The strange desire to interpret coincidence, accidents and shameful negligence on film sets as the work of supernatural forces.
I’ve long been fascinated by the idea of ‘cursed films’, that odd superstitious belief that if bad things happen on a movie shoot – or to the people who were involved in the making of said film, no matter how many years later – it is somehow down to some sort of nebulous supernatural interference. It’s a concept that has been around a long time – there are the claims of a Superman curse that runs from the original TV series through to the 1978 movie and stories surrounding movies like The Wizard of Oz – but which really found wide public belief from the 1970s onwards and was often attached to a very specific sort of film. The strange belief that the people making films with a vaguely occult theme were somehow dabbling in things best left alone caught hold with films like The Exorcist, The Omen and most specifically Poltergeist, as though the very subject matter of these movies was the cause of the ‘terrible’ things that happened during or after their production. Apparently, the forces of darkness are very much like mainstream film critics and only notice big-budget Hollywood movies – no one ever seems to attribute the power of the curse to lower-budget horror films, not even the countless knock-off of movies like The Exorcist. Odd, eh?
Believers in such curses will cling to every tenuous connection to back up their theories. Poltergeist is cursed because of the ‘many’ deaths associated with the film, which are really not that many when you actually look at it. Dominique Dunne’s murder is the sort of shocking event that most films don’t have hanging over their initial release it’s true, and the death of Heather O’Rourke aged 12 is the sort of tragedy that will capture the imagination of the conspiracy-minded. But we should note that O’Rourke died six years after the film was released and managed to make two sequels as well as various other movies and TV shows in that time – and none of them have been called ‘cursed’. The other deaths connected to the film are stretching it even further – Julian Beck, who died aged 60, wasn’t even in the first film, making his series debut in Poltergeist II – The Other Side, which was made a year after he’d been diagnosed with stomach cancer. To call his death ‘unexpected’ or somehow connected to the film series is therefore ludicrous, but there he is in the list of ‘unusual’ deaths related to the film.
Movies are big collaborative efforts and people involved in making them will die, sometimes during the shoot. If a film develops into a series, it’s even more likely that there will be deaths – sometimes untimely – connected to it. Just look at how many people involved in Twin Peaks have died, many just since Twin Peaks: The Return was shot. What’s more, ‘strange’ incidents and unnerving coincidences are bound to take place, perhaps becoming more strange and unnerving when you are making a film about evil forces and want to get some free publicity. The assorted tales that are attached to The Omen, for instance, seem to be a combination of an excited publicist and unfortunate coincidences – Gregory Peck’s 30-year-old son committing suicide before the film had even started shooting feels a tasteless stretch, for instance, unless we consider that every death connected to an actor within months of a film shoot is somehow related to said film, in which case there must be hundreds of cursed films that are not about the Son of Satan out there. Similarly, the assorted eerie tales of plane crashes, car crashes, lightning strikes and so on only seem to add up to a curse if you assume that you couldn’t make a list of similar events vaguely connected to any big movie. They also seem to suggest that Satan – and I’m guessing it is supposed to be Satan who is behind all this – is a bit random and slap-dash in his vengeance, crashing a plane that no one from the film was on after making a late switch and decapitating the passenger of the special effects artist John Richardson in a car crash. No one involved in the film seemed to get hurt, just those around them and innocent bystanders, which frankly seems a bit like random lashing out from a petulant Devil. Just as notably, he seems to have gotten bored after the first film as there are no similar reports of note from the sequels or the many copycat films. What a slacker.
Similarly, The Exorcist has a string of unfortunate but not-especially-creepy connections, including injuries to cast members that speak more of a fanatical director and a time before health and safety rules were in place, a set burning down (these things happen more often than you might think) and, most bizarrely in terms of stretching the idea of a ‘curse’, people passing out and vomiting while watching the movie. That surely is down to the film’s effectiveness as a horror movie (or the effectiveness of hype) more than a curse, unless you think that such reports would put people off going to see this sensational shocker for themselves.
That, of course, is where the whole ‘curse’ thing really falls apart. If a movie is really cursed, then surely it would bomb at the box office, maybe not even be released. These films are amongst the most successful of their time. Some curse.
