Cursed Films II on Shudder explores the misfortune and rumours behind famous movies

What makes a movie "cursed"? Tragic deaths on and off the set, mysterious production problems, disturbing after-events - these are the kinds of things that attract such a reputation.

Canadian filmmaker Jay Cheel says he's interested in "offbeat stories, maybe offbeat characters - character-driven stories, for sure".

Looking into the often difficult production of movies certainly provides its share of these.

A scene from The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland as Dorothy. Picture: Getty Images

A scene from The Wizard of Oz, starring Judy Garland as Dorothy. Picture: Getty Images

At the time of the interview he was finishing post-production on the second series of Cursed Movies, screening on Shudder.

Cheel had previously made documentaries such as Beauty Day (2011) - about a one-man Canadian precursor to Jackass - and How to Build a Time Machine (2016) and says Shudder pitched the Cursed Films idea to him on the strength of his previous work.

The idea piqued his interest as a storyteller, though he's sceptical enough not to buy too much into the idea of "cursed" films or some of the wilder claims and tales.

Still, he acknowledges the associated stories, rumours and urban legends can take on their own lives and sometimes overshadow the films themselves.

Judy Garland's daughter Lorna Luft. Picture: Shudder

Judy Garland's daughter Lorna Luft. Picture: Shudder

While "cursed" is an overstatement, the movies he examined in the first season - including The Exorcist (1973), The Omen (1976) and The Crow (1994) - all had their share of troubled productions and sometimes tragedies and the rumours and stories surrounding them.

"In season one the focus was on the rational versus the irrational, looking at the stories and why we're interested in them," he says. Are we dealing with coincidences, speculation or magical thinking?

Season two is a little different, Cheel says. Having established such premises in the first season, he looks more at the stories behind the production of the movies, and the people who were involved in them.

Sometimes, he says, talking to the less prominent actors and crew members - or even knowledgeable outsiders - makes for better content, as it can lead to more candid interviews and lesser-known stories.

Rosemary's Baby star Mia Farrow with producer William Castle. Picture: Supplied

Rosemary's Baby star Mia Farrow with producer William Castle. Picture: Supplied

The subject of the first episode, The Wizard of Oz (1939), isn't a horror movie, although as Cheel points out, it does have elements that scare children, such as the Winged Monkeys and the Wicked Witch of the West. And the long, expensive production had plenty of problems.

While those involved with the film are dead, Cheel obtained interviews with others including Oz experts and descendants of people involved with the film and used old footage and recreations to tell the stories.

He examines a couple of longstanding urban legends, including that Munchkin actors held wild parties and orgies (not true, apparently, or at least grossly exaggerated), that formed the basis for the 1981 Chevy Chase movie Under the Rainbow, whose director Steve Rash is interviewed. Another enduring legend is that someone - a crew member? a Munchkin actor? - hanged himself in the background of one shot that made it into the film.

"You can't not at least discuss that even though it's been debunked," Cheel says.

One of his interviewees, Gregg Turkington, still says it happened, though, and has an elaborate explanation.

"He's a self-styled Oz expert who, unlike a lot of Oz fans, holds differing opinions and beliefs," Cheel says delicately.

Or perhaps Turkington - an Australian-born film buff - is merely providing a voice for such beliefs and/or putting on the audience.

Other stories are less controversial. "The standout moment for me was the Margaret Hamilton story," Cheel says.

Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch, was severely burned when her fiery departure from Munchkinland was mistimed.

Her son Hamilton Meserve talks of this and says that before his mother was taken home, at her request she was covered in bandages from head to toe to look like a mummy so as not to terrorise him with her appearance.

"She told her son it was a costume and it limited the trauma for him," Cheel says.

Judy Garland's daughter Lorna Luft talks about how her mother was fed amphetamines to give her the energy to work and sleeping pills afterwards and says in that era, people did not understand the potentially harmful effects of such drugs.

Mythbusters co-host Adam Savage - who talks about how Buddy Ebsen's Tin Man make-up nearly killed him and forced him off the film - weighs in with ideas about why rumours about "curses" and the like are spread (among other things, he says it's a way for fans to cope with bad things that happen in their favourite films).

The second film explored, Rosemary's Baby (1968), was adapted by writer-director Roman Polanski from Ira Levin's novel about a young woman who comes to believe she has been impregnated by Satan.

Rosemary's Baby was something of a zeitgeist film, Cheel says, made at a time of social and political turmoil. It was based on a then-popular novel, with a hot director and star, and dealt with topical issues of its period such as religion, sexuality and urban paranoia.

Star Mia Farrow declined an interview request and Cheel did not approach Polanski, feeling disinclined to ask the filmmaker about the murder of his wife Sharon Tate - along with several other people - by followers of Charles Manson the year after Rosemary's Baby was released.

"It felt like it would be strange to talk to him about the film and not address it directly."

Cheel does interview, among others, a former member of the Manson "family", looks at the rumour that Church of Satan leader Anton LaVey was an adviser on the film and talks to actress Victoria Vetri who had a small but significant part in the film ("Her story is amazing").

Other episodes look at Andre Tarkovsky's Stalker (1979), Wes Craven's The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988) and Ruggero Deodato's pioneering "found-footage" film Cannibal Holocaust (1980).

Cheel isn't sure if there will be a third series of Cursed Films - "We'll see how season two goes" - but has been thinking about possible subjects.

One of the movies he's considering is The Conqueror (1956), starring John Wayne as Genghis Khan.

It was filmed near nuclear test sites, often cited as a reason 91 of the more than 200 cast and crew members developed cancer, including stars Wayne and Susan Hayward.

The film met with critical disdain, particularly with regard to Wayne's casting.

In the meantime, he's developing other projects - ones without curses.

Cursed Films II is streaming on Shudder.

This story Films cursed by tragedy and tales first appeared on The Canberra Times.