Photo: Everett Collection
Scary movies are orchestrated to pluck at our nerve endings. But what might be scarier are movies that have been cursed themselves.
What does cursed exactly mean? Did a black specter really hover over “Rebel Without a Cause” (1955), “Superman” (1978), or “The Dark Knight” (2008) because of actors’ premature deaths or life-altering injuries? Or aren’t on-set accidents — such as the heartrendingly shocking decapitations in “Twilight Zone: The Movie” (1983) or the shooting in “The Crow” (1994) — be exactly that: accidents? And isn’t it more than a coincidence that horror movies get the most (publicized) hexes?
Maybe. Sure, you can be skeptical. But be they mysterious forces, publicity stunts, or just life (and gruesome death) getting in the way, sometimes there are just some bad vibes you’d rather avoid — except on the big screen. Here is a list of some famously plagued films (in chronological order) — so decide for yourself. (Don’t forget to share, below, your intel on afflicted movies.)
“The Wizard of Oz” (1939). What, America’s favorite classic — doomed? We’re not even going to go into Judy Garland’s later drug addiction —- there was plenty enough chaos on this set. Directors were playing a game of musical chairs, as a quick succession of big names (Richard Thorpe, George Cukor, Victor Fleming, King Vidor) helmed the pic. The original Tin Man, Buddy Epsen, bowed out after aluminum powder makeup infected his lungs. The makeup was changed, but it still gave the sub, Jack Haley, an eye infection. The Wicked Witch, aka Margaret Hamilton, had to take two weeks off after a special effect involving flames backfired (and her stand-in didn’t fare well either). No wonder she preferred being melted by a bucket of water. Then there were the underpaid munchkins who got stinking drunk every night, the winged monkeys falling from wire, and even Toto, aka Terry, got her paw broke and had to take a doggie break. The film itself wouldn’t gain its storied place in pop culture until decades later, thanks to television reruns — a sign perhaps that some curses do have an expiration date.
“The Conqueror” (1956).The misbegotten notion of John Wayne playing a Mongol leader is enough to make you shout “Stop! Jinx!” So bad that it makes your insides squirm, this picture would be a forgettable blip in the Cowboy’s canon except for its sobering true-life lesson on the dangers of radiation. More than any 1950s sci-fi movie, “The Conqueror” validated a generation’s anxiety over the bomb when 91 out of the 220 people who worked on location in Utah were diagnosed with cancer. Forty-six died of the disease, among them its stars John Wayne, Susan Haywood, and Agnes Moorehead, as well as director Howard Hughes.
Experts say under ordinary circumstances only 30 people out of a group of that size should have gotten cancer. The cause? No one can say for sure, but many attribute the cancers to radioactive fallout from U.S. atom bomb tests in nearby Nevada. The whole ghastly story is told in The Hollywood Hall of Shame by Harry and Michael Medved. (Oct. 26, 1984, The Straight Dope)
The Straight Dope also chronicles a black panther attack, a flash flood, and devastating 120-degree heat, but 13 weeks sucking in the radiation clouds drifting from nearby Yucca Flats, Nevada, (where 11 atomic bombs had been tested) make this indeed an unnerving curse. This might also account for Hughes’ mental downfall: He yanked “The Conqueror” from the public view and reportedly watched it over and over in his last days.
“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968). The horror classic was considered cursed by its producer, William Castle — who had to yield the coveted directing job to a young Roman Polanski. Lead Mia Farrow, a vegetarian, had to put up with eating liver through the shoot, and to add insult to injury, reportedly got her divorce papers from then-hubby Frank Sinatra halfway through the film. A film composer died of a blood clot, similar to another character’s fate in the movie. Castle later almost died from uremic poisoning. The far greater horror, of course, was the slaughter of Polanski’s family and guests by Charles Manson’s cult — who were actually after the home’s former owner, music producer Terry Melcher.
“The Exorcist” (1973). Yes, serial killer and cannibal Jeffrey Dahmer was watching this movie the day he was arrested, but it’s a reach to blame that on an “Exorcist” hex. The film aimed to be so much more than a fright fest, with its take on America’s unprecedented “inter-generational conflict” during the Vietnam War-era. Its impact, though, has been lost in reports of crew deaths — anywhere from 4 to 13 people tied to the movie reportedly died. Ellen Burstyn suffered a spinal injury during a possession scene, young Linda Blair also hurt her back, and a fire destroyed the set. Upon its release,the movie was too much to take for some audience members, who fainted or went into hysterics. Evangelist Billy Graham, like many other religious figures, decried the movie and declared an actual devil lived in original film reels. Which sort of helped the marketing.
“The Omen” (1976). The movie, which saddled Gregory Peck with an orphaned demon child, is probably the granddaddy of an accursed film — if you subscribe to jinx by association. The incidents, ranging from suicides and animals attacking trainers to lightning strikes and IRA bombings, mostly happened off the set. They did impress enough to make up a 2005 British TV documentary, “Curse of The Omen” (in advance, of course, of the 06/06/06 remake). The producers and actors involved told the Sunday Herald back in 2009 that the experience still freaked them out.
Producer Harvey Bernhard, well aware of the Hollywood gossip that had “The Omen” lined up as the latest in a long line of cursed films, started wearing a cross on set. “I wasn’t about to take any chances,” he says 30 years later. “The devil was at work and he didn’t want that film made. We were dealing in areas we didn’t know about and later on in the picture it got worse, worse and worse.”
