It should come as no surprise that the City of Dreams—Los Angeles—also has its share of cockamamie stories to go with it. Whole companies thrive on Hollywood lore, carting around van loads of tourists to see the famous sites of celebrity mishaps or movie-making. Hollywood can also be a superstitious place, thanks to the extreme pressures on the numerous people needed to bring a film to life, and the amount of money a movie can lose if it flops in theatres!
Born of these showbiz superstitions: the legend of the curse. Since countless storytellers have made a home in Hollywood, myths and rumors get started easily. These can escalate and mutate to become full on urban legends… some of which can even become tales of curses. Difficult productions or tragedies that strike while the cast and crew of a movie are still working together can create reactions of anger and sadness. The great weight of these negative feelings can mix into tales of the supernatural, and of dark forces at work on a film.
The movies mentioned here all have become the subject of speculation. Were their productions just rough and stressful? Did tragedy just happen to strike? Or is some sinister power responsible for all the tragedies? In short, Are These 15 Hollywood Movies Cursed?
The mother (or is that mothers?) of all cursed productions, the Poltergeist series sure has its share of weird and ominous happenings. The original 1982 film, though a huge box office hit, had some very strange things happen during production. Once scene called for a horde of skeletons to attack female lead JoBeth Williams in a swimming pool. After shooting the scene, Williams learned that the prop skeletons were actually real! Following the release of the film, actress Dominique Dunne, who had played Dana Freeling in the film, was murdered by her ex-boyfriend.
The eerie tragedies surrounding the series didn’t end with the first film. Two actors from the sequel, Poltergeist II: The Other Side, both died shortly after release of the film. Actor Julian Beck—known for playing the villain Kane—suffered from painful stomach cancer on set, and died from complications just after the film hit screens. Will Sampson, who played the Native American shaman Taylor, died two years later. Perhaps most frightening of all, actress Heather O’Rourke, who played the psychic, angelic child Carol Anne Freeling, suffered from a mysterious illness during the filming of Poltergeist III. She died of a bowel obstruction after completing principal photography. O’Rourke’s death complicated completion of the film, which later opened to negative reviews and flopped at the box office.
14. The Exorcist
The so-called “Scariest Movie of All Time” has its own share of scary stories surrounding filming. The production toiled on for months, with director William Friedkin going to great lengths to ensure “realistic” performances from his actors. Both actresses Linda Blair and Ellen Burstyn suffered spinal injuries during filming, courtesy of several harness stunts gone awry. A reported nine people died during production—some with only tangential association with the production, like a night security guard or set refrigeration man, while others with more direct links like actors Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros died prior to the film’s release.
These eerie deaths, along with Friedkin’s authoritarian management and the creepy subject matter of the film gave rise to unease among the cast and crew. Even during filming, fears began to arise of a curse surrounding the film. Tensions grew to the point that Warner Bros. asked a priest to come and perform an exorcism on the set! He declined, but did offer prayers and reassurance to the production. To date, most of the surviving cast and crew deny the existence of a curse on the film, though in the internet era, those denials have done little to quash supernatural rumors.
13. The Crow
The tragic production of cult film The Crow have long become the stuff of showbiz legend, to the point that rumors of a curse on the film have long circulated. Though not known as the kind of difficult or macabre production that qualifies some of the other films listed here, one accident does cast an awful pall on the film: the death of star Brandon Lee.
Lee, who played the title role in the film, had almost completed filming. With just three days left to shoot, Lee appeared on set to film a scene in which several thugs shoot at his character. Because of time constraints, the prop crew used, instead of dummy bullets, real bullets with the powder charges removed. On one gun, the live primer (the charge which ignites the powder on the bullet) fired off the bullet, lodging it in the barrel of the gun. During another take, an actor fired blank rounds in the gun, which dislodged the bullet and shot it into Lee’s abdomen. Six hours later, Lee died of the wound.
