Tom Beasley takes a look at the new documentary from horror streaming service Shudder, examining the true stories behind some of Hollywood’s most notorious movie sets…
Everyone who loves horror in any way will at some point have become fascinated by stories of cursed movie sets. Particularly nowadays, dozens of scandalous yarns of demonic possession and on-set exorcisms are just a few Wikipedia buttons away and it’s easy to spend hours and hours reading about the misfortunes of various Hollywood productions. That’s effectively the premise behind How to Build a Time Machine filmmaker Jay Cheel’s five-part documentary series Cursed Films, which is now available in its entirety on Shudder.
Each episode takes on a different film and the notorious stories behind their reputations, whether they’re considered to be satanic or supernatural in origin or simply very human tragedies. While the tone of the episode on The Omen leans heavily on the notion of whether curses and demons are real, the installment focused on Twilight Zone: The Movie has a more serious, true crime feel similar to Vice’s wrestling-themed series Dark Side of the Ring.
Cheel tells the stories of these apparent “curses” with help from an interesting cocktail of talking heads, both movie-based and more highbrow. There are some blockbuster names – director Richard Donner pops up to discuss The Omen and Linda Blair chats candidly about her experience on the set of The Exorcist – littered through, but most of the time is given to horror experts and academics on the nature of these supernatural phenomena. Cheel very elegantly strikes a balance between going over the details of these mostly well-known stories for newbies, while also keeping the pace up and digging deeper for those who already know the basics.
The series truly shines when its access affords it the opportunity to look into the true emotion behind these sordid stories. Make-up specialist Lance Anderson becomes very upset while discussing the death of Brandon Lee on the set of The Crow and production designer Richard Sawyer openly cries as he recounts the story of the immensely tragic accident on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie. In fact, one of the most intriguing and revelatory scenes of the series involves Poltergeist III director Gary Sherman discussing how nobody wanted to complete the film after the death of child star Heather O’Rourke.
Cursed Films is less strong when it takes showier diversions into bizarre stunts. The episode focused around The Exorcist gives a lot of time to a “real” exorcist and footage of his exploits, rather than the issues around the movie itself, while The Omen episode is weighed down by strange scenes involving supposedly authentic black magicians. By the time one of them places a curse on an unnamed in-production movie, the show has somewhat become lost in its own ridiculousness.
Some episodes clearly have a tonne of material – the Poltergeist episode is the high watermark of the series – while others struggle to fill time. The Twilight Zone installment, particularly, is padded out by entertaining diversions involving stuntman and slasher actor extraordinaire Kane Hodder and Troma founder Lloyd Kaufman. While both of those men are charismatic figures with great stories to tell, it’s not immediately clear why their input is appearing in the midst of the series’ most serious episode. John Landis, who was the director on the tragic set, is notably said to have ignored a request for interview.
Despite its occasional shortcomings, Cursed Films does a stellar job of balancing its responsibility to its subjects and the morbid intrigue of the more sensationalist details of these stories. It’s at its strongest when it acknowledges the fact we love “curse” narratives, but also turns that back on the audience to explore the real world impact of this sort of online theorising. Cheel has constructed a compelling series of behind-the-scenes tales that will fascinate horror fans and possibly horrify those who, as one of the academics notes, indulge the human brain’s love of patterns.
It may not always have the moral heft that it needs and it certainly loses focus occasionally to explore the madder corners of horror fandom but, when it’s at its best, Cursed Films is a gripping account of some of the darkest chapters of movie history. It’s horrible at times, but you can’t look away.
Cursed Films is available to stream on the Shudder service in the UK, USA, Ireland, Germany and Canada.
Tom Beasley is a freelance film journalist and wrestling fan. Follow him on Twitter via @TomJBeasley for movie opinions, wrestling stuff and puns.