Don’t think the 2006 sequel got off curse-free, either. That director insisted a broken camera, which cost two days of footage, flashed the message “Error 666” — a code that doesn’t exist. At least, that’s what customer service said.
“Apocalypse Now” (1979). Hex — or an epic collision of directorial hubris and actors’ personal demons? It wasn’t as though Francis Ford Coppola wasn’t warned that a phenomenon called a monsoon hits the Philippines on a pretty regular basis. Still, the director insisted on bringing his adaptation of “The Heart of Darkness” there — and sure enough, typhoons devastated very expensive sets. As for the talent, Martin Sheen (also known as Charlie Sheen’s dad) drank heavily and had a heart attack that almost snuffed him, while Dennis Hopper had to be supplied with cocaine to keep shooting. An obese Marlon Brando demanded on being filmed in shadow rather than lose weight — and he wasn’t keen on learning his lines either. Coppola, who kept rewriting the script and firing people, thrice threatened suicide and suffered an epileptic seizure. Add tropical diseases, then-President Marcos shanghaiing the copters to use against rebels, and corpses supplied from a grave robber, and you have a juicy documentary, “Hearts of Darkness: A Filmmaker’s Apocalypse.”
“Poltergeist” (1982, 1986, 1988). Before the multiple reboots of “Paranormal Activity,” the trilogy “Poltergeist” chilled with their tales of wholesome families plagued in their own homes. Another case of its cast members dying prematurely, the two most disturbing demises were 22-year-old Dominique Dunne, murdered by an abusive ex-boyfriend the same year the film was released, and 12-year-old Heather Rourke, who suffered from Crohn’s disease. She had been diagnosed with a flu, but within 24 hours suffered a cardiac arrest and died of septic shock. The child actress though appeared in all three films, including the one released posthumously, because she had filmed scenes well in advance — adding to an enormous creep factor. Two other actors from “Poltergeist II” — Julian Beck, 60, and Will Sampson, 53 — died respectively of cancer and kidney failure, but they weren’t sudden.
“The Passion of Christ” (2004). When lightning strikes three times, is it a curse or a miracle? The self-financed passion project paid off for Mel Gibson, but not so much for his crew. Assistant director Jan Michelini’s fingers got toasted when a lightning bolt struck his umbrella. Then, thinking he could defy the trope that lightning doesn’t strike twice, he approached Jim Caviezel after a bolt hit the actor (“I’m about a hundred feet away from them when I glance over and see smoke coming out of Caviezel’s ears,” he told VLife) and then got zapped himself. Caviezel shared the experience with the 700 Club, “I was lit up like a Christmas tree! I was doing the Sermon on the Mount. I knew it was going to hit me about four seconds before it happened. I thought, ‘I’m going to get hit.’ And when it happened, I saw the extras grab the ground. What they saw was fire coming out the right and left side of my head. Illumination around the whole body… I hear Mel screaming out, ‘What the heck happened to his hair?’ I looked like I went to see Don King’s hair stylist.”
“Troy” (2004). Commercially, the Greek epic remains among Brad Pitt’s biggest hits. In the pantheon of movie ironies, though, the then-43-year-old had finally embraced his hunkiness for his role as Achilles and worked out seven months to prep — only to injure an ill-fated tendon during a battle with an Australian body-builder, playing Boagrius. Director Wolfgang Peterson said the booboo was “great for the scene, terrible for the movie. Brad was hobbling around for months and we had to come back later to finish the last scene — which, ironically, was another big one-on-one combat scene, the one between Brad and Eric [Bana].” The Sydney Morning Heralds hinted that the fault lay in the anachronistic application of Chinese martial arts. Does this workplace accident make “Troy” — which suffered a critical drubbing — cursed? No, but we have a photo of Brad Pitt, OK?
“The Man Who Killed Don Quixote” (no release date). Wait, is that even fair to include an unfinished movie? Why not, if the disasters amount to the 2002 documentary, “Lost in La Mancha.” Director Terry Gilliam was chasing more than windmills when he took on his mashup of Don Quixote meets “A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court.” According to a 2003 Toronto Star article, production was “plagued by illness, injury, freak storms, money troubles and a host of other Biblical torments.” Gilliam gave the film another go in 2009, but the latest word came down summer 2012 that the cinematic misadventure would be postponed yet again. Gilliam, though, brought up another kind of curse to IndieWire: “My wife has noted that as soon as I say something about my next project everyone writes about it and then it disappears. I don’t what that to happen this time, so I’m keeping my mouth shut.” (By the way, the next project is “The Zero Theorem.” Sorry to curse you, Terry.)
“Behind the Candelabra” (2013). Yes, this is an HBO movie, but with big-screen power: The Steven Soderbergh production stars Matt Damon and Michael Douglas … and perhaps the ghost of Liberace. On the set, Damon and Douglas have reportedly felt “cold, damp air swish by, reeking of a potent cologne.” Douglas himself, wearing extravagant sideburns and rhinestones, felt a “caress” on his shoulder while he played the piano, but nobody was behind him. All right, so the source is the National Enquirer, but the Las Vegas Paranormal Investigation team did stake out the ghost of the late Las Vegas entertainer in Carluccio’s Tivoli Gardens off the Strip. Or at least, they got a really creepy photo of a strange light. Cue creepy Liberace music: “I’ll be seeing you in all the old familiar places…“