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From cast members getting poisoned by makeup to the grisly murders perpetrated by the Manson family, Shudder’s fascinating documentary series Cursed Films returns for its second season, looking into some of the strangest and most macabre stories surrounding Hollywood’s most troubled productions.
From rumours of original cuts of The Wizard of Oz featuring the on-screen death of an anonymous munchkin to the tragic circumstances following the release of Rosemary’s Baby, Cursed Films II takes a deep dive into some of Tinseltown’s darkest corners.
Recently, we were lucky enough to catch up with Cursed Films’ writer/director Jay Cheel to chat about the show’s latest season and learn a little more about what it is about these kinds of stories that keep audiences so enthralled.
“The show is basically about notoriously troubled film productions,” Cheel explains. “Some of those have sort of supernatural elements connected to them, or supposed supernatural elements, but these are films that we talk about when discussing, you know, strange things connected to the making of them that might have resulted in tragedy or just really weird coincidences that capture our imagination.
“Especially with this season, it’s really about cinema as well, in a very general way. It’s about the struggle to make films and, you know, capture a story and put it on the screen and let that story go out into the world and then people take it and add all these additional legends and myths on top of it, and sometimes it completely overtakes the legacy of the film.”
Of course, an enormous amount of research and preparation goes into preparing each episode, which begins with carefully selecting which stories Cheel wishes to tell. “Obviously we start with a long list of potential films,” he explains, “we narrow that down to the five we want to cover. And that is sometimes based on the films themselves, the access to subjects, the quality of the stories connected to those films, and the potential of stories that maybe we’re not thinking about that, you know, we could explore and discover.
“And then we have kind of our foundation that we can then start making our schedule off of and contacting potential interview subjects. But often I find the most interesting stuff happens when we interview someone and they’re like, ‘Oh, you should talk to this person.’ And then we get connected to somebody while we’re in Los Angeles or New York or wherever. And we go talk to them, and then that opens up another door, and then it’s like a very organic thing while we’re on the road.
“And that’s often the most exciting, I think, because it feels like we’re starting to go down some rabbit hole that maybe you might not get to if you were just trying to access this through all of the main channels.”
Much as Cheel suggests, the stories surrounding some of these films have a way of overtaking their “legacy”. But what is it that keeps people so utterly fixated on some of the more macabre stories surrounding the creation of these films?
“Part of it is the juxtaposition,” Cheel answers. “In our Wizard of Oz episode, [Mythbusters’ host] Adam Savage kind of outlines it really nicely… Buddy Ebsen [was] being poisoned by the makeup they used to dress him up as the Tin Man. It’s almost like cosplay, like it’s a positive experience, and then when you add on to that, that he was poisoned… it’s a juxtaposition that attracts people to want to tell that story because I guess there’s an irony to it. So it just makes a great story.”
He continues, “And I think some of the filmmakers involved with these movies have gone on to retell those stories themselves because they know it’s a great story as well. Richard Donner in our first season, who unfortunately passed away last year, he was happy to talk about all of the strange things connected to The Omen, because he was a great storyteller. So he knows when there’s a great story to be told and is willing to share it and that perpetuates it. And I think people just want to hear good stories.”
Cheel certainly has an innate sense about what it is that makes a good story. One of his favourite moments from the most recent season relates to the details of Rosemary’s Baby actress Victoria Vetri.
“Without completely giving it away,” he says, “there’s just a really wild story connected to an actor named Victoria Vetri, she actually went by the name Angela Dorian when filming Rosemary’s Baby, and [she] was kind of like the ‘it’ girl at the time; she was in a lot of television, in some pretty big movies, including Rosemary’s Baby, and then went on to have this really strange life that ended in not a full-blown tragedy but a potential tragedy.
“It could have been a lot worse than it was but even still, it just was kind of a mind-blowing story. And that’s a good example of finding someone like that. Learning about this story, and then in the moment, finding the person that was connected to that story, which was her ex-husband, and that meant my producer Brian, you know, trying to find any address connected to that name and literally knocking on doors while we were in Los Angeles and looking out and getting to talk to them about that experience. And this all sounds very cryptic without having seen the episode but you should watch the episode and find out. Victoria’s story, it’s a wild one.”
With plenty more wild stories to share, Cursed Films II is currently streaming on Shudder.