Written by: Christopher Llewellyn Reed | April 2nd, 2020
Cursed Films (Jay Cheel, 2020) 3 out of 4 stars.
Debuting today on AMC Network’s Shudder service, the documentary series Cursed Films walks viewers through the troubled histories of five horror films, deconstructing mythology, fact and the gray space in between in a fun, sometimes wild, bit of investigative muckraking. In order, each thirty-minute episode takes on the following works: The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Omen, The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie. I have only watched the first three, but have liked what I have seen, even if not all episodes are created absolutely equal. Fans of any of the above movies – and of offbeat takes on well-worn motifs – will be sure to enjoy the series, in full or in part, as showrunner Jay Cheel (How to Build a Time Machine) knows his way around the topic, and adds significant aesthetic flair to the proceedings, making of Cursed Films an overall visual, as well as mental, delight.
What is a “cursed film”? It’s a movie plagued by rumors of bad luck, or supernatural retribution meted out on those participating in its making. As one would expect, the horror genre attracts more speculation and outright folklore than most, given the narratives in which it traffics. Beware the folks who dare provoke the demons of this world, lest they suffer the curse of hubris and become targets of satanic punishment! As humans – storytelling creatures – we are primed to see causality in even the most random of occurrences. If one or two (or more) bad things happen (or almost happen) to the cast and crew of a given production, it could not be mere coincidence, could it? Interviewing a slew of articulate experts – critics, film historians, religious scholars, witches and black magicians, to name just some of the talking heads – Cheel first sets up the legends and then debunks them, all for our glorious benefit.
By far my favorite episode is the second, on Poltergeist. Here, Cheel gets everything right, from the behind-the-scenes anecdotes, to the intersection of gossip and real-life tragedies, to some profound reflections on the history of Hollywood and what draws us to horror in the first place. Two actresses in the film died, albeit after the film was released: Dominique Dunne and Heather O’Rourke, the one murdered, the other from a misdiagnosed congenital condition. Neither’s demise had anything to do with the malevolent forces portrayed in Poltergeist, but where there’s a will to mischief, mischief will be made, and so grew the talk of a curse.
On hand to discuss and dispel such notions, as well as to revel in the frequent pleasure of them, are writers like Matthew Hunter, Michael Shermer and April Wolfe; Blumhouse Productions’ Ryan Turek; horror collector Sean Clark; and Poltergeist III director Gary Sherman, among others. They make an entertaining bunch. Perhaps the best words on the subject, however, come from Craig Reardon, who worked on the special effects of the film and goes after the frequent speculation about how the fact that real skeletons may have been used in a scene with actress JoBeth Williams may have contributed to the curse. “So what?,” he says. Movies have always used real skeletons, which are cheaper and easier to come by then ones you’d have to make on your own. It’s a perhaps disturbing fact, but one that certainly puts things in perspective.
The other two episodes – on The Exorcist and The Omen – each have their merits, but are slightly less focused, pursuing tangents that may be momentarily appealing but don’t always circle back to the main thesis of the particular film at hand. Still, Cheel more often captivates than he doesn’t, assembling an oddball cast of characters that keeps us engaged. I got a kick out of listening to Linda Blair talk about the challenges of working with director William Friedkin on The Exorcist, as well as to director Richard Donner and executive producer Mace Neufeld discuss how they feel that The Omen was actually blessed (from the perspective of their wallets, anyway), rather than cursed. There are enough great tidbits in both episodes, therefore, to satisfy the most ardent film fan, strange asides notwithstanding. Bless me, father, for I have cinema.
[Cursed Films debuts on Shudder on April 2 with Episode 1, on The Exorcist]