If a film has a “curse,” odds are it’s a horror film. While there are plenty of “troubled productions” out there, for a film to cross the threshold from “troubled” to “cursed” requires some kind of affiliation with the macabre. There is, fundamentally, something dark and enchanted about horror films simply by virtue of their being horror films. Apocalypse Now had a troubled shoot. The Omen had a curse. What’s the difference?
That’s precisely the kind of question on the docket of Cursed Films, a five-part documentary series arriving this April on Shudder, the reigning purveyor of all things horror. Written and directed by Jay Cheel (How to Build a Time Machine), Cursed Films is an original docuseries exploring the myths and legends behind notoriously “cursed” horror film productions. The show is one part horror history lesson, one part philosophical inquest into the veracity and the psychological purpose of “cursed” productions.
The first episode concerns the controversy, hysteria, and mysterious on-set accidents that plagued The Exorcist. The second episode looks into the myriad of tragedies surrounding Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, namely the untimely deaths of two of its young stars. Up next is The Omen, a production besot by all manner of disasters, which raised suspicions that the film might be under the influence of the devil himself. The fourth episode investigates the “Lee Family Curse” inextricably linked to The Crow. And finally, the series concludes with an episode dedicated to Twilight Zone: The Movie and the infamous on-set helicopter accident that took the lives of star Vic Morrow and two child actors.
Cursed Films recounts the mysterious and tragic events that contribute to each film’s cursed status. Attempting to cut to the core of why certain films attract such a status in the first place, each episode also interrogates the role cinematic curses play in navigating the unexplainable and the tragic.
Cursed Films offers insightful and detailed accounts of the evidence of each film’s “curse.” The interviews are insightful, appropriate, and varied, and it’s easy to get sucked into the conspiratorial rhythms of the interlocutors’ accounts. Nonfiction is one of Shudder’s many talents, and the deftness of Cursed Films‘ execution comes as no surprise. The streaming service has been a marvelous resource for genre documentary programming, from Never Sleep Again: The Elm Street Legacy to Crystal Lake Memories and King Cohen. Likewise, their original nonfiction content has consistently impressed. Primal Screen‘s dreamy investigation into childhood fears is arguably Rodney Ascher‘s best work, and Horror Noire is currently the gold star appraisal of black history in horror cinema. And lest we forget: there’s the short-lived docu-talkshow The Core (bring it back, please!).
When investigating “cursed productions,” there are a couple of pitfalls lurking in the underbrush. One is the matter of how to avoid merely regurgitating well-known, over-repeated Hollywood legends. The other (far more serious) is how to discuss tragedies without careening into disrespectful territory. Thankfully, if the two episodes I saw (Poltergeist, The Omen) were anything to go by, Cursed Films sidesteps both of these potential problems. Though a minority of the interlocutors relish in the gory details, the series’ overarching attitude is nothing but reverential and acutely aware of the fact that many of these films gained their “cursed” status by virtue of real-life tragedies. Rest assured, Cursed Films still wafts of that giddy “did you know?” attitude familiar to most cinephiles. But overall, the series’ posture is a critical one, not with the intent to expose or mock but to sympathetically probe why we turn to curses (and, in more abstract terms, to storytelling) to explain, cope, and process.
While the inquiry into Poltergeist is the second episode in the series, one can’t help but feel that it would have made for a gut-punch introduction. The episode flips the script on the assumed stance towards cursed productions, which at its worst can devolve into a kind of leering, exploitative, rubbernecking. In this way, to a degree, the Poltergeist episode holds the viewer accountable: “cursed” films have an amusingly dark appeal that often fails to take stock of real-world human wreckage. Episode three, focused on The Omen, is comparatively cheery and takes aim at coincidence and magical thinking. In its most compelling moments, it is suggested that film exacerbates the human tendency to see and seek out patterns. That there is something magical and subconscious about the medium itself that leaves us raw to the possibility of connections.
Cursed Films manages to walk two different tight-ropes at once. On the one hand, it indulges in the inescapable appeal of recounting spooky Hollywood legends and coherently lays out the details that led to popular mutterings of cinematic curses. It also approaches the notion of curses with a critical lens that feels simultaneously stern and empathetic. We are never chastised for finding curses appealing or comforting but rather are implored to consider what a curse actually does, not to its victims but to those processing unexplainable, bizarre, or tragic events.
Cursed Films will premiere on Shudder Thursday, April 2nd, with The Exorcist episode, followed by the Poltergeist and The Omen on April 9th and The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie on April 16th.