The other films that tend to be called ‘cursed’ are those where on-set accidents kill a cast member (crew deaths are far more likely to happen but they are not famous so those movies rarely make the ‘cursed’ list). The whole ‘supernatural curse causing death and destruction’ claims are ultimately just silly superstition but for films like Twilight Zone: The Movie and The Crow, it actually seems quite offensive, allowing the lax standards of those on set and – in the case of the former – an arrogant and careless director off the hook. The deaths of Brandon Lee, Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh Le and Renee Shin-Yi Chen are not the result of a curse, they are down to people not taking due care while putting actors in mortal danger. Calling The Twilight Zone in particular ‘cursed’ is simply part of the Hollywood whitewash that has allowed director John Landis and producer Steven Spielberg to avoid responsibility for what happened and carry on with their careers unimpeded (given his close involvement with two cursed films, Spielberg, in particular, seems to be doing OK). The Twilight Zone was so uncursed that not only was the film completed but released to a healthy box office and Landis has continued his career seemingly unaffected when you might have reasonably expected him to be something of an industry pariah.
To its credit, the Shudder TV series Cursed Films which features the stories behind the aforementioned titles does not sugarcoat the events that led to the Twilight Zone deaths (the helicopter crash footage is shown and is numbingly awful) and while there are still those who defend the appalling egotism and lack of care that led to three deaths in the film, it comes to – of all people – a bizarrely-dressed Lloyd Kaufman of Troma to reveal not only how easy it is to not kill people on film sets but also how people who do that ought to react*. There has been a tendency of the Hollywood establishment to close ranks over this incident in particular and so it’s good to see it being exposed – after all, you can buy or stream that film and I suspect many people didn’t even have any idea about the tragedy at its heart after all this time. The series does, of course, give credence to some dodgy ‘curse’ claims for the various films that it covers but also allows room for more sceptical and reasoned voices to explain how all this is just unfortunate – and not even all that unusual – coincidence. While the various shows offer space to black magicians, witches, exorcists and or neo-religious oddballs to say their piece, each ultimately and quietly winds up by pointing out that the idea of these films (or stars like Brandon Lee and his father) being cursed is superstitious gibberish and conspiratorial lunacy at its worst. The truth is sometimes more ordinary but sometimes more horrifying.
*For those in doubt about just how much Landis failed on the second count as well, we recommend tracking down a copy of the book Outrageous Conduct – which has been out of print for a long time and sells for a fortune – or else try the more recently published Fly By Night, which we have yet to read so can’t make a critical judgement of yet.
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The Devil doesn’t seek vengeance – that’s the Lord Almighty’s bag: ‘vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord …’ Satan is a more wiley devil … I’d watch this show if it turned up on TV, what with it seeming a cross between Mysterious World/making of … but honestly it seems rather thin gruel, and not trashy enough to work. You ever switch on those UFO documentaries on Quest hoping for chills n thrills, only to find your insomnia miraculously cured? Five minutes of story padded to an hour, plenty of ‘but could there be … ?’-type trailing questions, the answers to which are either ‘no’ or ‘we don’t know, but most likely no’. Without wishing to trivialise the Twilight Zone horror, another unfortunate consequence of this event was Spielberg’s insistence on doing penance by making treacly, worthy, ‘important’ films like Color Purple or Always. Supposedly, this was maturity, or the spurious affectation of it. Besides, the Dante/Miller episodes were triumphs, with, to my knowledge, no immediate casualties involved.
Do they mention the Exorcist bit-player (bit-player as in don’t even blink and still you’ll miss em) who was convicted of murder? But what, then, of In Cold Blood and Robert Blake. It’s all a bit sordid and queasy, really.
Wonder how many films were shut down during production – how many have been shelved, or become pariah for other reasons. This kind of ‘Film Damnation’ is surely more genuinely interesting than tenuous stuff more explicable from neglect and arrogance than devilry. I am fascinated by a titbit from Mariangela Giordano in Shock Xpress interview: that she was to be in Jimmy Angel’s Story, to star Steve McQueen directed by Sam Peckinpah, but both were becoming gravely ill and production was halted.
A major oversight on the part of Cursed Film producers (perhaps it lacks Warner Bros or 2Oth C Fox PR clout): 1973’s Theatre of Blood. Not only did Dennis Price and Jack Hawkins die within months of the films release, but subsequently ALL of the major cast have shuffled off this mortal coil. Now, explain that!
‘Star, Kids in Chopper Atrocity’ – Outrageous Conduct is a good and useful book but has the feel of being an excellent, incisive article padded out to book length. Many of the salient points are summarised in other titles, such as John Baxter’s Spielberg biography. Wonder if Trading Places was a self-centred response in some ways to JL going from being feted to hated, toast of town to just toast. If so, it was totally worth it. (JOKE).
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