12. The Passion of the Christ
Now here’s an odd movie to be cursed, if ever there was one. Mel Gibson’s retelling of the betrayal and execution of Jesus caused a stir upon release in 2004, in part because of its controversial take on the material, and in part because of strange occurrences during production. While Gibson stressed that a number of cast and crew experienced “miraculous” conversions to Catholicism, the public seemed more fascinated by stories of cast and crew struck by lightning. Lightning actually struck assistant director Jan Michelini twice, as well as actor Jim Caviezel, who played Jesus.
Caviezel also sustained heavy injuries during a scene of flogging, which left him with permanent scarring on his back. Another scene that called for the actor to lift a 150 pound cross went awry when the prop fell and separated his shoulder. Gibson kept the take in the final film. In fact, Caviezel suffered so many injuries and so much emotional distress that he required heart surgery after filming.
The Passion of the Christ divided critics but proved a box office success. Today, little conversation revolves around any supposed curses on the film. Rather most discussion centers on charges of its anti-Semitism and homophobia, as well as Gibson’s subsequent legal problems.
First things first: Atuk, a comedy about an Eskimo coming to live in the United States, never made it before the cameras. The script, based on the popular novel The Incomparable Atuk by Canadian author Mordecai Richler, has long received good buzz in Hollywood, enough so to get a film version into development. The first incarnation of the film began in 1971 for director Norman Jewison, who wanted John Belushi for the lead. After more than ten years in “development hell”, Belushi read the script in 1982 and agreed to play the title character. However, he died in March of that year of a drug overdose. Another version of the film would have gone before cameras in 1988, starring controversial comic Sam Kinison. After a protracted negotiation period between Kinison and studio United Artists, Kinison’s death halted production. Years later, both John Candy and Chris Farley would show interest in the role, and both would experience sudden death. Whether or not the script is actually cursed is open to interpretation. However, the string of tragic deaths surrounding the film are enough to keep actors wary of even considering signing up to star.
10. The Conqueror
Howard Hughes funded this all-star production, which cast John Wayne as Genghis Khan. Wayne would spend the rest of his life tormented by it… and not just because of the questionable (racist) casting! Directed by veteran actor Dick Powell, and featuring Agnes Morehead and Susan Hayward in co-starring roles, the film told a love story between Khan and a Tartar princess. It opened to dreadful reviews and often gets the distinction of being called one of the worst movies ever. But the “curse” surrounding the film didn’t even surface until years after it bombed in theatres. That’s when all the deaths began…
By 1980, almost half of the combined cast and crew had developed cancer, including Hayward, Wayne, Moorhead and Powell all of whom died of the disease. Research uncovered that the location site in Utah where the production filmed sat downwind from an nuclear bomb test site. Further complicating matters, Howard Hughes had 60 tons of sand from the location moved back to Hollywood for additional filming on soundstages. Cursed or not, that qualifies as one hell of a nasty production hazard!
9. The Omen
Another Satanic movie, another curse! Maybe Satan gets tired of being played as a villain…
And played as a villain he is in The Omen, Richard Donner’s horror masterpiece from 1976. The film starred Gregory Peck as a diplomat who adopts a child with his wife— a child who turns out to be the Antichrist incarnate. Much like The Exorcist, the subject matter of The Omen gave its cast and crew an uneasy feeling, as if they were playing with something dangerous. While en route to set, Peck’s airplane was struck by lightning. During shooting, an animal wrangler met his death at the teeth of a tiger that got loose from its restraints. Following the release of the film, special effects maestro John Richardson had a horrible car accident while visiting Holland. When he came to, he saw a sign reading “Ommen 666”, a reference to the nearby town of Ommen, and the kilometer marker 666 by the side of the road! A strange coincidence, if an eerie one…
8. The Wizard of Oz
To begin with, rumors that a Munchkin actor or stagehand hangs himself on camera during the Tin Man’s song and dance number are false! The Wizard of Oz has become the subject of a number of urban legends over the years, and decades of viewing the film on small, fuzzy TV screens gave rise to the hanging legend. A rewatch of the classic film on DVD or Blu-ray reveals the real culprit: a large bird stalking about in the background.
