CURSED FILMS Interviews: Director Jay Cheel and Occult Writer Mitch Horowitz Talk Horror Movies
The documentary series Cursed Films (now available on Digital, DVD and Blu-ray) explores five different horror movies that, for one reason or another, have been considered 'cursed.'
After several difficulties emerged during the filming of The Exorcist, such as the death of Max von Sydow’s brother and a fire that destroyed the set, this William Friedkin film was sold on controversy, becoming one of the most influential and stigmatized (just think Linda Blair) horror movies of all time.
Weird stuff surrounded the production of Richard Donner’s The Omen as well, after a religious consultant told them that the devil itself was going to try to stop the shooting.
In that sense, Cursed Films features people who go way beyond being just superstitious: black magicians, a man who calls himself a witch, and a professional exorcist.
But on the other hand, and in particular in the best episodes (which cover Tobe Hooper’s Poltergeist, Alex Proyas’ The Crow and the John Landis-directed segment from Twilight Zone: The Movie), the series faces real tragedies, including the death of Heather O’Rourke (at the time Gary Sherman’s Poltergeist III was not yet finished) and the deadly accidents that occurred on the sets of The Crow (involving Brandon Lee) and Twilight Zone: The Movie (where Vic Morrow, Myca Dinh and Renee Shin-Yi lost their lives).
In the gallery below, you can read my interviews with Cursed Films director and editor Jay Cheel and with occult expert and author Mitch Horowitz, who appears throughout the series as one of the 'talking heads'.
INTERVIEW WITH JAY CHEEL
Screen Anarchy: As it’s pointed out in the series, paranormal stories, curses and so forth are especially linked to horror cinema, to films like THE EXORCIST and THE OMEN, which deal with the devil. Why was exploring this connection interesting for you?
Jay Cheel: The connection of the curses to those films, we kind of just followed the lead of the people who have been telling those stories for the years since their production. With the series I guess our approach was never to actually claim that any of these films are cursed or that there’s something supernatural behind their troubled productions, but just look at the fact that there are people who suggest such a thing and figure out why they might think that’s the case, and look at what exactly draws us to that conclusion and fascinates us about this idea of a horror film having this sort of bleeding off the screen effect in the real world.
In terms of how I came to the project, it was brought to me by Shudder as a potential doc series and they wanted me to pitch back my take, how would I approach such a thing. I gave them my rational vs. irrational approach to this subject, looking at it as a way to explore other ideas like coincidence, synchronicity, magical thinking... and they were into that idea so it kind of went from there.
Especially in the first episodes we have this “battle” between what’s rational and what seems to us irrational. Among the interviewees are black magicians, a guy who refers himself as a witch and a real life exorcist. How was your approach to this possibly controversial side of the series?
Yeah, I feel like you can’t talk about this idea of a cursed film without trying to understand what exactly that would look like. So I wanted to reach out to some people that feel like this is something that could actually happen, that a film could be cursed, and figure out to what circumstances a film could end up being a cursed production, whether it’s something like The Omen where they might represent certain occult rituals and images in such a precise realistic fashion that it would bring upon this curse, like just portraying the devil will attract the attention of the devil sort of idea. Or whether or not it might be someone actually employing some sort of black magic ritual from afar, actively cursing a film production because they might have some grudge that they hold against the producer or whatever it might be.
So I felt it was important, if we are going to talk about all of the reasons why a film can’t be cursed or why we don’t believe a film is cursed, then at least give some screen time to the opposite side of that argument. And in a way, by giving the screen time to the idea of a film being cursed and what that looks like, I think it makes the skeptical argument for you, because it just looks so unbelievable. It was really about that balance but always approaching it from a skeptical perspective.
I think that’s precisely what you do especially in the POLTERGEIST and THE CROW episodes, when you have people who worked on those films sort of tired of conspiracy theories because there were real tragedies during those productions. How was your approach to these interviews considering that the subject matter is inherently tragic?
That was what was exciting about the show, is getting to approach some of these people that maybe didn’t talk about this before in the media and haven’t been totally satisfied with how they’ve been portrayed or felt that maybe they couldn’t be completely honest because there was some agenda to the article or the story that they were taking part in. So I would just, in approaching these people, say “I want to give you the opportunity to get off of your chest the true and honest feelings and thoughts you have about this, not only what happened on the production but how people have kind of shaped those tragedies into this idea of a curse, and just kind of lay it out for us without any sort of agenda.” The time was theirs and they could just say whatever they wanted to say about it.
