Cursed Cinema

I was about 8 the first time I saw what I was sure was a ghost
I was about 8 the first time I saw what I was sure was a ghost. I wasn’t at a séance, nor was I trying my hand at a Ouija board — anyone who’s seen that one movie where the foul-mouthed girl’s head spins like a top and turns into a pea-soup sprinkler knows better than that. No, I was minding my own affairs, happily watching Darkwing Duck or something similarly innocuous, when my mother came bounding up the stairs, giddily toting a VHS copy of … all together now … Three Men and a Baby. (Actually, that may be a lie. I now seem to recall asking her to see it. Hmm.) At any rate, I still remember the shudder it gave me. (If you’re not sure what I’m talking about, for crying out loud, YouTube it, or pop “three men and a baby ghost” into Google, and you’ll quickly find more than you could ever want to know about it. That, and the munchkin who hung himself on-camera during The Wizard of Oz.)

The point of this misty-eyed reminiscence, of course, is to highlight the fact that Halloween is nigh. But instead of the customary “Recommended Scary Movies” list, how about a bit of appropriately unnerving background on some of the reportedly most haunted or cursed films in American cinema? Lucky for you, most of them just so happen to be horror classics as well. (“Rebel Without a Cause?” you ask? Tell me the thought of Dennis Hopper with a switchblade doesn’t make you want to fear-crap yourself. Or without a switchblade, even.) A note: Much of what follows is rumor or allegation; in the interest of space and time, I will decline to append “allegedly” or “reportedly” to every claim. Instead, curl up on the couch, ready numerous grains of salt, and keep a night-light on. (I would.)

It’s rumored that the incidents that transpired during production of Richard Donner’s The Omen (1976) began shortly after the film’s working title was changed from The Antichrist to The Birthmark: En route from L.A. to London, Gregory Peck’s plane was struck by lighting; executive producer Mace Neufeld later flew separately to the United Kingdom, and his plane was also struck (some claim it was screenwriter David Seltzer’s plane); producer Harvey Bernhard barely missed being struck himself while in Rome. Rottweiler trainers were attacked by their canine charges. Donner was nearly killed when a speeding car smashed into the passenger door of a car from which Donner was stepping. Donner’s hotel (some say it was Neufeld’s) was bombed by the Irish Republican Army, as was a restaurant at which Peck and others were expected. On the last day of shooting an unused lion scene in the jungle park, two of the big cats killed a guard in his booth. Filming was delayed on a shot involving a plane; upon takeoff, the plane hit a flock of birds, lost control, and smashed into a car at runway’s end. All passengers died, as did the occupants of the car — the pilot’s wife and two of their children. After The Omen finished filming (but was still in post-production), special-effects supervisor John Richardson — who is credited with engineering the film’s iconic, end-over-end decapitation scene — was in Holland working on A Bridge Too Far when he and his assistant were in a head-on collision. He was knocked unconscious; his assistant was beheaded (another account says that she was cut in half.) When Richardson came to, he allegedly saw a road sign pointing the way to “Ommen.” (One newspaper article has it that the sign actually read “Ommen, 66.6 miles.”)

Utterings of a curse have long circulated concerning the Poltergeist trilogy, due to the deaths that have accompanied each installment. MGM released the first film in June of 1982; in November of the same year, 22-year-old actress Dominique Dunn, who played the Freeling family’s elder daughter Dana, died at a Los Angeles hospital after being choked until comatose by her former live-in boyfriend. In September 1985, between the completion of filming on Poltergeist II: The Other Side and its 1986 release, actor Julian Beck died (he was 60, though, and had been fighting stomach cancer for more than a year). Then, in February 1988, between the filming and release of the third film, little Carol Anne Freeling (Heather O’Rourke) died of septic shock at 12, after suffering from what had appeared to be a normal case of the flu.

As many as nine deaths have been pinned to The Exorcist’s “curse,” including that of actor Jack MacGowran, who died of pneumonia shortly after completing his role (and whose character is warned by a prescient Regan `Linda Blair`, “You’re going to die up there,”), actor Max von Sydow’s brother, Blair’s grandfather, a crew member who helped cool the set, a night watchman and a cameraman’s newborn baby. Also perplexing were a mysterious fire that swallowed up the entire set and a lightning bolt that destroyed a centuries-old cross during the film’s Italian premiere.

Curse rumblings also swirl about the 1955 classic Rebel Without a Cause — partly because three of its young stars (James Dean, automobile accident; Natalie Wood, drowning; and Sal Mineo, stabbing) died prematurely. It has also been suggested that Dean himself was cursed — or, if not him, his car. On September 30, 1955, Dean was driving the infamous silver Porsche Spyder, nicknamed “Little Bastard,” when it ran head-on into another car, ejecting Dean’s mechanic, who was riding with him, but pinning Dean inside. Dean died on the way to the hospital, at 24 years old. Following the fatal wreck, a used-car dealer purchased the Spyder and put it on display, charging a quarter for admission. The Spyder was next bought by George Barris, an automobile designer who hoped to dismantle the car and sell its parts. When it was brought to Barris, the Spyder rolled off the delivery truck and broke the legs of a nearby mechanic. A Beverly Hills doctor bought the Spyder’s engine for his own Porsche. The first time he drove the car with the transplanted engine, he crashed and died. Another doctor bought the transmission and was later injured in a wreck. A man in New York then bought two tires from Dean’s car and put them on his own; he crashed when both tires blew out at the same time. Finally, a truck transporting the Spyder’s exterior to a road-safety show crashed, killing the driver. The exterior was stolen and never seen again.

There are other films connected to traumatic and unexpected deaths: Rosemary’s Baby premiered about a year before director Roman Polanski’s pregnant wife, actress Sharon Tate, was murdered by the Manson family; a 1982 helicopter crash on Twilight Zone: The Movie claimed the lives of actors Vic Morrow, Renee Chen (age 6), and My-ca Dinh Lee (age 7); The Crow became infamous when a mysterious firing mishap on a prop gun led to the death of a young Brandon Lee. Some have posited that these constitute “cursed” films, and I’m not here to argue. Just to pass along a mild strain of the creeps. So g’head, rent ’em all this weekend; have yourself a morbid little party.

But seriously: Night-light.

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