The Exorcist. Poltergeist. The Omen. The Crow. Twilight Zone: The Movie. Each of these films is tied to terrible deaths onscreen and off, which has led to some horror fans proclaiming them cursed. Shudder shines a light on these movies and their infamy with Cursed Films, a five-part documentary series that takes us into the ghoulish details and startling truths behind the scenes of some of horror most iconic offerings. Ahead of the series April 2 debut, Shudder gave critics a peek at two episodes: Poltergeist and The Omen.
First off, this show is not for those new these movies or their macabre mythology. At just 30 minutes apiece, these episodes race through the details of the alleged curses, explanation on why people believe in them, and then throw in some special guests for added flavor, like a horror lovers who collect rare movie memorabilia like the Poltergeist clown puppet, a psychologist who busts out a gorilla suit for a cognitive experiment, and a witch who calls himself “Uncle Birch.” Yet these bits of flare can’t save Cursed Films from being a shockingly lifeless affair.
Each episode begins with the kind of details that were once whispered over a flashlight in countless slumber parties. Did you hear they used real human skeletons on the set of the haunted house film Poltergeist? Some say this alleged desecration is why its young stars Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunn died in ways tragic and horrific. Did you hear about the violence that surrounded the making of The Omen? There was a bombing, a plane crash, a lion attack, and a gruesome decapitation!
When you’re an adolescent curled up in sleeping bag in a dark, quiet living room, these stories and all their ghoulish details feel fun and fascinating. But the thrill is gone in Cursed Films. Entertainment journalists and horror moviemakers recount these stories not with enthusiasm, but with an edge of embarrassment that seems apologetic. As if bringing these curse-narratives into the light reveals how callous they’ve always been, reducing the very real deaths of actors and crewmembers to morbid fun facts to tweak the film’s scares. April Wolfe, film critic/co-writer of 2019’s Black Christmas, articulates this idea neatly, pleading for horror fans to confine their curiosity in ways respectful. But the very existence of this doc is proof we as a fandom are failing there.
Perhaps this is why the alumni from these movies speak in deep somberness or outright anger. 32 years later, Poltergeist III director Gary Sherman carries a apparent agony about the sloppy sequel that was finished haphazardly after its little leading lady died at the age of 12. It seems he’s on the series to make sure O’Rourke is remembered for the vibrant girl she was, not the cautionary tale she became. The outrage over this injustice born from supposed fans is best expressed by Craig Reardon, a special makeup effects artist who worked on Poltergeist and Twilight Zone The Movie.
When asked about the skeletons of Poltergeist, Reardon can hardly contain his frustration. A wiry old man with grey hair and no patience for bullshit, he leans in to growl, “Wake up and smell the budget.” Yes, they were real, because real human skeletons are cheaper than making good-looking fakes. But if the use of real skeletons was enough to “curse” a movie, then why haven’t a long list of movies been cursed, dating back to 1931’s Frankenstein? He lets loose in a tirade scorching and righteous, denouncing the cursed-films legends as a grotesque way to avoid dealing with the true horror that was the death of the misdiagnosed O’Rourke and murdered Dunne. He concludes, “Which had f*ck all to do with a skeleton!”
He’s so clearly right that I couldn’t help but wonder why the filmmakers bothered continuing on with this doc series—or why I as a viewer was supposed to want to.
Cursed Films premieres on Shudder on April 2.
Header Image Source: Shudder