The entertainment industry is a popular breeding ground for strange stories and bizarre tales. It also seems to draw to it much talk of mysterious curses that seem to settle down upon productions, characters, or even certain members of the crew. I have covered curses said to haunt horror movies here at Mysterious Universe before, but here I thought I would branch out into other types of films said to have potently bad mojo hanging over them. Here I have put together some of the most supposedly cursed movie projects there are, and whether it is down to some supernatural force or just some uncommonly bad luck, they sure make for some eerie and unfortunate tales.
Some supposed movie curses take the form of unrelenting bad luck and misfortune. In 1956, an all star cast and crew came together in the deserts of Utah to film the Howard Hughes funded Genghis Khan epic The Conqueror, starring the unlikely, and definitely not Asian lead actor John Wayne in the role of the ruthless Mongolian warlord. There was very little that actually went right with any of the filming, and there indeed seemed to be a dark cloud hanging over the entire production from the start. There were nearly constant dust storms, punishing, oppressive heat reaching over 120 degrees Fahrenheit, and a flash flood that tore through to destroy sets and nearly kill the entire crew. Lead actress Susan Hayward also had a rather harrowing ordeal when one of the animals used in a scene, a black panther, attacked her and tried to maul her.
Even more ominous was that the filming location in Snow Canyon was not far downwind from the Yucca Flats, which just happened to be where the U.S. government had tested 11 atomic bombs aboveground just a year earlier, meaning that there was most certainly some degree of radioactive fallout in the area where the movie was being made, and even during the scenes that were filmed in Hollywood studios Howard Hughes had had tons of dirt from the location shipped there that were used to keep the proper aesthetic of it all. Although it is unknown just how much radiation the crew was actually exposed to over the 13 weeks they spent on location, they were certainly aware of the risks, using geiger counters regularly on the set, and it most certainly had something to do with what happened next to some degree.
Over the years the cast and crew of The Conqueror began to develop cancer at a frightening pace, with 91 of the 220 people who had worked on the film falling victim to its ravages, including director Dick Powell, actresses Agnes Moorehead, Jeanne Gerson, and Susan Hayward, and even John Wayne himself. In some cases, these unfortunate souls committed suicide, such as the case of actor Pedro Armendariz, who shot himself after learning he had terminal kidney cancer just 4 years after filming had wrapped. In the end, 41 of these 91 people died of their affliction, including Wayne, the rest struggled with it all of their lives, and Howard Hughes allegedly felt so bad about the whole thing that he ended up pulling The Conqueror from theaters, after which he would purportedly obsessively watch it over and over again in his reclusive final years. To make it all even worse, the movie opened to horrendous reviews, and was widely reviled as one of the worst movies ever made.
As for the deaths themselves, it is unknown to just to what degree the radiation had a part to play in it all, but it was likely a fairly large contributing factor. Even then, it hit with much more of a vengeance that it had any right to, with experts later claiming that the rate of cancer displayed amongst the movie’s cast and crew was beyond what it statistically should have been. One Dr. Robert C. Pendleton, director of radiological health at the University of Utah, would say of this:
With these numbers, this case could qualify as an epidemic … in a group this size you’d expect only 30-some cancers to develop. With 91, I think the tie-in to their exposure on the set of “The Conqueror” would hold up even in a court of law.
Another movie plagued with all manner of bizarre difficulties was the 1982 film Fitzcarraldo, directed by Werner Herzog and starring Klaus Kinski. This perhaps already sends up red flags, as although this duo often worked and collaborated together they famously hated each others’ guts, with fights and death threats between them not uncommon at all, making them an extremely volatile, unruly combination. The movie itself took place in the jungles of Peru, where it was filmed on location, and chronicles the story of an Irishman rubber baron named Brian Sweeney Fitzgerald, who comes to the rainforest to bring the joys of opera to its indigenous peoples, and at one point it is decided to drag a full steamship overland in order to bridge the distance between two river arteries. It is precisely as insane as it sounds, but not quite as much so as the whirlwind of weird and unfortunate goings on behind the scenes.
