What are cursed films? You’ve probably heard of at least one movie that has a supposed curse attached to it. “Didn’t they use real skeletons in Poltergeist? And then some of the actresses died?” “I heard a bunch of people involved with The Omen were killed during production!” These stories have floated around for years but have never gotten a targeted examination.
Horror streaming service Shudder has decided to look at these films and the eerie incidents surrounding them in Cursed Films, a five-part docuseries that takes a deep dive into the bizarre and macabre tales that surround certain films. The films covered in the series are The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Omen, The Crow, and Twilight Zone: The Movie.
As a bit of film history, Cursed Films is certain to delight anyone with an interest in behind-the-scenes film production. Each episode snags some major talent involved in whichever film is being covered and their insights are at times brutally honest. Linda Blair recounts the physical abuse she endured filming The Exorcist. Director Gary Sherman talks about the trauma of having to finish Poltergeist III after the death of thirteen-year-old actress Heather O’Rourke.
It’s unflinching material that emphasizes the darker nature of these movies. Even then, it will still provide some info about these productions that you might not have known before. And if you did know, the series does a very good job and recontextualizing these stories into a larger narrative.
Because Cursed Films isn’t just some horror-flavored riff on candy-coated moviemaking docs like The Movies That Made Us. There is a throughline in the series about the idea of curses and the mythic power we give to the things we believe. The first episode on The Exorcist features a section where the crew interviews a self-described exorcist and they film him performing multiple exorcisms. It’s a combination of shocking, bizarre, tasteless, and even hilarious thanks to the exorcist himself. He’s such a fascinating character that clearly is taking advantage of people who believe they are possessed, but it seems like he’s not just some simple con man. When asked about his beliefs, his conviction and viewpoint even made a skeptic like me perk up. The series is very good about offering multiple viewpoints on a subject and leaving it to the viewer to decide how they feel.
Cursed Films is also willing to go down some pretty surprising tangents. From archeological experts to religious studies professors to witches, this docuseries manages to make its less-than half-hour episodes feel sprawling in the best of ways by calling upon a number of authoritative figures. It would be easy to simply rehash all the spooky stories surrounding these movies, but this docuseries wants to go broader and it leads the viewer down some intriguing dark alleys. You’ll see an avowed black magician perform a cursing ritual on a movie production to see if you can actually curse a movie. All the while, the various talking heads offer up their thoughts as to why humanity finds such an interest in the idea of curses and their relationship to horror fiction.
This kind of intellectual depth shouldn’t be surprising to anyone familiar with Shudder’s ongoing commitment to the horror genre. Last year, they offered up a necessary documentary in Horror Noire: A History of Black Horror and Cursed Films is looking to be an equally rewarding experience. Director Jay Cheel has found a really interesting topic that ends up being even bigger than the films themselves. While that does mean some episodes stray a little further away from their film subject than others, it never ends up going down a boring route.
If you’re a fan of horror films or movie history in general, Cursed Films is a must-see series. If just the notion of cursed movies piques your interest, you should give this a chance. The level of expertise and the breadth of each episode are beyond impressive, even if the show sometimes gets a little too navel gazey. Still, you’ll walk away from Cursed Films with a brand new perspective on some classic movies. And most importantly, it’ll do what every good film documentary should do: make you want to watch some really great flicks.