Lights! Camera! Tragedy! Famous 'cursed' movies
Troubles on the set and suspicious deaths helped to cultivate a nasty reputation for these famous films.
Wed, Sep 11 2013 at 2:10 PM
We all know that Friday the 13th — a day when the severely superstitious tend to call in sick and avoid ladders — cinematically belongs to a certain hockey mask-wearing bogeyman named Jason Voorhees. However, it's also an occasion to remember films notoriously riddled with bad luck during production and after their release; movies in which mysterious accidents, uncanny mishaps and even death have led some to believe that they are plagued with more than mere coincidences. Perhaps they’re cursed?
Below, we've delved into the stories behind six movies and movie franchises that have been branded with the dreaded "cursed" label. Not surprisingly, most are horror films involving satanic and supernatural goings-on and several have been the subject of books and television documentaries.
We've also included a shortlist of seven more films widely considered to be plagued with bad mojo and misfortune, giving us a poetic grand total of 13 accursed films.
The 'Poltergeist' trilogy (1982, 1986, 1988)
The granddaddy of bad mojo-inflicted film productions, the haunted house/anti-suburban sprawl classic "Poltergeist" not only rendered audiences terrified of trees, oversized clown dolls and static-filled television sets but left behind a path of misery, misfortune and even murder in its wake.
JoBeth Williams, who played malevolent spirit-plagued matriarch Diane Freeling in the first two "Poltergeist" films, has hinted that in an effort to save money, Producer Steven Spielberg's insistence on using real human skeletons as props in the first film's swimming pool sequence is to blame for the "Poltergeist" curse, although it has never been verified if this is true or if Williams was simply trying to perpetuate the legend.
The first "Poltergeist"-related tragedy came in 1982 when actress Dominique Dunne (playing teenage daughter Dana Freeling, she would have made an excellent future scream queen) was strangled to death in her driveway by a possessive ex-boyfriend, John Sweeney. She was 22. A high-publicity trial followed, a trial that Dunne's father, the late journalist and high-society hobnobber Dominick Dunne, wrote about in the Vanity Fair article "Justice: A Father’s Account of the Trial of his Daughter's Killer." Dunne later went on to cover the murder trials of O.J. Simpson, the Menendez Brothers and others.
While the 1988 death of Dunne's on-screen sibling, Heather O’Rourke, was non-violent in nature, it was no less tragic or premature. O'Rourke, who played evil spirit abduction-prone youngster Carol Anne Freeling, passed away at the age of 12 from cardiac arrest and septic shock resulting from a misdiagnosed case of intestinal blockage. While O'Rourke starred in all three "Poltergeist" films, the last was released posthumously.
Other "Poltergeist"-related deaths include actors Will Sampson (complications following a kidney transplant at the age of 53) and Julian Beck (stomach cancer at the age of 60). Both appeared in "Poltergeist II: The Other Side." Sampson, a practicing Native American shaman, reportedly performed an exorcism on the set of the film to rid the production of "alien spirits." Zelda Rubenstein, the pint-sized character actress who portrayed paranormal house-cleaner Tangina Barrons in all three films, passed away in 2010 at the age of 76 although her death is generally not associated with the "Poltergeist" curse. As for Oliver Robbins (Robby Freeling), he's very much alive and well despite almost being choked to death by the aforementioned demonic clown doll (talk about a prop malfunction) on the set of the first "Poltergeist" film.
Despite its somewhat blighted reputation, the "Poltergeist" franchise will be treated to an upcoming reboot – a "revisionist take," according to MGM – starring Sam Rockwell and Rosemary DeWitt. Here's hoping all goes well …
The 'Superman' franchise
Where to even begin with the ill fortune that has plagued actors who have appeared in various "Superman" films as either the titular Man of Steel or in supporting roles?
The 1995 equestrian accident that left the late Christopher Reeve paralyzed from the neck down? Richard Pryor’s death at the age of 65 after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis? Margot Kidder's 1996 bipolar freak-out in which she went missing and was later found hiding in a stranger's L.A. backyard, filthy, disoriented and with her front teeth missing? The sad and strange latter years of Jor-El himself, Marlon Brando?
Photo: Hulton Archive/Courtesy of Getty Images
It's perhaps best to start with George Reeves (pictured above), the actor who played Superman in "Superman and the Mole Men" (1951) and the popular 1950s television series "Adventures of Superman." In 1959, Reeves was found dead in the bedroom of his Beverly Hills home, the apparent victim of a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head. Although it was widely speculated that Reeves was depressed over his inability to secure non-Superman roles and be taken seriously as an actor, no fingerprints were found by the police on the pistol Reeves allegedly used to take his own life. This combined with Hollywood gossip and old-fashioned conspiracy theories lead to the widespread belief that Reeves did not commit suicide but was murdered.