Things got off to a bad start right away, when the original lead actor, Jason Robards, fell violently ill with dysentery and left the production permanently. Considering that 40% of the lead actor’s scenes had already been in the can, this posed not a few problems and delays as the role needed to be completely reshot. Considering that Kinski, who was both Herzog’s muse and nemesis, had been cast to replace Robards, this put the entire production in quite a volatile state of affairs, as the two despised each other, were constantly at each others’ throats, and at one point Herzog seriously even considered having Kinski killed by the native extras on the set, who by all accounts hated the German actor even more than Herzog did.
Herzog did not really enamor himself to the native people of the region either. He was accused of consistently subjecting the natives to all manner of cruel working conditions and routinely violated their land rights, notably by building an entire village as a set on their land without asking permission, which was later burned down by the angry natives, and indiscriminately chopping down large swaths of jungle to fit his needs. As for the working conditions, Herzog decided that rather than just use miniatures or special effects to simulate the dragging of the steamship overland, or even just do as the real Fitzgerald had done and disassemble the ship to reassemble it on the other side, he would instead have the cast and extras pull an actual 320-ton steamship up over a hill thorough mosquito and snake infested jungle.
Here the crew experienced the full brunt of all of the harrowing dangers the jungle has to offer, including disease, parasites, and incredible heat in one of the driest, hottest summers the region had ever experienced, all while toiling away to lug the immense vessel through terrain it was never meant to be on in order to satisfy a madman’s vision. More than a few people died under these hazardous conditions, and one person cut off his own leg with a chainsaw after being bitten by a venomous snake, but the focused and quite obsessed Herzog pushed ahead anyway. For all of this they were never able to get the ship to move very far, with it eventually being abandoned in the jungle, where it rots away to this day.
Considering how much ire they had generated amongst the native Amahuaca people, it is perhaps no surprise at all that the crew came under aggression from them. The production was hit by a native raid during filming, in which two of the production crew were hit with arrows. Adding to all of this woe were two plane crashes that critically injured six of the crew, another 3 seriously injured during a dangerous scene involving the ship being caught in rapids, and the death of an extra who went out on a canoe in roiling water and drowned. Considering the troubled shoot and Herzog and Kinski’s explosive animosity and epic meltdowns throughout it is amazing the movie ever even got made at all, but it actually ended up bagging Herzog Best Director at the Cannes Film Festival in 1982. Whether it was doomed by an actual curse or merely the unsavory location, unstable relations, and a notoriously tyrannical director, the bizarre production of Fitzcarraldo is one of the most flat out bonkers in film history.
A more recent production of a more well-known film that was also beleaguered with numerous woes to the point that talk of a curse has sprung up was the 1999 science fiction action film series of The Matrix, directed by the Wachowski brothers and starring Keanu Reeves, Laurence Fishburne, Carrie-Anne Moss, and Hugo Weaving. Although very successful and considered a groundbreaking achievement in special effects and imaginative spectacle, The Matrix trilogy was not without its share of sinister problems lurking about it.
The most notable incident of the so-called “Matrix Curse” is when the girlfriend of Keanu Reeves at the time, Jennifer Syme, had a stillborn birth, a heartbreaking predicament which would see the two go their separate ways not long after. Syme would die soon after in a car accident, and the deaths would not end there. At the time, the young and upcoming R&B singer and movie star Aaliyah had a rather prominent role in The Matrix Reloaded as the character Zee, yet her life and career would be rudely cut short with a tragic plane crash in the Bahamas on August 25, 2001, after filming the music video for her song Rock the Boat, and this unexpected tragic death threw off the whole production for months. There was also the passing of Gloria Foster of diabetes, who played the role of the Oracle in the first film, as well as the events of the 9/11 terrorist attacks and a frightening motorcycle accident that Reeves was in which saw him in the hospital with broken ribs and a ruptured spleen. He would then go on to seriously injure his foot during an action scene, and Reeves’ troubles would continue with his sister’s case of leukemia, in which she suffered a relapse and Keanu took time off to be with her.
With all of the delays, coupled with the very nature of the ambitious project to begin with, production costs began to surge out of control, made only worse by the bankruptcy of some of the special effects houses who had been tasked with the visual effects. With costs skyrocketing out of control and threatening the entire production, it was only when Keanu Reeves agreed to forgo $24 million of his own pay that kept the whole thing on life support long enough for it all to get made. Say what you will about the quality of The Matrix Trilogy as a whole, but it is clear that it is somewhat miraculous that it even exists at all.
