'Cursed Films' Review: Shudder's Fascinating New Series Explores The Urban Legends Surrounding Classic Horror Films

Have you heard the rumor that real skeletons were used in Poltergeist? Or how about all the mysterious incidents that surrounded the shooting of The Omen? If you're a horror fan, you've heard these stories – and more. Certain iconic horror films are surrounded by this sort of legends – the type that make an already scary movie extra scary, as if the very film itself was emitting bad vibes, or toxic fumes.

These rumors, rumblings, urban legends, and more, crawl out of the shadows and into the light in Cursed Films, a new Shudder docu-series from director Jay Cheel. Each episode attempts to get to the bottom of these stories, and, should they be total bunk, track their origins. In doing so, Cursed Films uncovers dark secrets and stark realities harsher than any mythical curse.

Baseless speculation and bits of trivia don't exactly make for a compelling TV series, and thankfully, Cursed Films rises above all that. It's not interested in spreading rumors, but rather in digging as deep as it can to get to the truth – or some semblance of the truth. The two episodes provided for critics, focusing on Poltergeist and The Omen, are both unique in their approach. The Poltergeist episode is the better of the two, primarily because it feels like the most in-depth. So much of the stories surrounding The Omen – planes hit by lightning, IRA bombings, and more – have always seemed so secondary, so tacked-on – as if fans are so desperate for a curse that they'll force a square peg into a round hole to make it work.

But Poltergeist is a different story. There's the rumor – a true rumor, in fact – that real skeletons were used as part of the film's climax. And then there's the sad fate of two of the film's actresses – Dominique Dunne and Heather O'Rourke. Dunne was murdered by her ex-boyfriend at the age of 22, while O'Rourke, who would appear in both Poltergeist 2 and 3, died at 12 from cardiac arrest and septic shock caused by intestinal stenosis. These tragic outcomes have hung over Poltergeist like a dark, ominous rain cloud ready to burst – but do they really indicate a full-blown curse?

Dealing with such difficult topics isn't easy. A lesser filmmaker could've gone for something far more exploitative here; crasser; crueler. But Cheel finds the perfect balance here, touching on these troubling subjects with as much grace as possible. It's all part of the plan to effectively tamp down any future talk of curses. Yes, real skeletons were used in the film – but real skeletons were used in many other films as well – films that have never suffered anything resembling a curse. And yes, Dunne and O'Rourke died tragically young.

But is that really a sign of some ghoulish, ghostly, otherwordly curse – or more of an indication of the cruelty, and randomness, of life? Or, as Craig Reardon, a make-up effects artist on Poltergeist so succinctly puts it, "The idea of having a few [skeletons] on the set of Poltergeist, and having that kill two young girls, is a pernicious idea. It's an insult to the memory of a very sweet little girl, Heather O'Rourke. And it's worse than for Dominique Dunne, who was strangled to death by her boyfriend. Which had fuck-all to do with a skeleton."

That's not to say Cursed Films is out to scold its viewers. It understands that belief in such paranormal happenstance is only natural for most people. Rather than admonish, the series hopes to educate. But that doesn't mean there's no entertainment to be had here. The series is a horror fan's delight from top to bottom, providing insight from folks involved with the films in question as well as several renowned horror film experts and aficionados. Anyone who ever grew up pouring over old issues of Fangoria or Rue Morgue late at night under a bedsheet with a flashlight is going to be enthralled with what Cursed Films has to offer.


Cursed Films premieres on Shudder April 2.