Interview : Cursed Films docuseries creator Jay Cheel

Image courtesy of AMC Networks

Following its morbidly riveting first season, Shudder’s docuseries Cursed Films has returned for another round of peeling back the mysticism around some of cinema’s most infamous films.

Writer, director and editor Jay Cheel joined us for an interview to discuss the second season’s new line-up of films, his approach to choosing stories and interview subjects and precisely what pins some films with a ‘cursed’ legacy.

In 2020, the first season of Shudder’s Cursed Films explored the controversial true stories and urban legends surrounding classic flicks including The Exorcist, The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie. Spearheaded by Canadian filmmaker Jay Cheel, who writes, edits and directs each episode, the docuseries aims to explore the concept of a ‘cursed film’; not only films whose productions were blemished by tragic and mysterious circumstances, but also films that are perceived to be the subjects of a literal curse.

The Exorcist (1973)

Unlike myriad YouTube ‘Top 10 Most Cursed Movies’ compilations and SEO-driven listicles, Cheel seems far more interested in exploring the background to these legends and why they even gain traction in popular culture in the first place.

“We’re looking for connections, and we’ve drawn all these parallels, and we can’t help but being pattern-seeking beings,” he explains. “I think it would be a lot tougher if our show was less interested in providing context to all these stories, and was more interested in the gratuity of the Wikipedia bullet-list of weird things that happened.”

While the first season explored the broader idea of the cursed film throughout each of its five episodes, season two tightens its scope for a more individual perspective of each of its subjects.

In preparing this second series, Cheel felt there was little benefit to re-treading the same ground.

“This season, it didn’t feel like we had to explore that ‘cursed’ element as much. You’re carrying all the knowledge you got from season one into season two. When we can tell a story about the connections between Roman Polanski to The Beatles to Charles Manson to John Lennon, we understand from the first season that we look for those connections, and we’ve learned a little bit of knowledge there that we can carry in to analyze these stories in season two. We don’t have to repeat that again.”

The premiere episode explores Victor Fleming’s 1939 classic The Wizard of Oz, drawing from a wide spectrum of experts to demystify some of the film’s greatest behind-the-scenes tales including Mythbusters’ Adam Savage, world renowned film critic Gregg Turkington and surviving family members of Oz’s cast.

The Wizard of Oz (1939)

The inclusion of The Wizard of Oz is an interesting contrast to the line-up of the first season, considering its mostly wholesome content. Is this perhaps why the film has, ironically, been such a source of dark stories? Cheel seems to think so.

“There’s certainly that element of the more wholesome the film, the more people might want to find the weird stuff hiding underneath. It’s almost like the opening of Blue Velvet, with the bugs crawling under the lawn.”

But just as much, he suggests, “there are urban legends around films that have themes that deal with darkness and the devil and exorcisms that feed into that, in a like-attracts-like sense: if we’re going to tell a story about the devil, are we opening ourselves up to invite the devil into this space?”.

Ultimately, everything’s a potential target for this kind of gossip: “people will just grab onto this and embellish and find stories wherever they can,” Cheel concludes.

Given the sensitive subject matter of many of Cursed Films’ episodes – like infamous accidental on-set death of Brandon Lee during production on The Crow – there’s a fine line to be navigated by the show in how these people and their stories are depicted. But Cheel’s approach to the show’s tone isn’t rigid; instead, he allows the interview subject to guide his touch.

“If someone is angry; if someone is really emotional; if someone is putting it all out there; then that will affect how that portion of the story is told, because they’re the ones guiding that conversation. I’m kind of shaping everything around the way they want to tell their story.”

Surprisingly, there’s been little-to-no pushback from prospective interview subjects so far, contrary to what one might expect. “I don’t think there’s been anyone who was just like, “no, I don’t want to discuss this,” Cheel recalls. The Cursed Films team reached out to Mia Farrow in hopes of speaking to her for the Rosemary’s Baby episode; although they were unsuccessful in landing an interview, they did receive what Cheel describes as “a nice reply”.

Rosemary’s Baby (1968)

The only point of resistance seems to come from people who fear that perpetuation of urban legends around a film might take away from its legacy, as in the case of an upcoming episode on Andrei Tarkovsky’s 1979 sci-fi film Stalker. Ultimately, however, Cheel believes this adds to the richness of the discourse around a film.

“That becomes part of the conversation; it’s not like we say “well, keep that to yourself, because this is about curses. Can you just give us some lines about how spooky things were?”. We embrace that, and it becomes part of their character in the episode.”

A new addition to Cursed Films’ second season is original music by singer-songwriter and film buff Weyes Blood (moniker of Natalie Mering), whose Twitter bio appropriately reads: “I love movies”.

Originally, Cheel and co. had reached out to Mering with the intention of casting her in a different production in an acting role.

“We started production on Cursed Films II, and we had been chatting with her and her manager, Jason. We thought, why not ask if she might be interested in doing something like this? She is a fan of movies; so we approached her, and she was into it. We’re really thrilled to have her.”

Her work also played an important role in balancing the tone of the show; leaning away from explicitly horror-driven music. “We get that across with the clips and the discussions, and sometimes it’s nice to have some music that contrasts that a little bit,” he explains. “She delivered some really great stuff that managed to balance that line”.

Weyes Blood, 2019

For better or worse, Hollywood and independent cinema have produced plenty of films that are ripe for the kind of storytelling found in each episode of Cursed Films. Cheel describes the first season as “the greatest hits”; the most infamous, widely-recognised examples of tragedy and mystery behind the camera. With those giants behind them, season two was an opportunity to investigate “b-sides and rarities”, as he puts it.

“For some people, including myself, the b-sides and rarities are sometimes more interesting. Depending on the type of film-goer you are, the ability to learn about a new film and some of the stories connected to it and to see some interesting faces and hear some interesting perspectives is an attractive one”.

While there’s no word just yet on whether Cursed Films will be returning for a third season, the overwhelmingly positive critical response to the show’s first season and a rich body of potential candidates for future episodes suggest there’s plenty of charm left in this Shudder-produced tome.

The first season and premiere episode of season two of CURSED FILMS are now available for streaming on Shudder, with new episodes arriving weekly.

Tickets now on sale for Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness

David Lynch’s Wisteria may be complete and premiering at Cannes!