In terms of real—or at least believable—curses though, The Wizard of Oz had more than its share of production troubles. The original Tin Man, Buddy Ebsen, had to drop out of the film after a life-threatening reaction to his make-up. Margaret Hamilton, who played the Witch of the West, suffered facial burns after an ill-timed fire effect. Her stunt double had it even worse: a stunt broom designed to blow smoke exploded, landing her in the hospital. Several of the actors playing winged monkeys sustained injuries after their flying wires broke, dropping them to the floor of the soundstage. And somebody even stepped on Toto!
7. Rebel Without a Cause
Rebel Without a Cause wasn’t about demonic possessions or Satanic entities, nor did it have a troubled, accident-laden production. In fact, things went rather smoothly during filming, and stars James Dean, Natalie Wood, and Sal Mineo all became close friends while making the film. Only after the movie came out and became a huge success did whispers of a curse began to rise in Hollywood.
Star James Dean notoriously had his career cut short with his tragic death in 1955. The actor had become a car enthusiast, and during filming of Rebel Without a Cause had begun racing in professional events. On September 30th, Dean sped down California Highway 466 at 85mph, slamming his car into the side of a turning vehicle. He suffered severe injuries, and died on the scene. Sal Mineo continued to act to wide acclaim after Rebel, until his murder in 1976. A pizza delivery man stabbed Mineo to death in an alley, possibly in a hate crime; Mineo was somewhat open about being gay. Natalie Wood died in 1981 in a horrific drowning accident. While boating with friend Christopher Walken and husband Robert Wagner, Wood fell overboard. Autopsy results suggest she had ingested a significant amount of alcohol and motion sickness tranquillizers.
6. Apocalypse Now
Apocalypse Now, though one of the Great Movies, also has one of the great “production from hell” stories to add to its mystique. Director Francis Ford Coppola decided to film the movie in the Philippines, despite warnings from friend Roger Corman that the environment would prove unsuitable. Indeed, constant weather delays and political unrest caused significant delays and budget overruns. Star Martin Sheen had a heart attack during filming, and almost died before completing his scenes. The increasing stress of the production took its own toll on Coppola’s health. The director watched his weight plummet, as the self-financed film went $2 million over budget. Coppola contemplated suicide.
The rest of the crew didn’t have great working conditions either. The weather repeatedly destroyed the set, and a lack of suitable medical facilities led to the crew washing their wounds in vodka. One crewman died on set; the production later buried him in his crew t-shirt. Ultimately though, Apocalypse Now would emerge a modern masterpiece, hailed as one of the greatest movies ever. Still, all the turmoil the crew endured throughout shooting has given rise to wonder if maybe the movie really was cursed.
A tragic one, if indeed it exists, is the Superman curse, which reportedly plagues every actor who ever dons the iconic blue tights and red cape. According to Hollywood legend, the tribulations began with Kirk Alyn, who played the character in a series of 1940s serials, but found himself typecast ever after. George Reeves, who also played Superman in the 1950s in both serials and on television died under mysterious circumstances. Police ruled the death a suicide by gunshot, though Reeves’ fingerprints were never discovered on the weapon. Reeves had also engaged in an affair with Toni Mannix, the wife of a wealthy MGM executive. Lore holds that Mannix or her husband killed Reeves to close the love triangle.
Of all the victims of the Superman curse though, perhaps audiences know the tragedy of Christopher Reeve best. Reeve, of course, played the title character in the 1979 Superman movie and three sequels. In 1995, a horseback riding accident left Reeve paralyzed from the neck down. He died of complications related to his paralysis nine years later. Recent big-screen Supermen Brandon Routh and Henry Cavill both continue to work, though Routh endured a career drought that lasted years. Cavill’s star is currently bigger than ever, though the actor has had to survive some nasty reviews to get there. Still, if that’s the worst Cavill ever has to deal with, perhaps this Super-curse has met its Kryptonite.
4. Twilight Zone: The Movie
Even if supernatural powers do not exist, certainly even the most logical mind would qualify one entry here as really cursed: Twilight Zone: The Movie. An anthology film, it combined four episodes of the TV series, with four different directors each helming a segment. A segment, entitled “Time Out”, followed a bigot played by Vic Morrow who travels through time and lives as the races he persecuted. One scene called for Morrow to run through a war zone, chased by a helicopter. The scene would become known for one of the worst accidents in film history.
