Many of the genre’s most seminal films feature behind-the-scenes horror stories as compelling as their on-screen narratives. Films like The Exorcist, Poltergeist, The Omen, and Twilight Zone: The Movie suffered so many mishaps off-screen that they were deemed “cursed.” Shudder Original Series Cursed Films tackles the most prominent cursed films in a five-part documentary series, breaking down each 30-minute episode’s curse with fascinating angles and a refreshing, candid earnestness that makes this yet another worthwhile series for the horror streaming service.
The first episode we were able to preview was “Poltergeist.” Standard talking heads including notable genre editors, writers, and podcasters concisely break down the incidents that earned the film its cursed reputation, providing some context along the way. Experts and psychologists also provide insight to the superstition and power a curse can create in a viewer’s mind. The perfect type of framework to introduce writer/director Jay Cheel’s Cursed Films.
Where the episode soars, however, is with the stark reminder of the human cost involved with the franchise’s cursed status. Breaking down each component of Poltergeist through statistics, facts, and insight dispels the supernatural aspect of the perceived curse, but it’s the inclusion of those who worked directly on the films that delivers the biggest impact, especially on an emotional level.
Poltergeist III co-writer and director Gary Sherman recounts heartfelt memories of his strong bond with actress Heather O’Rourke; her friendship and subsequent passing left an enduring mark on him that’s keenly felt on-screen. These memories and his candid discussion of the troubled production, including not wanting to release the film at all, are potent. Special make-up effects artist Craig Reardon (Poltergeist, Twilight Zone: The Movie) holds clear resentment over the online mythology surrounding the use of skeletons in the iconic swimming pool scene of the original film, offering up historical fact to support his persuasive point.
Cheel could’ve easily fallen back on a traditional approach to the documentary, but bringing in industry insiders directly affected by the alleged “curses” brings a level of never before seen intimacy and frankness that effectively changes the perspectives on these films.
For the next episode we watched, “The Omen,” the strange coincidences that led to that film’s cursed status aren’t as easily explained away, so Cheel thinks outside the box. Once again industry insiders are brought in to provide valuable insight, like executive producer Mace Neufield, but so too are various religious historians and spiritual leaders to posit Satan’s existence and whether he would even bother tampering with The Omen’s production at all. It’s a stimulating avenue into the film that brings surprising discussion and talking points.
With slick production value and brisk episode run-time, Cursed Films wastes no time cutting straight to the heart of the matter. Of the two episodes screened that were originally slated to premiere at SXSW, each episode approaches the respective film’s curse with authenticity, sincerity, and reverence. Moreover, Cheel carefully corresponds the themes of examination with the film’s themes. “Poltergeist” reminds us of the human condition, especially for those directly affected by a mythology that’s taken on a life of its own. “The Omen” cleverly navigates where the film fits in the grand spiritual battle of good vs. evil. It’s an impressive and genuine start for the five-part documentary series, and I can’t wait to see how Cheel approaches the remaining three entries.
Look for Cursed Films episodes “Poltergeist” and “The Omen” exclusively on Shudder on April 9, 2020. First, the series premieres with “The Exorcist” on April 2nd.