Someone’s out to get me
by Stephen McGinty
The scent of burning rice paper is said to linger around the set of The Matrix 2. At the studios in Australia where Keanu Reeves is shooting the sequel to the box-office smash, the air should waft with the sweet smell of nothing more than shrimps on the barbecue. Unfortunately pink crustaceans won’t lift a deadly curse. The decision to draft in ancient Buddhist teachings, ceremonial rice paper and a pyre is an attempt to ensure the cast’s survival and the film’s completion. Death, they say, is stalking the sound stages.
Before the first reel of film was actually shot, the producers of the Matrix 2 & 3, to be filmed in tandem in Sydney, lost two key cast members to the Grim Reaper. Aaliyah, the singer and actress who had extensively rehearsed for a leading role in the sequels, was killed in a plane crash, while last month Gloria Foster, who played The Oracle in the first feature, died of a heart attack. The tendrils of disaster have also reached the movie’s star. Last Christmas Reeves’s daughter Eve was stillborn, in February he almost died in a motorbike accident and in April his ex-girlfriend died in a car crash. And Carrie-Anne Moss, who co-starred as Trinity, injured her leg so badly during rehearsals she was sidelined for five weeks.
Keanu Reeves is said to be so troubled by the film’s continuing ill-fortune that he has revived the teachings he learned for his role in Little Buddha. "By chanting to ward off evil spirits, Keanu is ensuring the studio is blessed with good karma," says Reverend Kusala, a leading American Buddhist. "He could actually be taking it further, and asking that the movie pass good karma around the world every time it’s watched."
The "cursed film" is a Hollywood legend, many claim, but few have the necessary combination of multiple deaths, rotten box office and spooky twists of fate necessary truly to earn the tag . Time will tell if the Matrices 2 and 3 have what it takes . To paraphrase that old antipodean wag, Crocodile Dundee: "That’s not a curse, now this is a curse."
When qualifying what constitutes a cursed film it is important to subtract the "screw-up" factor. Apocalypse Now may be viewed as an epic touched by ill fate. Sure, the shoot overran by months, Martin Sheen had a heart attack and the sets blew away in a hurricane. But then Francis Ford Coppola was badly prepared, Sheen was a heavy drinker torturing himself on 70 fags a day and despite warnings from Roger Corman, Coppola insisted on shooting during hurricane season. Ditto Fitzcarraldo. When Werner Herzog decided to make a movie about a man who dragged a steamship over a mountain, no-one forced him actually to drag a steamship over a mountain and film the results. Is it any wonder the cameras were stolen, an extra was paralysed in a plane crash, and three others were injured trying to pull the tub over a hill? "We were cursed," ranted Herzog. But only by stupidity and the presence of Klaus Kinski, on whom Herzog once pulled a gun, screaming: "Act motherfucker. Act!"
Then there is the legendary curse of Superman, the belief that anyone associated with the Man of Steel will buckle and bend. Bad luck first descended on the TV series when George Reeves - spot the surname, spooky! - shot himself in 1959. His predecessor, Kirk Alyn, who wore the tights in the 1940s, was stricken by Alzheimer’s and both men claimed the role destroyed their careers. The 1978 movie starred Christopher Reeve, Margot Kidder and Richard Pryor. Is the fact that Reeve is now paralysed from the neck down, Kidder suffers from manic-depression and Pryor is stricken with Parkinson’s disease a direct result of the film, which happily generated more than £100m at the box office, sparked four sequels and set them up for life? No self-respecting curse would first reward its victims so handsomely.
A sub-section of cursed films is curiously mislabelled and should refer to cursed individuals. Brandon Lee, before his name was swiped by a 30-year-old Scots "schoolboy", was a promising actor and the son of Bruce Lee. Like father, like son; both died young - Bruce, under suspicious circumstances while filming Game of Death, causing a crisis that involved extensive re-shoots with a Lee look-a-like, while his son died exactly 20 years later while filming The Crow, ironically about a man who is shot and then comes back from the dead. In spite of Lee’s death, The Crow flourished, garnering critical acclaim and kick-starting the director’s career. It also developed a certain cachet, as a result of the story surrounding the lead actor’s demise. In comparison, The Twilight Zone in which the actor Vic Morrow and two Vietnamese children were decapitated when a helicopter fell on them, enjoys only a ghoulish curiosity value as his final film.
Unsurprisingly, the principal films accused of being "cursed" are horror films, where the decision to dabble with dark matters is rewarded with pain and despair. The most prominent was The Exorcist, during the filming of which one actor died and various mishaps occurred. The "curse" on the film was hyped by director William Friedkin to heighten its appeal, but it was dismissed by its star Max Von Sydow, who insisted that any film that shot for over a year was bound to encounter a range of problems. The Wicker Man, regarded by many as one of the finest horror films ever made, was "cursed" after shooting ended - the director was fired, the film re-edited and Rod Stewart attempted to buy and destroy the negative to prevent the world seeing Britt Ekland, his then girlfriend, in the nude.
Yet these films are positive success stories in comparison to perhaps the only movie truly to deserve the title "cursed": The Incubus. It was not the fact that the film starred William Shatner , nor perhaps even the ludicrous decision to shoot the film’s dialogue in Esperanto, but something certainly triggered dark forces. "Who knows if there’s a curse?" says Tony Taylor, the movie’s producer, "but a lot of stuff happened to a lot of people." An arty horror film about a beautiful succubus who lures corrupt men to their deaths, and her fouler brother the Incubus, the production led to murder, suicide and kidnapping.
After wrapping, Milos Milos, Yugoslavian actor who played the Incubus, murdered his lover, Barbara Ann Thompson and then shot himself. A few weeks later Ann Atmar, who played Shatner’s sister, also committed suicide. Two years after the film’s limited release, the daughter of the actress who played the succubus was kidnapped and murdered. At the premiere in San Francisco the soundtrack went missing and the film later bombed, despite being described as the "best fantasy film since Nosferatu" by Paris Match.
Some did escape the film’s tentacles. Cinematographer Conrad Hall went on to win Oscars for Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid and American Beauty. "My curse has been to win two Oscars and to have three grandchildren and a wonderful life," he said recently.
As burnt flecks of rice paper rise heavenwards in Sydney, Keanu Reeves is sure the Gods will now smile on his humble offering. The Matrix production team will have to keep a look out for the demons.