Disasters, terrible luck, radiation poisoning and death. We look at some famous cursed film productions…
With Flickering Myth’s first foray into movie-making on The Baby in the Basket now underway, we’ve found ourselves faced with a number of problems throughout pre-production as recently covered in our pre-production update. We’ve dealt with unavoidable dropouts, unexpected costs and the difficulties of dealing with a whole number of people for things that ultimately add cost to the film without adding production value.
If a cast member wants to move a flight by two hours it might cost double. That’s one example of baffling costing, or the fact the police insist on us needing a two-man presence rather than one, for a sequence that’ll only be 20 seconds of screen time. Double the price of course.
We dealt with a frustrating Kickstarter campaign hampered by attempted sabotage from another filmmaker, as well as the general unhelpfulness of the platform itself. Step away from the production itself and in the space of a week all three main producers had some expensive car issues from scrapes, to being run into or in my case, an exhaust falling off. A day after the arse fell out of my car, my garden fence blew over. Yes, days before filming we did genuinely start to wonder if our film had been struck by a curse. So that got me thinking about some famous films that appeared to be cursed. Let’s take a look…
Terry Gilliam’s Don Quixote
Terry Gilliam has never really had it easy. Though a visionary filmmaker in his day, it was only really his breakout directorial film Time Bandits which proved to be an early box office success, before finally making bigger bucks again with the 1995 film 12 Monkeys (which boasted a star turn from the money machine Bruce Willis who Gilliam didn’t initially fancy). He’s always gone against the grain with films that occasionally had budgets beyond what the studio could realistically have expected to recoup.
He’s often been at odds over the final cut, his approach and his vision. Gilliam had spent years trying to get a Don Quixote film off the ground. Years of frustration from 1989 until 1998 ended with some hope as the film finally seemed set to go into production with a sizeable 32 million dollar budget (none of which had come from the US).
With Johnny Depp as the marquee name opposite Jean Rochefort all was looking well but soon the budget began to escalate. Severe weather problems including a flash flood that destroyed and changed the landscape of the location were exacerbated when Rochefort slipped a disc and had to take a lengthy break. The film had to be quickly canned and they collected the insurance on it.
The entire disaster was captured and became central to the documentary, Lost in La Mancha which charted the beginning and cursed end of the production. In the end, Gilliam finally got a Don Quixote film made in 2018, with Rochefort returning as the titular character, this time opposite Adam Driver. It was made for half the budget of the first attempt and went by almost entirely unnoticed, only adding to the curse.
Andrei Tarkovsky’s mesmerising and iconic masterpiece Stalker is notorious for it’s troubled production and for the fallout of the films production. Life really did imitate art in several ways. The 1979 film preceded the Chornobyl disaster but featured a central area known as “The Zone” that the film theorised might have been the result of nuclear fallout (another theory being aliens). There’s a famous image near the film’s finale as the titular ‘Stalker’ is walking with his child on his shoulders (who it is suggested might be a mutant) with a nuclear station in the backdrop.
Tarkovsky had intended to shoot the film at an old Chinese mine in Tajikistan at one stage before an Earthquake at his preferred location put paid to that. The film then went into production and masses of footage was shot leading to one of many myths surrounding the film. Either the film, shot on new Kodak film stock, unfamiliar to the cinematographer and developers was left unusable after problems in the development process. Or, Tarkovsky unhappy with the footage sabotaged the footage. In any case, they needed to start from scratch and they did in Estonia.
The film’s iconic landscapes included a significant proportion of footage shot outside an old hydropower station, in and around polluted water (which the crew had to literally wade in for many shots). With months spent in what should have been deemed inhospitable, breathing poisoned air a large number of the crew would never be the same after. In fact many of the crew members and cast would succumb to death by cancer later in life, including Tarkovsky himself who died 6 years after completing the masterpiece. One lost version and a final film that effectively slowly killed a large portion of the crew, seem to suggest this production was cursed.
Brandon Lee was on the verge of breaking big. He had it all. Good looks, charisma to burn, impressive physical prowess and on-screen fighting talent. Though he was following in the footsteps of his inimitable father, Bruce, Brandon had his own distinct style that felt perfect in the landscape of 90s cinema. He elevated simple but effective action fare like Rapid Fire and Showdown in Little Tokyo, making them better by his mere presence alone. Yet, The Crow also showed a particular vulnerability and depth to Lee as an actor, which suggested his range could make him more than another martial arts movie star. Maybe this guy could be an “actor” too.
In Alex Proyas’ visionary film, which is still one of the best comic book films ever made, Lee played Eric Draven a man shot and killed, alongside his beloved fiancee. He returns from the dead a year later to seek revenge. Stylish, grimy, and visually stunning with a magnificent soundtrack. The Crow is great but would forever be tarnished by the tragedy that still ranks as one of the most shocking moments in cinema. An on-set accident with a blank shell, shot by actor Michael Massee, sent Brandon Lee to hospital after having been shot in the stomach. He was dead by morning with his untimely end (at 28) all too tragically mirroring the mysterious death of his father (who was 32).