Just about as beloved as The Matrix series is the more recent Batman films, directed by Christopher Nolan, which too have plenty of darkness pervading them. Most notably was the death of the actor Heath Ledger, who made an impressive, career making turn as The Joker in The Dark Knight, of an apparent drug overdose during filming, which was a death that rocked the entertainment industry and shocked the world. By all accounts, the role of The Joker was said to be in a way cursed itself. Ledger had found himself having profound personal and mental issues in the role, claiming to have been unable to sleep and becoming ravenously consumed by the part and thoroughly exhausted by it, spiraling down a road to depression that cost him his relationship with girlfriend Michelle Williams. According to some reports, Jack Nicholson, who had played the previous iteration of the role of the The Joker, purportedly even warned Ledger to be careful when approaching the part, as it had a life of its own and the potential to be dangerous. Ledger’s last known words were “Bye Bye” scrawled into a notebook next to a picture of himself in full creepy Joker makeup.
Ledger’s was not the only death or injury to haunt the production, as a special effects technician named Conway Wickliffe was killed during a stunt for a scene involving a chase with a truck, and later a stunt double would be injured under similar circumstances, and Morgan Freeman would also be involved in a serious car accident in 2008, after which Freeman and his wife would divorce not long after. By far the spookiest and most terrifying incident related to the “Batman Curse” happened in 2012, when 24-year-old PhD student at University of Colorado-Denver, James Holmes, attended a screening of The Dark Knight Rises in Aurora, Colorado, and then proceeded to set off a tear gas canister before indiscriminately opening fire upon the crowd of theater goers. When the smoke cleared, 12 were dead and a further 70 injured. The Nolan Batman movies have been critically and commercially well-received, but certainly have their demons stalking about in the shadows.
While most of these may just be pure bad luck and the hardships inherent to a movie set, others almost seem to have some supernatural effect at work. The very successful and very controversial 2004 movie The Passion of the Christ, directed by Mel Gibson and which tells the tale of the betrayal of Jesus Christ and his subsequent torture and death, seemed to almost have a vehement force hanging over it making problems. In this case, the crew just couldn’t seem to avoid all of the freak lightning strikes going on during filming. Assistant director Jan Michelini was struck by lightning not once, but twice during the shoot, and the lead actor who played Jesus, Jim Caviezel was also struck by lightning on location, with some crew saying that at the time he had literally had smoke coming out of his ears.
Caviezel was particularly targeted by this supposed curse, suffering hardship after hardship while filming. Despite suffering from a bout of hypothermia, as well as pneumonia and a lung infection, as well as the lightning strike, he also was struck by a dislocated shoulder during one scene carrying the heavy cross and seriously injured during the main event, the scene where Jesus is being led out to the cross and relentlessly flogged. Although the scene and its violence were ostensibly fake, Caviezel had chunks of flesh ripped out, and he suffered various skin infections to boot, mostly stemming from the copious makeup needed to make the fake injuries look so real. In the end, the production thoroughly spent Caviezel, and the actor required heart surgery and psychiatric treatment after the movie was complete. I’m not saying that someone didn’t want this film to be made, but by the look of it yeah, someone kind of important maybe did not want it to be made.
Some movie curses seem to not revolve around any particular film, per say, but rather around a character. Take the by now infamous “Superman Curse” that seems to hang over anyone who takes up the role of the Man of Steel. In the 1950s, an early Superman actor, George Reeves, who starred in the TV series Adventures of Superman, turned up with a severe case of the deads in 1959, when he was discovered sprawled out in his home with a gunshot wound to the head. Officially classified as a suicide, the weapon used nevertheless did not have his fingerprints on it, and it has been argued that he was actually murdered, spawning various conspiracy theories.
Years later, perhaps the most famous embodiment of the caped superhero, Christopher Reeve, played Superman through a series of four motion pictures of varying quality. In 1995, Reeve, who strangely shared a last name spookily similar to that of his predecessor, was involved in a horrific accident in 1995. Reeve, who was a dedicated horse rider, was flung from his steed and suffered paralysis from the neck down, becoming a champion in the cause for quadriplegics and paraplegics before finally dying in 2004 at the age of 52.
