by Paul Mount

Horror films are more popular than ever – the Scream and Halloween franchises refuse to die and newcomers like M3GAN, Smile, and Barbarian are raking in massive box office profits from minuscule budgets. The first series of Shudder’s five-part series Cursed Films (a second series is already on the streaming platform) looks at some classic genre titles whose reputations have been enhanced somewhat by the idea that they are in some way ‘cursed’, that their unholy subject matter has somehow visited some enduring catastrophe upon their makers. This is tosh mainly, of course – accidents happen, people die – and this handful of taut, informative and intriguing mini-documentaries (they all run for just under thirty minutes) presents, non-judgementally, the stories of some of the defining movies of the horror genre from the 1970s and 1980s and recounts the sometimes-avoidable tragedies that have cast long shadows over their places in cinema history.

1973’s The Exorcist is probably the most famous and acclaimed horror film of all time. Directed by William Friedkin from William Peter Blatty’s bestselling novel, the film is legendary for its tales of cinema-goers fainting, throwing up and generally being scared witless as Linda Blair’s Regan did and said the unthinkable under the influence of the demon Pazuzu. But Cursed Films suggests that much of this was PR flim-flam designed to generate public interest in the film; beyond this, there were a few unremarkable incidents on set, and the episode is padded out with footage of a ‘real life’ Exorcist at work. Other films in the series are marked more by tragedy than curse; Brandon Lee died in a  gun-related accident on set days before the end of production of The Crow, young Poltergeist stars Heather O’Rourke and Dominique Dunne died tragically young (the former from an undiagnosed medical condition, the latter strangled by an abusive boyfriend). Most disturbing of all, perhaps, are the events recounted from the filming of 1982’s Twilight Zone: The Movie, where actor Vic Morrow and two illegally-hired children were killed following a helicopter crash during the filming of a sequence set in Vietnam. The episode points the finger squarely at director John Landis, who sacrificed every imaginable safety protocol in the pursuit of cinematic spectacle. Many of those involved remain haunted and devastated by the incident thirty years later. The episode includes actual footage of the accident itself, which, although in no way explicit, is utterly horrifying as it shows Morrow and his charges wading through water, filming the dangerous sequence as the helicopter crashes into them and wipes them out.

Cursed Films – the Blu-ray release includes directors’ commentaries for each episode – doesn’t come to any conclusions and asks us to make up our own minds. Perhaps horror films, by definition, are more open to scrutiny and superstition than romcoms, sci-fi and superhero films and action movies. Films like The Exorcist and The Omen – also plagued by curious production difficulties other films might have taken in their stride – are bound to attract ghoulish attention simply because of the stories they’re telling and how they tell them. The truth surely lies in simple human error, corner-cutting and poor judgement – with a bit of pure bad luck thrown in for good measure because it isn’t possible for a film to somehow become cursed simply because it’s dealing with dark themes and things that are best left unexplored… is it?

Cursed Films is available on Blu-ray now