More contemporary actors such as Dean Cain and Brandon Routh have not suffered as tragically at the hands of the curse of "Superman," although they've struggled to find acclaim outside of the role, much like Christopher Reeve and George Reeves. The Daily Beast recently wondered if the most recent actor to don blue spandex and a red cape, Henry Cavill, will be the one to break the trend and not be haunted throughout his career as yet another actor who played the famous role, saying:
"Of the small group to have played the Man of Steel, one died shortly after, another was paralyzed in a tragic accident, and all have been unable to shake the close association with the role and parlay it into an A-list career. By that logic, Cavill is doomed. At the very least, countless pundits are breathlessly wondering if he's the Kryptonite that will finally destroy the Superman Curse. But what if there's really no curse at all?"
'The Exorcist' (1973)
But of course William Friedkin’s classic tale of demonic possession and severely foul-mouthed 12-year-old girls, "The Exorcist," was an accursed production, plagued by a series of unusual on- and off-set occurrences. Seems to come with the territory, right?
While the various misfortunes to strike the production could be considered a touch more benign than the bad vibes attached to other horror films such as "Poltergeist" and "The Omen," they were uncanny enough to warrant an "E! True Hollywood Story" special. For starters, as many as nine deaths, accidental and natural, are allegedly associated with the production including cast, crew, and relatives of those associated with the film. In her 2006 autobiography, actress Ellen Burstyn addressed the numerous deaths associated with the film. In her Academy Award-nominated role as the embattled mother to a young girl with remarkable vomiting skills, Burstyn herself suffered a spinal injury in one of the film's more infamous scenes (hint: it involves a crucifix) where she’s thrown from the bed of her possessed daughter. In addition an all-around creepy atmosphere, various unexplained accidents occurred on the film's set including fires that prompted Friedkin to call in a real priest to mitigate. The takeaway? A certain someone whose name starts with "S" didn’t want “The Exorcist” made.
And then there's Linda Blair, whose Golden Globe-winning portrayal of a sweet young girl who should have never fiddled with a Ouija board caused many early audience members to completely lose it – vomiting, passing out, becoming hysterical in the theater aisles. Cursed or not, Blair never achieved mainstream success as an adult actress — her role in the atrocious, critically panned first sequel to "The Exorcist" didn't help – and became entangled with drug-related legal problems in the late 1970s. Throughout the 1980s and '90s, Blair appeared in numerous low-budget horror and exploitation films ("Chained Heat," "Bedroom Eyes II" and "Witchery" to name a few) and more recently has dedicated her time to writing vegan cookbooks and working as an animal rights activist. At one point, she served as the face of a PETA campaign with the tagline "Animal experiments make my head spin."
'The Omen' (1976)
The laundry list of misfortunes to befall the cast and crew of "The Omen," Richard Donner's classic chiller concerning a preschool-aged hellion with a distinctive birthmark on his scalp, is both creepy and considerable. And like the plagued production of "The Exorcist," “The Curse of the Omen" (also the name of a 2005 British documentary film on the topic) has left many superstitious folk wondering if Old Scratch himself had something to do with it.
Just a few of incidents revolving around the famously jinxed production: On three separate occasions, star Gregory Peck, executive producer Mace Neufeld and scriptwriter David Seltzer were all aboard planes that were struck or almost struck by lightning; another plane that the crew planned to use for aerial filming but was chartered last minute to another client crashed, killing everyone onboard; Donner's hotel was bombed by the IRA during filming; the day after the film's safari park scene was filmed, an animal handler was mauled by a lion while animal handlers involved in the cemetery scene were attacked by dogs; Peck's son committed suicide several weeks before filming commenced; and several crew members were involved in a head-on car accident during the first day of filming.
The most unsettling incident associated with "The Omen," however, came several months after the shoot had wrapped and the film had premiered to critical and commercial acclaim. While working on the film "A Bridge Too Far" in the Netherlands, Special Effects Director John Richardson and his assistant, Liz Moore, were involved in a serious car accident. While Richardson survived, Moore was decapitated. Tragic for sure, but also incredibly creepy – or insanely coincidental – as Richardson was responsible for one of more gruesome scenes in "The Omen" in which David Warner’s character is beheaded by a sheet of glass. And as legend has it, at the scene of the accident was a road marker reading: "Ommen: 66.6 km." While that tidbit is just a touch hard to believe, the accident was indeed verified as having occurred on a Friday the 13th, 1976.
'Rosemary’s Baby' (1968)
A young couple move into a stunning Upper West Side apartment, fame-hungry husband befriends kooky elderly neighbors, elderly neighbors turn out to be part of a satanic cult, husband makes Faustian pact with said satanic cult, pregnant wife goes crazy with paranoia … you know the rest of the story.
