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Cursed Films Series Review

April 17, 2020 | Posted by Joseph Lee
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Cursed Films Series Review  

Directed By: Jay Cheel

Written by: Jay Cheel

There are always going to be films that people claim are ‘cursed’ due to things that either happen during the film’s production, a tragic legacy surrounding it or, in some cases, a horrifying accident. The mythology grows, which leads to people constantly discussing it and forming their own theories. As a result, the film, and the alleged curse surrounding it, become infamous.

Take, for example, the story of the 1956 movie The Conqueror, in which John Wayne plays Genghis Khan. Ignoring the fact that John Wayne is playing Genghis Khan, the film was also shot near Yucca Flats, where atomic bomb tests were run. Several cast members, including Wayne, were diagnosed with cancer soon after, leading many to believe they were exposed to radiation at the time.

So with films like that out there, it makes sense that someone would make a documentary series about it. In comes AMC’s horror streaming service Shudder, which brings us the aptly-titled Cursed Films. The first (and as far as we know, only) season of the show deals with five films where a lot of things went wrong and gave them a bad reputation no matter how good they are. In this case, the show focuses on The Exorcist, The Omen, Poltergeist, The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie.

Cursed Films as a whole would have made a decent stand-alone documentary, perhaps if some parts were edited out and the focus was tightened. As a series, the the results are hit or miss. Granted, the idea of a ‘curse’ is only a strong one if you believe in them. Sometimes bad things happen, and as the series mostly proves, the bad things happened because of negligence on the film set. That said, for a series that talks about troubled sets, it loses the thread often in the early going.

The first episode features The Exorcist, which has had a lot of problem plaguing it over the years. Linda Blair had to get bodyguards, Ellen Burstyn injured her back, the sets burned down except for Regan’s bedroom. Things like that. It’s a fascinating story and yet this episode is the worst one of the bunch. The actual troubled set is glossed over. The incidents are discussed and that’s about it. And things like Blair and Burstyn’s actual pain were the result of William Friedkin’s lack of care for his actors, not a curse. The episode takes a left turn halfway through to spend time with a real exorcist and watch him perform exorcisms.

Not only is something like that going to cause howls of laughter if you don’t believe in it, but it’s a waste of time and completely unrelated to the subject matter.

The Omen is similar. The actual incidents that happened surrounding the film’s production are mentioned, but only in passing. Instead we talk to a real witch and focus more on if the Devil was influencing the events that happened. Yes, the spooky supernatural aspect of a curse is what draws us to these troubled productions. But this is also meant to be a serious documentary and it strays from facts. It’s for this reason that the first two episodes, which had two of the more interesting cases, are the most disappointing.

It’s not all bad though. Things pick up around episode three, which focuses on Poltergeist. Any horror fan that’s watched these movies likely knows of the ‘curse’ surrounding them. Several cast members died over the course of the three-film franchise, including child actress Heather O’Rourke (during production of Poltergeist III) and Dominique Dunne, who was murdered in between the first and second films. Outside of visiting Sean Clark’s screen-used memorabilia room (which is admittedly very cool), this one manages to stick to the topic at hand.

A big issue with the Poltergeist episode is again, the brevity. You could make an entire film surrounding the history and tragedy of that franchise. The episode itself runs around 26 minutes. Just the story of Heather O’Rourke’s death and the turmoil in finishing the third film is enough for a whole episode, and it tries to condense the events of the entire trilogy into one. The first is barely touched upon because most of the death happened while the sequels were in production.

There’s also the fact that outside of Linda Blair for The Exorcist, none of the cast members of any of the films are interviewed. You do get producers and special effects technicians, which is nice, but in some cases having actual cast members to comment on the incidents would be appreciated. It makes more sense with Poltergeist, however, given the tragedy of things. As an archival clip with Zelda Rubenstein says, the incidents are tragic and nobody wants to talk about any “curse crap.”