They were not the only ones to meet the wrath of the “curse.” Christophe Reeve’s wife, Dana, died of lung cancer shortly after her husband’s death despite the fact that she never smoked, comedian Richard Pryor, who starred in the much maligned Superman III, went on to develop multiple sclerosis, and Lois Lane herself, actress Margot Kidder, would suffer from debilitating bipolar disorder. Film great Marlo Brandon, who played Superman’s father Jor-El in the original film, did not fare much better, steadily losing his mental health and spiraling into insanity and weirdness, putting on massive amounts of weight and retreating into reclusive self seclusion not long after the movie came out. Adding to all of this is the troubling fact that everyone who has played the role of Superman can’t seem to ever break free and do anything else. Every actor who has ever played the hero has been typecast, and more recent actors to don the red cape, such as Dean Cain, Brandon Routh and Tom Welling, have never done anything noteworthy outside of their portrayals of Superman. It remains to be seen what happens to current Superman Henry Cavill, but history is not in his favor. Whether real or not, the “Superman Curse” at least seems rather ominous to say the least.
As we have seen so far, death seems to be a specter that pops up quite often when discussing famously cursed films. The 1955 film Rebel Without a Cause is another example. Starring the iconic James Dean, as well as Sal Mineo, Nick Adams and Natalie Wood, the movie was what put Dean on the Hollywood map. It also seems to have spelled their dooms. On September 30, 1955, just after the movie came out, Dean would die horribly in a high speed car crash while driving his Porsche Spyder to Salinas, California before Rebel Without a Cause was even released in theaters. Spooky enough as it is already, this death connected to the movie would not be the only one.
Fellow star Nick Adams would also die under weird circumstances in February of 1968, when he was declared missing after not showing up to a dinner party and later found dead, apparently of an “accidental suicide,” whatever that means. Sal Mineo would also be caught up by the Grim Reaper, when he was stabbed to death in a dark alley near his apartment building. Natalie Wood would go on to star in the movie Brainstorm, after which she would fall from a yacht on a weekend getaway with husband Robert Wagner and actor Christopher Walken after drinking too much and tragically drown. All things told, none of the actors from the film lived past the age of 43.
Supposed movie curses can be so insidious and pervasive that they manage to sink their claws in to the point that the movie may be doomed to remain in development limbo for years, decades, or may never see the light of day at all. Perhaps the most famous cursed movie that remained unfinished for years is an adaptation of the beloved literary classic The Ingenious Nobleman Mister Quixote of La Mancha, or more commonly known simply as Don Quixote, by the Spanish author Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra, and which seems to willfully not want to be made into a movie. Plans to turn the book into a film started back in 1957, when Orson Welles took on the project, but the film languished in development hell as Welles struggled to finance it, and although he always planned to one day get around to finishing it something always seemed to come up and he passed away in 1985 before it could be completed.
The quest to turn Don Quixote into a film was abandoned for a while until 2000, when director Terry Gilliam took it on as his dream project. Gilliam had long wanted to get around to tackling Don Quixote and began production on the film, which was initially set to star Johnny Depp, Vanessa Paradis, and Jean Rochefort, and was to be filmed on location in Spain, but the cast and crew were almost immediately plagued by myriad problems. The area where they were filming was near an airbase and constantly buzzed by fighter jets, causing quite a few headaches and delays, but this noise would turn out to be the least of their worries, when a freak storm and flash flood damaged equipment and destroyed sets, and the actor playing Don Quixote, Jean Rochefort, seriously injured his back while filming a scene, all of which conspired to cause delays and costs to surge and eventually cause the whole project to be scrapped. The making of the unfinished Gilliam Don Quixote film was so beset with catastrophe and is so infamous that it was made into a behind-the-scenes documentary called Lost In La Mancha.
Gilliam would go on to try and try again to make the movie over the years, with numerous different casts being linked to it including such notable actors as Robert Duvall, Michael Palin, and John Hurt, Ewan McGregor, and Jack O’Connell, but was met every step of the way by financial woes and more sinister problems, such as actor John Hurt being diagnosed with pancreatic cancer during production. Gilliam would try to get the movie off the ground 8 times, but the whole thing could never seem to take off, while the director became more and more obsessed with seeing it through to the end, at one point lamenting:
It’s obsessive…desperate…pathetic…foolish…it’s this growth, this tumor that’s become part of my system that has to get out if I’m to survive.
