The Austin Chronicle

Demons on the Set of Cursed Films

New series on Shudder asks why we want to believe in evil

By Matthew Monagle, April 3, 2020, Screens

In 1996, the small town of Thorold, Ontario, made national headlines. Residents were stunned to see a tornado touch ground at the local drive-in movie theatre during a screening of Jan de Bont's Twister. It was a one-in-a-million convergence of events and a ready-made media narrative picked up by news stations around the world.

It also never happened.

Fascinated by the myth, filmmaker Jay Cheel wrote and directed "Twisted," a 15-minute short film that first explored (and then gently debunked) the events that took place that night. In hindsight, "Twisted" also established the framework that Cheel would bring to Cursed Films, his new series for streaming horror site Shudder: an appreciation for the cinematic myths that shape our connection to iconic horror movies, and a desire to explain how these tall tales arose in the first place. "[Cursed Films] takes it beyond the internet listicle approach and digs deeper into the stories," he explained.

Cheel had planned to screen the first two episodes at SXSW, and each deals with an iconic horror movie with an equally iconic urban myth attached. The first explores the supposed curses of the human skeletons in Tobe Hooper's Poltergeist, while the second recounts and debunks the supernatural events surrounding the shoot of Richard Donner's The Omen. It becomes a means to exploring the pervasive presence of curses in history and popular culture (even inviting a black magician to demonstrate a ritual of his own). In each case, a dedicated following of horror fans have entrenched the idea that these "curses" led to tragedies for the cast and crew who worked on the film. Just as Cheel did in "Twisted," he takes an inside-outside approach: Each episode begins by establishing that film's unique mythology before exploring the circumstances and events that may have allowed those myths to propagate. He explained, "It lets us meet some of the people involved with these curse legends and see how they've actually been affected by them."

In their research, Cheel and his team cast a wide net, sitting down with filmmakers involved with the production, horror journalists well-versed in the film's cultural footprint, historians, professors of religious studies, professional skeptics, and even the occasional witch to discuss the power of myth. Cheel explained, "What makes the series a good watch is how each episode deals with each cursed story in very different ways, and opens up conversations that are specific to those films and those legends."

While this broad approach to mythologies makes Cursed Films an infinitely richer series, there are still plenty of inside-baseball moments for horror fans. Cheel was even able to convince Craig Reardon, a special effects artist on the original Poltergeist, to explain how common it was to use human skeletons throughout horror history. "When I first contacted him to be in the series," Cheel recalled, "his initial response was that he would sue me personally if he's even mentioned in the show." Cheel explained to Reardon that his goal was to interrogate, not just perpetuate, the legends surrounding his work, and Reardon's impassioned interview is the clear highlight of the episode. The first season focuses on the heavy hitters – Poltergeist, The Omen, The Exorcist, The Crow, and Twilight Zone: The Movie – And if this initial run is a hit with audiences on Shudder, Cheel has no shortage of films he would like to discuss in the future. "There's a big pool out there of films that we could potentially draw from."

Cursed Films debuts on Shudder on April 2.

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