Poltergeist also settles the debate about the skeletons once and for all. Craig Reardon, who did the makeup effects (with a photo showing him working on one of the skeletons), is insulted by the speculation that ‘real’ skeletons used on the set cursed the film and caused the death of its stars. Not only that, he helpfully points out other films that used actual skeletons, like House on Haunted Hill or Frankenstein, that had no issues. Low budget films, Reardon says, have to use real skeletons because they don’t have the money to make their own.

From there, the series moves out of the horror genre and delivers the best two episodes. The first is over The Crow, and if you know anything at all about it, you know why it’s covered. The film’s star, Brandon Lee, was actually shot during a scene that called for a blank to be fired, only for Lee to get hit with a real bullet. The actual story is a tad more complicated than that (it wasn’t actually a bullet, but still fatal) but it’s presented here to really give you a gut punch.

You start to figure out that in some cases, the filmmakers wanted to end production after tragedies but were forced to go on. In the case of Poltergeist III, it was a greedy studio. In the case of The Crow, Lee’s own family urged the filmmakers to continue because Lee was so proud of his work on the film.

Sure, it does mention the rumors of a curse on the Lee family given what happened to his father, but it also seems to shove that under the rug. What we instead get is people who actually worked on the film, still having a hard time describing Lee’s on-set death. The people interviewed go out of there way to point out that Michael Masse, who fired the fatal shot, was not at fault at all. That was a nice touch. It makes the most of the time its given, and even features shots of the cut Skull Cowboy, who would have been played by Michael Berryman. There’s also more morbid shots of Lee’s stunt double wearing a mask that was made to resemble Lee’s face so they could complete shooting.

This episode, I think, is the best of the whole show because not only does it go into detail about what happened, who’s to blame and the tragic aftermath, but it does so delicately. The same cannot be said for episode five, which covers Twilight Zone: The Movie.

The TV series adaptation is notable because of an on-set accident which killed actor Vic Morrow and two children. The use of real explosions and a low-flying helicopter added up to that helicopter crashing on top of the three cast members and killing them instantly. There are more graphic details if you know the story, but I’ll spare you. That’s more than can be said of director Jay Cheel, who opts to include the footage of the crash and Morrow’s last moments on Earth. The footage has been available for some time, but that doesn’t mean anyone wants to watch somebody actually die.

If you can ignore that, and it’s difficult to, the episode does a good job of breaking down what went wrong and covering the aftermath. John Landis, whose career wasn’t the same after this, is discussed as having attended the funerals of the three people who died but a trial ultimately clearing him of responsibility. Quick research would show you his career wasn’t destroyed by the incident, but for putting actors in harm’s way like that maybe it should have been. Yes, things go wrong on sets, as Kane Hodder (who is interviewed) explains, but the episode makes it clear that things were out of control and more precautions should have been taken.

That said, it’s still in poor taste to even include the footage and that sort of hurts the episode as a whole.

Cursed Films is something that could have been great but is ultimately not. The episode on The Crow is a hell of a sad watch, and the final episode gives you a detailed account of the death of Vic Morrow, if perhaps too detailed. But the series goes off into tangents, delving into the supernatural for no real reason, early on and it takes a bit to recover its footing. With more focus and longer episodes to let the stories breathe, perhaps they would have had something. They had the right idea towards the end by focusing on the negligent filmmakers instead of ‘The Devil’ or ‘ghosts’.

As it is, there’s not a whole lot here you couldn’t get from other documentaries. Cursed Films is a mild diversion at least, but not as interesting as it could and should have been. Overall, it’s a pretty disappointing follow-up to the fantastic Horror Noire documentary that Shudder released last year.

The final score: review Average
The 411
Cursed Films was a series that could have delivered big for Shudder, and maybe if they make a second season they will. However the first season is very hit-or-miss. The episodes are too short to have any impact and in some cases they often lose focus too often. It's an interesting diversion but ultimately fails as a compelling docuseries.

article topics :

Cursed Films, Shudder, Joseph Lee