When we watch horror films, especially ones that involve spirits and demons and otherworldly activity, it can be difficult to draw a clear line between the supernatural events of the film and the production behind it. So when strange things happen that are associated with the making of a horror film, people immediately see a connection. Many paranormal movies, especially the ones with a significant cult following, have some legend of a curse plaguing its production. The new TV show Cursed Films on Shudder explores the most famous cases of film productions being followed by strange and inexplicable tragedy, attempting to shed light on their supposedly paranormal origins.
The first episode of Cursed Films focuses on the film Poltergeist, the story of a family that moves into a house built on top of a Native American burial ground, with predictably horrifying results. The legend of Poltergeist has almost eclipsed the fame of the film itself, with dozens of stories developing around its supposed curse. After the tragic, untimely deaths of the film’s stars Dominique Dunne and Heather O’Rourke, there were whispers that the cast of Poltergeist was being haunted for real.
And although their deaths were far from mysterious (Dunne was murdered by an abusive boyfriend, while O’Rourke passed away at the age of twelve from a previously undiagnosed congenital defect), many fans suspected that, in making the supernatural film, the production had unknowingly unleashed a dark spirit that was now plaguing its cast members. Add to this the rumors that the skeletons used in one of the film’s most gruesome scenes were actual human cadavers, and it’s easy to see how audiences could get carried away.
Cursed Films provides a fascinating insight into these legendary curses in a way that does shy away from some of the darker facts surrounding the films, but also remains respectful to those involved. Their roster of interviewees is well-balanced, bringing in horror film critics, filmmakers, superfans, demonic “experts,” and production crew members who actually worked on the films in question. They explore the legend from every angle, explaining the background of the story for anyone who may not already be familiar with it, providing insight into the production process, and even addressing the practical effects of this legend on the people who were involved in the film.
With Poltergeist, for example, they discuss the emotional impact of the “curse” on Gary Sherman, the director who was in the middle of post-production on Poltergeist III when he learned that his young star had suddenly died. While less devastating, they also explore the logistical issues for the people who live in the same neighborhood as the house that was used as an exterior for the Poltergeist house, which has now become a site of pilgrimage for horror movie fans.
For a show like this to air on Shudder, a streaming app for horror film aficionados, it has to walk a tough line. To be successful, it needs to provide fans who are likely familiar with the stories enough new information and a unique enough perspective to keep them engaged, while also not assuming that every potential viewer is already an expert. For the most part, Cursed Films manages this well. It balances a brief overview of the episode’s film of choice with more substantial analysis from a variety of interviewees, each with their own specific connections to the films in question. And it never falls into the trap of taking itself too seriously; it’s respectful to the movies it covers and doesn’t go overboard in trying to establish an elaborately spooky aesthetic. Despite its outlandish subject matter, Cursed Films plays it fairly straight, reflecting a real passion and enthusiasm for horror films that is contagious.