In 2017, after nearly two decades of gestating in development hell, endless delays, misfortune, and difficulties, Terry Gilliam was finally able to announce that he was finished filming The Man Who Killed Don Quixote, which is set in modern times and starring Jonathan Pryce, Adam Driver, Olga Kurylenko, Stellan Skarsgard, Oscar Jaenada, Rossy de Palma and Jason Watkins. Set to be released in 2018, it will be interesting to see if Gilliam has finally been able to overcome the curse and whether it turns out to all be worth it.
Some movies have been so steeped in bizarre misfortune that they persistently manage to ever get made at all. By far the most infamous and ominous of these is the deeply troubled story of the film Atuk, based on the 1963 novel The Incomparable Atuk, by Mordecai Richler. The comedic tale of an Inuit Eskimo who finds himself a stranger in the strange land of New York City and trying to awkwardly adjust was made into a screenplay by Tod Carroll in the early 1980s and quickly gained a reputation for having a deadly curse surrounding it like a dark cloud.
The list of tragic deaths linked in some way to the making of Atuk reads like a veritable who’s who of comedy actors. Legendary comedian John Belushi was the first to take the title role, and indeed he was the very first choice, with screenwriter Carroll specifically saying that he had written the role for Belushi, but not long after the actor died of a drug overdose in 1982 at the young age of 33 years old. The next comedian actor to take the part was Sam Kinison, who actually managed to film one scene, but things went awry when the famous comic insisted that vast rewrites be done on the script, and he would soon leave the production altogether and be killed in a horrific head on car crash in 1992 at 38 years old. The role of Atuk made its way to comedian John Candy, who not long after reading the script was struck down by a heart attack at the age of 43, with the screenplay reportedly still in his posession. Eerily, the comedy writer Michael O’Donoghue, who reportedly read the script with Candy, died of a sudden cerebral hemorrhage a few months after.
The Atuk role passed on to the famously overweight and zany Chris Farley, star of the popular American comedy TV program Saturday Night Live. Farley was purportedly quite eager to start filming, as Belushi had been one of his idols, but he would never get the chance as he would follow Belushi’s lead and die of drug overdose at the age of 33 as well. Interestingly, Farley supposedly had handed the script to friend and fellow Saturday Night Live comedian Phil Hartman, who was interested in maybe taking a supporting role in the film, but who would be killed in a sudden, shocking crime when his own wife shot him and then herself in a chilling murder-suicide. He was 49 years old. After Hartman’s death the “cursed” script was shelved and the project has never been pursued again.
Often linked to the Atuk curse is that of another unfinished film based on John Kennedy Toole’s Pulitzer Prize winning novel The Confederacy of Dunces. Like Atuk, the proposed movie, which was originally going to be directed by Harold Ramis, had a grim reputation for having almost every single one of its lead actors die off, with many of them spookily the same person. John Belushi was set to star in it, as was John Candy and Chris Farley, all of whom as we have seen died tragically, and all of whom were attached to both doomed projects. Other actors linked to the film, such as Will Ferrell, Jack Black, and Zach Galifianakis seem to be doing alright though, at least so far. Other misfortune came in the form Hurricane Katrina, which completely destroyed much of the city where the movie was to be filmed. Even one of the directors tied to the film over the years, Steven Soderbergh, believed the film was actually cursed. The Confederacy of Dunces has still not been close to being made, and remains in hopeless limbo despite all efforts to make it.
It is unclear just how much of any of this has anything to do with paranormal, mysterious curses and how much has to do with a mixture of chance, superstition, coincidence, and just plain bad luck. Movie productions are chaotic, bustling prospects at the best of times, employing hundreds of people and sometimes filming under dangerous conditions. It seems only natural that someone might die during it all, and the strangest links can be made between such events if one looks hard enough. Is that what has happened here, or is there really something dark and ominous from beyond our understanding looming over these troubled projects? Alleged curses are hard to prove, easy to dismiss as merely reading too much into things, that is part of what makes them so alluring, and at the very least all of this talk is spooky. Whether one believes in actual curses or not, it seems obvious that at the very least these are productions which have experienced epic struggles and mighty bad luck that have gone on to overshadow some of these films themselves.