Plagued by a number of pre-production issues, the beleaguered producer of "Rosemary’s Baby," William Castle, believed the film adaptation of "Stepford Wives" author Ira Levin’s 1967 bestseller to be cursed from the very beginning.
The actual filming of "Rosemary’s Baby," however, was rather uneventful unless you count the various indignities suffered at the hands of Mia Farrow, including getting served divorce papers by husband Frank Sinatra or being forced to eat raw liver on camera by director Roman Polanski (she was an avid vegetarian). Things didn't start to get weird until after the film's release when Castle became afflicted with gallstones and composer Kryzystof Komeda died from a brain clot, just like the character of Hutch in the film.
Of course, the real tragedy came a year and a half after the film's release on Aug. 9, 1969, when Polanski's pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, and four others were savagely murdered by members of the Manson Family at a Hollywood Hills home once occupied by pop music producer, Terry Melcher, and his girlfriend, Candice Bergen. Not long before Melcher and Bergen had moved out and Polanski and Tate moved into the home at 10050 Cielo Drive, Melcher had experienced a falling out with Charles Manson, who, in addition to being a certified lunatic, was also an aspiring musician. Manson wanted Melcher, famed for his work with the Beach Boys and the Byrds, to work with him on a record but Melcher declined, infuriating Manson. To this day, there's some debate about if Manson was aware that Melcher had moved out of the home. Polanski, whose ill-fortune continued several years later when he was charged with statutory rape of a minor, was in London at the time of the murders.
And here’s a string on creepy coincides tied to "Rosemary’s Baby": Manson was famously obsessed with the Beatles' "White Album" and went as far to blame the record for his psychotic behavior. John Lennon was shot and killed by Mark David Chapman at the Dakota, the iconic Manhattan apartment building where Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse reside in "Rosemary’s Baby." And the subject of the Beatles' "White Album" hit, "Dear Prudence," was in fact Mia Farrow’s younger sister, Prudence Farrow, who the band had met while on a spiritual retreat in India.
'Rebel Without A Cause' (1955)
While you may have noticed a couple of trends amongst the other entries on this list – supernatural hijinks, satanic offspring, Richard Donner – the classic juvenile delinquency drama, "Rebel Without a Cause," is (unfortunately) unique in that while the production itself was relatively mishap-free, all three of its stars, James Dean, Natalie Wood and Sal Mineo, died tragic and premature deaths. Bad luck comes in threes, indeed.
Chain-smoking proto-bad boy Dean perished in a near head-on collision in his Porsche 550 Spyder – nickname: "Little Bastard" – near Cholame, Calif., just a month before the release of "Rebel Without a Cause." He was 24. Mineo and Wood’s deaths came much later on, in 1976 and 1981, respectively. A the age of 37, openly gay Mineo was stabbed to death in an alleyway behind his West Hollywood apartment building by a deranged former pizza delivery driver. While it was initially believed that his sexuality had something to do with his murder, that myth has since been widely debunked – Mineo was the victim of a botched robbery, not a gay tryst gone bad.
And then there's Natalie Wood, whose death has remained shrouded in mystery to this day. While Dean's post-“Rebel Without a Cause” career was cut short and the once wildly popular Mineo suffered a career slump in the 1960s and 1970s, Wood enjoyed a successful career beyond her teenage ingénue years, starring in classic films like "West Side Story," "Splendor in the Grass" and "Gypsy." At the age of 43 and with several Academy Award nominations under her belt, Wood's body was found floating off the coast of Catalina Island, Calif., near a yacht she had been aboard the night before with her husband, Robert Wagner; friend and "Brainstorm" co-star, Christopher Walken; and the yacht's captain.
That Wood drowned was a certainty from the get-go, but the circumstances around exactly how she ended up in the water remain a mystery. In 2012, a new investigation into the incident classified the cause of death as being undetermined; previously it had been deemed an accident by the coroner's office. The new investigation concluded that Wood's body had been bruised prior to her drowning, strengthening the argument of those who adamantly believed that Wood hadn't simply gotten tipsy on booze and painkillers and fallen overboard but that she was the victim of foul play — that she was assaulted and/or killed by someone aboard the yacht that fateful November evening. Wagner was never deemed a suspect and did not publicly comment on the new findings.
Seven more damned film productions of note:
"The Wizard of Oz" (1939)
"The Conqueror" (1956)
"Apocalypse Now" (1979)
"Twilight Zone: The Movie" (1983)
"The Crow" (1994)
"Passion of Christ" (2004)
"The Dark Knight" (2008)
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