★★★★ out of ★★★★★
Shudder’s Cursed Film series takes an entertaining, even-keeled, engaging, and often emotional look at why some of the most beloved classics in horror cinema have been surrounded by rumors and legends.
Directed by Jay Cheel
The latest in streaming service Shudder’s original offerings is Cursed Films, a five-part documentary series that explores the facts, rumors, and legends behind unfortunate and odd events concerning the making of some classic horror movies. Having the opportunity to review the episodes about Poltergeist and The Omen in advance of the series’ April 2 premiere, what I consider the most important takeaway from these episodes is that writer/director/editor Jay Cheel focuses on the facts and how tragedies and other incidents affect those close to the victims, rather than sensationalizing matters.
Cheel interviews directors, cast members, producers, and witnesses to the behind-the-scenes filmmaking events, along with a host of experts and scholars. For The Omen, director Richard Donner and executive producer Mace Neufeld give their recollections of such occurrences as star Gregory Peck and screenwriter David Seltzer’s planes both being struck by lightning as they flew to London for filming, how Peck canceled his ticket for a flight on which everyone aboard was killed when it crashed, and how an I.R.A. bombing affected production.
Religious scholars and black-magic witches are interviewed regarding curses — which, according to Hector Avalos, professor of religious studies, are “often parts of contracts, called covenants, between a superior party and an inferior party” — and give their takes on whether Satan would bother getting involved with trying to stop a movie from being made, and if so, why. This approach gives a further sense of balance to the documentary, as does an intriguing experiment with viewers shown and explained by Michael Shermer, publisher of Skeptic Magazine. Phil Nobile Jr., editor-in-chief of Fangoria, is among the other engaging interviewees.
The Poltergeist episode focuses on both the tragic deaths of two of the franchise’s actresses, as well as how some horror movie fans are drawn to filming locations. This episode does a commendable job of humanizing the tragic deaths of Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne, rather than sensationalizing them. Gary Sherman, Poltergeist III director, gives a passionate, heartbreaking account of young star O’Rourke’s sudden death by congenital stenosis of the intestine complicated by septic shock, and how he didn’t want to finish the film but was forced to by the studio. Craig Reardon, special makeup effects artist on the first Poltergeist film, gives strong, thoughtful insight regarding the online legend that the production used real skeletons and how that was the reason behind the death of the two actresses, and how it takes away from the true tragedy of Dunne being killed by her ex-boyfriend. A clip of Zelda Rubenstein, who played medium Tangina Barrons in the film series, is featured, in which she calls for an end to “all this superstitious crap.”
Horror fan Sean Clark explains why he and other fans are drawn to not only collecting horror memorabilia, but are also drawn to visit such filming locations as the Poltergeist house in Simi Valley, California, and the Michael Myers/Halloween house in South Pasadena, California. April Wolfe, former film critic and current screenwriter (Black Christmas, 2019), and Ryan Turek, VP of Development for Blumhouse Pictures, are among others who give perceptive illuminations in this episode.
Judging from these two preview episodes, Cursed Films promises to be a series that offers rational considerations regarding exaggerations, embellishments, and melodramatic speculation concerning the making of some of horror cinema’s most beloved entries. Strongly recommended, Cursed Films will be available on Shudder in the United States, Canada, the United Kingdom, and Ireland. The season premiere, about The Exorcist, debuts on April 2. The episodes about Poltergeist and The Omen will be available beginning April 9, and the shows about The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie are slated for April 16.