they all manage to present their heartbreaking tragedies in a way that is both respectful and human. The topics at hand are treated with care and are not exploitative, a great accomplishment considering the unimaginable things that happened. Horror as a genre may be violent and exploitative at times, but horror as a community are some of the nicest people you will ever meet—they know how to look after one another and be respectful.
Cursed Films is available to stream now on Shudder
by Toni Stanger