To film the sequence, John Landis directed Morrow to run with two small children in his arms as the helicopter swooped overhead. While filming, two pyrotechnic charges went off near the low-flying aircraft. The force of the detonations caused the helicopter to crash, killing Morrow and the two children.
The accident caused a firestorm of publicity, as Landis, the pilot, and several of the crew stood trial for manslaughter. The production went further afoul when investigators discovered that both of the dead children had been hired in violation of California labor laws. The negative press coverage likely hurt the film’s box office haul and, though acquitted of his charges, Landis’ reputation has yet to recover.
3. Mad Max: Fury Road
Nobody died on the set of Mad Max: Fury Road, though the cast and crew certainly wanted to kill each other though most of filming. Shot in the infernal heat of Namibia, stars Tom Hardy and Charlize Theron feuded nonstop with director George Miller. Rather than rely heavily on computer graphics, Miller had decided early on that he would film using as many practical effects as possible, thus forcing the actors to perform some wild stunts. The heat and powerful sun exacerbated tempters, and Theron and Hardy found each other insufferable. Adding insult to literal injury, Theron accidentally broke Hardy’s nose while performing one stunt!
The subsequent critical and box office success of Mad Max: Fury Road helped heal friendships after the film’s release. Hardy apologized to Miller publicly for his behavior and difficulty on set, a sentiment which Theron has echoed as well. If indeed a curse plagued the production, it didn’t show in the final film, which scored six Oscars, and additional nods for Best Director and Best Picture.
2. The Man Who Killed Don Quixote
Terry Gilliam is finally getting around to filming his longtime dream project, The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. That the director has come this far is something of a miracle. He tried to direct the movie in 2000 to disastrous results.
Production had started on The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, a modern take on the classic story of the mad knight, with a cast that featured Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis, and Jean Rochefort– as Quixote himself. The trouble began on the first day of filming when a nearby airbase caused noise that disrupted filming. The next day, a flash flood damaged vital and expensive equipment and radically altered the look of the location. Rochefort later injured himself on set, herniating a disc, which left the actor in intense pain. At the advice of his doctors, Rochefort withdrew from the film, forcing Gilliam to shut down production. Investors lost millions on the aborted film.
In 2008, Gilliam regained the rights to his screenplay, and went about restarting the production. A documentary about his previous attempt, Lost in La Mancha, had raised the profile of the project and helped Gilliam secure funds. By 2015, Gilliam had secured enough money to fund the movie, and had actors lined up to star in The Man Who Killed Don Quixote. This new incarnation will start filming in October 2016 with Michael Palin and Adam Driver in the cast, proving, if nothing else, that curses can be blessings in disguise!
The derisive nicknames Fishtar and Kevin’s Gate continue to plague the movie Waterworld 20 years after it hit movie screens. Released in 1995, the movie had become the most expensive production in history. Starring Kevin Costner and Dennis Hopper, Waterworld imagined an Earth decimated by global warming, where the polar icecaps had melted and flooded most of the surface. Humans lived aboard ramshackle man-made islands, and fought over precious supplies like gasoline and dirt for growing crops.
Originally budgeted at a robust $100 million, the final cost of the film almost doubled the allotted amount. Filmed in Hawaii, the production ran into numerous equipment failures caused by the seawater and climate. A hurricane wiped out a set that cost several million dollars to build, and would require several million more to rebuild. Costner demanded a certain amount of control during production, and demanded script and score changes. To compensate, the studio had to hire expensive composer James Newton Howard and script doctor Joss Whedon to complete the movie.
Waterworld bombed in theatres, failing to recoup even half its budget in US ticket sales. Critics maligned the movie as incoherent, turgid mess, and what Universal Studios had hoped would become a major blockbuster instead became such a fiasco that Hollywood insiders were left wondering if perhaps the film had been cursed.
Any cursed movies we missed? Tell us in the comments!