Last year, AMC’s horror-centric streaming service Shudder unveiled the compelling documentary “Horror Noire,” examining the role African-Americans played throughout film history. That feature’s success sparked a desire for the service to cater to more niche facets of film history, and their next foray into that arena is “Cursed Films,” which looks to examine films that have long histories of being cursed. The material is interesting, especially in conjunction with the features the five-part documentary series covers, but director Jay Cheel takes too many tangential digressions to keep things from feeling tiring.
When the 1982 feature “Poltergeist” debuted it was quickly tempered by the murder of actress Dominique Dunne. Actors Will Sampson and Julian Beck would pass after the film’s sequel came out, while leading child star Heather O’Rourke passed at just 11-years-old while working on “Poltergeist III.” It’s easy to see where audiences would start to wonder if there was more than coincidence at play. However, this unanswerable question never seems to get properly analyzed. With none of the living cast interviewed nor any of the significant production people, aside from “Poltergeist III” director Gary Sherman, it’s easy to question whether the episode fills a 27-minute runtime.
Where the curses associated with these movies feel so strong, “Cursed Films” only has the thinnest of threads to properly explore them. The series appears confused about what it wants to do, whether that’s to explore the production of these movies, discuss why curses in horror films are so popular, or what these curses say about us. You’d assume all three of those elements are touched upon, but in ways that just feel wafer-thin.
There are high points, to be sure. Sherman’s honest and heartbreaking discussion of O’Rourke’s death and his desire to shelve the film, which was subsequently overruled by MGM, gets at the heart of showing how real people were affected. Even a brief interview with the man who designed the first film’s skeletons, which many assumed were real and thus responsible for the curse, lifts the veil on moviemaking to showcase how curses are more the result of folklore than truth.
This interplay between the history of filmmaking, horror tropes, and internet culture could be interesting, but the episode diverges into looking at the presumed power of specific objects, visiting a horror collector’s home and the bizarre movie monster masks he holds. There’s also an extended sequence of people finding the real house used in “Poltergeist” and taking pictures or videos in front of it. One of these videos actually includes an interview with the next-door neighbor. These items have little to do with the curse but are meant to create a central thesis to the episode.
The second episode, about 1976’s “The Omen,” holds a little more meat on the bone. Not only does it interview director Richard Donner at length there’s a taste more direction in what the episode wants to focus on. It centers on the power of films based on religion and Satanism to invite dark entities. Not only does this involve discussing how two different planes carrying people associated with the films were struck by lightning, as well as a plane crash, car accident, and IRA bombing happening near production. It also has professors of religion interviewed and practicing occultists.
On the one hand, there’s the emotional power of hearing Gary Sherman discuss Heather O’Rourke and how her illness affected the production. Couple that with footage of Zelda Rubinstein calling claims of the curse “crap” during interviews and there’s something fascinating about how troubled productions like this overcome (or don’t) these associations. The same goes for hearing from Donner and crew discuss working on the set as Lee Remick was terrorized by baboons at the wild animal park in “The Omen” or how a member of the production crew was in a fatal car accident and his girlfriend was decapitated just like a character in the movie.
Part of the reason people are drawn to these movies is how the performers dealt with it in the moment and that’s all but absent here. Instead, we’re treated to an occultist attempting to curse a film and the camera capturing it, or another discussing how they don’t believe in coincidences and nonbelievers are more susceptible to demonic interference; how this ties into any of the characters in “The Omen” is conjecture of the highest level. Even the talking head comments from the critics interviewed try to find a grander theme for why people are into these stories. A series already steeped in hypothesis doesn’t need more but “Cursed Films” builds the house of cards higher rather than wonder why it’s still standing.
It’s possible “Cursed Films” could be enhanced in episodes detailing different films. The two episodes screened for press air towards the middle of the season when the series arrives on Shudder. Later episodes on “The Crow” and “Twilight Zone: The Movie” certainly have deeper and more complex stories at their core that could easily fill an entire episode. My fingers are crossed as the material found within “Cursed Films” is so engaging that it’s frustrating that the presentation doesn’t raise to that same level.