It was certainly refreshing for me to be able to have a conversation like that, and I think it might have been refreshing for them to be able to speak completely freely about this stuff, and hopefully it’s refreshing to the audience to get to see these people talk about these productions in a very real way, and make sure that they bring the attention back to, in some cases, the people who tragically lost their lives whether it’s through negligence or just through a series of unfortunate circumstances. That was kind of the big draw for me for this project.
Another interesting theme is marketing, PR stuff that helps to sell a movie on controversy. I even remember recent cases like the one of that French film RAW, those reports from the Toronto International Film Festival that said people were fainting because of that movie. And in the end RAW wasn’t even that graphic, it was more of a coming-of-age film. So how do you feel about this side of filmmaking that seems very important? I think in a way, people can’t get rid of that because it works for the purely business aspect of cinema.
Yeah, I mean, it’s definitely something that’s acknowledged in the series. Linda Blair mentions this idea of the PR people kind of being behind some of the claims of fainting and ambulances at screenings of The Exorcist, so they certainly lean into that. I think the same can be said about The Omen, Richard Donner talks about utilizing some of those stories to their benefit, for the PR.
It’s touchy, kind of tricky because certainly with The Omen there were some real tragedies that were connected to those unusual circumstances and a lot of them weren’t related to the production, it was almost like the not film day, they were continually just missing tragedy and it was ultimately falling on someone not connected to the production.
I can certainly see that instinct, how that would make sense to lean into that and take advantage of these stories to push the PR team to make a point of getting the media to talk about it, but I think it can go the other way as well, obviously Twilight Zone: The Movie, the accident that took place on that set did not do that film any favors, it wasn’t something that they obviously lean into, they were probably wanting to get as far away from that as possible.
But yeah, I mean, especially with horror films I think often the power of these curse stories comes from the fact that the events that take place sometimes mirror the stories in the films themselves; I think that’s what attracts us to it, it feels like the films bleeding off the screen into reality and there’s something intriguing about that.
The series also tackle the inherent dangers of filmmaking, in particular we hear stories about William Friedkin and obviously John Landis. They kind of did everything, harsh stuff, in the name of their art. I think nowadays people tend to reject more this attitude, Friedkin and Landis would be “canceled” today. Do you agree?
The September before Cursed Films came out, I felt like on Twitter the whole Twilight Zone: The Movie thing was suddenly being discovered by a lot of people because of accusations made towards Max Landis, so then suddenly people were discovering “oh, well Max Landis has this going on, but have you heard about what his father was involved with?.” If that kept going the way it was going, I think he would’ve ended up canceled although I’m not sure that he’s really actively working currently as it is. But you’re right, if his films were being made today and these filmmakers were taking the risks... I mean, you just have to look at the horrible accident that happened on the set of the William Hurt film where that camera assistant was killed by the train [Midnight Rider]; and that resulted in the director going to prison.
I think it’s something that’s not tolerated now, and specifically because of what happened on the set of Twilight Zone: The Movie, I think that had a big impact and sent ripples to the industry and hopefully made things a little safer. But there’s always accidents that happen unfortunately and The Crow came 10 years after Twilight Zone: The Movie, so there weren’t any additional measures being taken on that set it seems. So it’s always something that I guess is the challenge, this tension between trying to capture an image and make your art but at what cost? It really should be no cost, there should never be a loss of life during production of a film obviously.
Obviously the fact that John Landis doesn’t appear is not a surprise, but can you talk about other challenges or other people that didn’t want to talk with you?
Yeah, some people we didn’t end up getting just because of the nature of the series, like reaching out to someone to talk about a tragedy on a set for a show called Cursed Films. I think a lot of these people talked some of these stories to death and maybe aren’t really into talking about it anymore, but even with the people we did get there were some challenges.
Craig Reardon, who’s the makeup effects artist on Poltergeist, he used the real skeletons, he took part in an E! True Hollywood Story, an episode about the curse of Poltergeist, and he felt he was misrepresented and regretted even doing that interview. So when I reached out to him, he was definitely not into it and he threatened to sue me personally if we even mentioned his name. So when I clarified to him that the whole idea of the show was to allow him to speak honestly about how he feels about this idea of a curse, he saw that as a great opportunity to just kind of address the Internet basically as a whole and say “this is ridiculous and I think it’s offensive to me because I knew these girls.” That was the sort of refreshing thing to the people we did end up getting for the series, that they could approach it in this way.
And for season 2, I think it’s going to be less of an actual battle because we now have a season of television to be able to show them as this sort of example of what we intend to do with their stories on the second season. And that’s just to allow them to tell them, to kind of control the narrative or take control back of those narratives and address their honest feelings on these ideas of a “cursed” film.