|Shudder, the streaming service specialising in horror and thrillers, enjoyed success with their first series of documentaries detailing the behind the scenes problems some films have suffered to the extent that they are deigned to be cursed. A bold statement, for as much as anything can be cursed there are so many elements that go into making a movie that something will probably go wrong at some point in their production or indeed their subsequent distribution or afterlife as a pop culture fixture. Nevertheless, this absorbing series seeks to present an even-handed approach to a mixture of the lurid and the tragic in the backstory of some celebrated works.
First up with episode one is that beloved family favourite The Wizard of Oz (1939), the adaptation of one of author Frank L. Baum's Oz books and a cultural touchstone not only in the United States, but across the world as well. Emerging from the Depression as a colourful story of hope just as the globe was plunged into the Second World War, so many interpretations of what's meant by the movie, both intentionally and unintentionally, arose that the episode is happy to admit that yes, it could have been about overcoming fascism, but also it could have been about providing solace to the displaced Americans who were yearning for home just as they had lost theirs.
So far so good, but what you want to hear about is the accidents, the mistakes and the scandals, and while the latter is thinner on the ground than you may expect, other than the treatment of star Judy Garland to keep her plugging away at her performance (filling her with pills they didn't understand the effects of, basically), the stories of the rampaging Munchkins are put to bed. Even Steve Rash, director of fictionalised "making of" adventure Under the Rainbow, looks shamefaced at slandering the little people. Conspiracy raises its head when the supposed hanged Munchkin caught on film is discussed (it seems... unlikely when there's no proof) and Wicked Witch Margaret Hamilton was injured, then spent the rest of her life regretting scaring the children.
The Wizard of Oz was accidentally terrifying to some, but the film of Rosemary's Baby (1968) was a pure horror movie through and through. Here's a subject you get the impression the production could have devoted a feature length episode to, such is the plethora of stories about the making of and subsequent fall-out from the Roman Polanski-directed blockbuster from Ira Levin's bestselling book. Polanski for a start has had enough bad luck for several lifetimes: most of his family were victims of the Nazis, and a few months after completing this film his wife and four of her friends were slaughtered by the followers of self-styled, delusional guru Charles Manson.
This doesn't go into why Polanski is notorious after the late nineteen-seventies, but it makes it clear this guy needed a lot of help he probably didn’t get - the account of him being taken for a ride by a fake psychic as the bereaved director conducted his own investigation is all-too-typical. But producer William Castle's daughter is on hand to detail her family's troubles, and in a real coup they interview Victoria Vetri, out on parole for attempted murder, who is very vague but inappropriately cheerful about her life, a dubious cheeriness of a few of the interviewees here. While this establishes some places are magnets for tragedy and mystery, it does not quite convince you that these events would not have happened anyway, regardless of Satan. But what an attempt.
We leave Hollywood behind for Stalker (1979), the second science fiction film directed by Andrei Tarkovsky after Solaris (1972), but a very different proposition aside from their shared length of around three hours. The director was acknowledged as a genius well before his premature death from lung cancer in 1986, but this episode posits that not only did Stalker give him the disease that killed him, but predicted the exact date of his demise to the day and month, which is actually disputed. It is true to say that the shooting of the film in an industrial wasteland in Tallinn, Estonia probably necessitated the use of locations that were, shall we say, deeply inadvisable.
However, did Stalker predict the Chernobyl power plant disaster? Certainly, just as in the movie, there was a trade in guides to the forbidden area, known as The Zone in the fictional version, though the real-life region did not provide the mystical effects that were seen in the Tarkovsky vision. Nevertheless, it is an eerie coincidence even if the science fiction dominated in the source, and this instalment goes into detail about various disasters (not nuclear disasters) that befell the making, including having to throw out about two-thirds of what they had captured because the film stock was faulty. One coup here is that legendary cinematographer Roger Deakins is on hand to offer his opinions, and he is especially baffled that at the first attempt nobody looked at the rushes.
The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) is the next instalment's subject, the adaptation of Wade Davis's non-fiction book about voodoo and genuine zombification in Haiti. The book had been a serious anthropological study - the film? With horror maestro Wes Craven at the helm, it was never going to be a straightforward version of the facts, since there were expectations carried by the Craven name for the general audience, something he struggled against for most of his career, though he never left horror behind. Haiti had been through a recent revolution at the time the Hollywood film crew arrived to make their movie, and the population were suffering under unbelievable poverty.
Not the ideal location to be swanning around making a voodoo flick, complete with flashy special effects, and there were concerns the project was denigrating the culture by embracing the scary cliches. A ceremony was performed to bless the production, and there are those who were there who have mixed feelings about whether that was effective or not, as we are told real life horror stories of the writer going crazy in Haiti, and Bill Pullman, the star, extremely reluctantly admitting to his own breakdown of sorts. Interestingly, the filmmakers were mostly a bunch of white folks telling the black Haitians about their culture, which makes it interesting to hear from female lead Cathy Tyson, the British black actress who is proud of the movie, with caveats. But cursed? Maybe.
If any movie can be said to have cursed itself, it is Cannibal Holocaust, that reprobate of the horror genre that if the final episode is anything to go by, almost everyone involved regrets making. That's "almost" - its director Ruggero Deodato is weirdly proud of having created it, and is seen here chowing down on a meat dish as well as some spaghetti in a winking reference to the film's raison d'etre, which was to disgust the audience with the thought that people were being eaten. Although it is presented here as a deliberate hoax, a la The Blair Witch Project (Eduardo Sanchez is on hand to claim he'd never have made his effort if he had seen the Deodato shocker), it's not quite in the film.
Indeed, although the characters are watching the found footage, there's little hint for us to be believing it was all reality, despite the lengths Deodato went to for authenticity, including actual scenes of animal torture and death. It is pointed out that animals had been killed onscreen before (though it's hardly common), and there was a tone of the mondo movie about Cannibal Holocaust, but aside from the director, every interviewee says they went too far here. That's what gives it its edgelord status, of course, but what goes unsaid is wondering why Italians, who could claim the cannibal genre as its own concept, were happy to go to films that represented a truly miserable night out at the cinema. Something to do with politics, no doubt - but Deodato was prosecuted.
[Cursed Films II is exclusive to Shudder and the five episodes in the documentary series will be available weekly from Thursday, 7th April 2022.]