Lee had filmed the majority of his scenes and Chad Stahelski (stuntman turned director of the John Wick franchise) doubled him for the remaining pickups. Sadly, Lee’s greatest performance, so full of promise for the future, would be his last. Likewise, Michael Massee who fired the gun in an action that was no fault of his was haunted for the rest of his life by this horrific moment. All this only mirrored the tragedy in the life of the original comics creator, James O’Barr whose girlfriend was killed by a D.U.I driver (that inspired the comic) and who had grown close to Lee, who he felt perfectly captured Eric Draven.
The Exorcist dealt with religion and good versus evil and is widely considered one of the most cursed productions ever made. After running $2.5 million over budget there were worse issues to follow with William Friedkin’s film. A bird flying into circuit breaker started a fire which set several set built houses ablaze and delayed production for six weeks.
For lead actress Ellen Burstyn, the production might have brought her widespread critical acclaim, but it came at a cost with a back injury during a take ultimately remaining an issue that still plagues her to this day. Linda Blair also suffered a permanent back injury after being improperly secured to a rigged bed during one of the rocking sequences. She developed scoliosis and still has chronic back pain. Some might add, like many child stars too, that her early fame made it difficult to shake off a particular image but likewise led to self-destructive behaviour as she went from adolescence into young adulthood.
Some naysayers felt stories regarding the cursed set were conjured by the studio in order to drum up interest, but in or around production a number of crew members suffered injuries and even died. Jack MacGowran who stars in the film, died shortly after completing his scenes, Vasiliki Maliaros died weeks before the premiere, whilst several family members of cast and crew also died. Jason Miller’s son almost died in a motorcycle accident, and William Friedkin even went as far as having an exorcism performed on set.
Another film dealing with malignant spirits also seemed to carry with it an inherent curse. The Poltergeist series would be linked to tragic young deaths by the close of the third film from the original trilogy.
In 1982 actress Dominique Dunne, who played the oldest child of the family in the film, was murdered by her boyfriend a few months after the release of the hit movie. The success of the film would invariably have seen Dunne’s career take off to another level before her life was tragically cut short.
Perhaps the most enduring images of the original film and subsequent films stem from Heather O’Rourke who played the young Carol Anne in the films. She becomes the one who first engages with the poltergeists with that enduring image of her looking at the interference on her television set. A franchise so tied to the idea of a demonic force inevitably gets seen as cursed thanks to the tragically young death of O’Rourke who died shortly after completing the third film.
Adding to the grimness of the film’s legacy, it’s reported that the skeletons in the infamous pool sequence in the original film were actually real. The idea of using real skeletons, leading to a hex didn’t escape the producers either as they performed an exorcism on the set of the second film.
A film about the son of the devil might cause the more superstitious producers to wonder if they’re aggravating dangerous unseen forces and this must have been a consideration when greenlighting The Omen, but early signs seemed to suggest that those fears might just be real. It seemed like some dark force had a particular focus on the leading star, Gregory Peck.
Peck’s son committed suicide shortly before the film went into production. Later, Peck was flying over to begin the filming and his plane was struck by lightning. Chance perhaps? However, executive producer Marc Neufeld’s plane was also struck by lightning. Later, his hotel was also bombed by the IRA.
The curse doesn’t end there either, later a small filming unit was due to fly to capture some footage but cancelled at the last minute and in a turn of events not unlike Final Destination, the plane was given to another client and crashed, killing everyone on board.
This last cursed film, unlucky number seven, is actually a production that never made it past development but throughout a lengthy process, Atuk had four potential leading men attached to the project. John Belushi, John Candy, Sam Kinison (AAAAARRRRRGGGGHHH!) and Chris Farley. Notice a pattern?
The film would have focused on an aging native of Alaska coming to New York and being a fish out of water comic undoubtedly perfectly for any of those aforementioned stars. To be honest, I’d have paid good money to see any version of Atuk. Belushi was offered the role but died of a drugs overdose. The next guy to get offered the chance to star in the film was Sam Kinison who then died in a drink driving accident. Then it was offered to John Candy, who died a few months after getting the script.
Finally, Chris Farley was offered the starring role of the long-gestating project but he died of a drugs overdose. Farley had also sent the script onto Phil Hartman to see if he was interested in the film too and unfortunately Hartman also died tragically young after being shot by his wife. That Atuk still remains unmade is not surprising.
What is your favourite cursed production? Are the curses real? Let us know on our social channels @FlickeringMyth…
Tom Jolliffe is an award-winning screenwriter and passionate cinephile. He has a number of films out around the world, including When Darkness Falls, Renegades (Lee Majors and Danny Trejo) and War of The Worlds: The Attack (Vincent Regan), with more coming soon including Cinderella’s Revenge (Natasha Henstridge) and The Baby in the Basket (Maryam d’Abo and Paul Barber). Find more info at the best personal site you’ll ever see here.