Shudder’s new half-hour docu-series Cursed Films seems – at first blush – to be just another dutiful recounting of all the strange coincidences, accidents, and untimely deaths which befell the casts and crews behind some of the horror genre’s biggest hits. Across the first three episodes, for example, Linda Blair talks about the time she fractured her spine on the set of The Exorcist. Producer Mace Neufeld recalls the time he narrowly avoided an IRA restaurant bombing during the filming of The Omen. Special effects artist Craig Reardon explains the largely budget-driven logic behind using real skeletons during Poltergeist’s infamous pool scene.
As a film history nerd, I eat that shit up with a spoon, but there is a certain “why now?” to it all. Why, in 2020, long after all of these stories have already been told in various making-of documentaries, E! True Hollywood episodes, online listicles, and podcasts is director Jay Cheel (How to Build a Time Machine) digging up old (non-literal) skeletons? It doesn’t take long to figure that out.
Every episode starts off as a standard film history lesson about a famous horror movie popularly thought of as “cursed” since a lot of strange things happened things before, during and after production. Things, however, quickly veer toward the unexpected. Famous faces give way to theologians, psychologists, historians, and witches, one talking head eloquently explaining coincidence theory to us while another warns against ever downplaying the potential for the devil to invade our world.
Before you’ve even realized what happened, an episode about the film The Exorcist evolves into Cheel’s crew filming actual exorcisms performed by an unaccredited freelancer whose professional background is in carpet sales. If you’re a believer, you’ll bear witness to a non-church-ordained man expel demons and then accept cash payment. If you’re not, you’ll watch a snake-oil salesman playact the version of an exorcism we all know through pop culture and temporarily alleviate the suffering of working-class folk who also seems to be filtering their mental anguish through a confusing marriage of “it’s just like in that movie I saw that one time” and religious faith.
Either way, you might find yourself asking: “WTF? I thought this was supposed to be about the movie The Exorcist?”
You’d be wrong to think that, though. The films discussed in Cursed Films are really just conversation-starters for a larger dialogue about psychology, religion, superstition, and our common need to divine meaning out of chaos. In the current issue of Fangoria, Cheel admits: “For me, the cursed stories are the least attractive element of the project. They simply provide the opportunity to explore our fascination with these legends and how horror films inspire even the most skeptical into engaging in magical and supernatural thinking.”
In other words, if you are someone who buys into the concept of a movie being genuinely cursed Cursed Films hits with you the instant sugar high of “and then this weird happened and then another and another and we were all freaked out” but then almost immediately turns the camera back on you to ask: “Why do you like this? What meaning does this kind of storytelling give to you? And where did this entire concept of a ‘curse’ come from?”
It’s like an E! True Hollywood Story that instantly morphs into a dissertation on semiotics, mass media, mythology, and the unique ability for the horror movie – more so than any genre – to stir us up into assigning supernatural explanation to tragedy or, in a lot of the cases, near-tragedies that ultimately didn’t happen.
Gregory Peck, for example, almost died during the making of The Omen – the plane he was originally meant to take into the UK prior to filming crashed and left no survivors – but he didn’t. Does that mean the devil just missed taking out Atticus Finch? Or did the devil reach out to spare him since The Omen served his evil purpose? Or does it mean absolutely nothing other than sometimes planes crash and sometimes famous people happen to be on the planes when they do?
After all, plenty of other films have gone through troubled productions that resulted in death or near-death. Did the devil or someone acting on his behalf curse them too? Is that why Francis Ford Coppola lost his mind while making Apocalypse Now?
By the end of every episode, you sense Cheel – despite his efforts to please the “both sides” crowd – ultimately lands in the Scully half of the believer-skeptic divide, but – in The Omen episode – when someone calling himself The Black Magician ominously declares “we are living in the age of the Antichrist and devils have been set loose on the world” Cursed Films doesn’t stand in judgment of him. Instead, it’s a documentary series that ultimately wonders how much a movie like The Omen – through its longlasting influence on popular culture – helped put those words in The Black Magician’s mouth.
That means Cursed Films isn’t quite the documentary series you’re expecting. No, it’s something far more interesting.
Cursed Films is available to stream on Shudder. Currently released episodes cover The Exorcist, The Omen, and Poltergeist. Future episodes will cover The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie.