Haunted Hollywood Movies ...by Bill Knell
Life is full of ironies. It’s ironic that a film directed by the multi-talented Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame would end up with a supernatural reputation. THREE MEN AND A BABY was released in 1987 and hit theaters with a box office bang. The film stars Tom Selleck, Ted Danson and Steve Guttenberg as dedicated bachelors who are suddenly thrust into parenthood by having to care for an infant. But the movie’s biggest star has become its ghost!
During the successful theatrical run, people noticed some peculiarities that occurred throughout the film. When the movie came out on video, these peculiarities were easier to spot and examine. The most obvious occurs during a scene when Jack Holden (Ted Danson) walks across a room following his mother who is holding the baby. A window comes into view where a young boy appears to be standing just behind some curtains and in front of the windowpane.
There are several things troubling about the appearance of the boy. First, he doesn’t belong in the film and his presence is never explained. Second, considering the fact that he should be backlit by the brightness coming in from the window, the child’s appearance breaks every law of photography in that it is clear and every detail visible. That would have required lighting the specific area in a very special way for no apparent reason. Third, the boy is in good focus as if inserted as a special effect. Fourth, the child appears to cause one drape to flair out a bit as any solid, 3-D object would. He seems to be leaning forward more from his head, then the area of his feet. But the boy casts no shadow whatsoever in the brightness that can be seen at his feet. In fact, a careful examination of that brightness reveals what appears take the shape of a large ghostly arm and hand holding him in place.
THREE MEN AND A BABY interior scenes were filmed on a soundstage in Canada. When stories of the ghost boy first circulated, rumor had it that the spirit was one of a boy who died after falling out of a window in the condo where the film was being made. This was partially true. The doorman of the real condo used for exterior shots told a tabloid TV show reporter that a nine year old boy had once fallen to his death from one of the townhouses in that building several years before the film was made. Since the family had moved and the doorman heard the story second hand being new on the job, all this was impossible to verify. Police records on the death had been passed to a coroner investigation. They refused anysearch of records to non-family members of the victim.
Representatives for the film say it’s all a misunderstanding. They claim that the child in the window is merely a full size cut out made from a childhood photograph of Ted Danson. What they don’t tell us is why? Was it part of something edited out of the movie, or just a mistake? Did stage hands leave the cut out by the window and forget to move it before the scene was filmed? Considering the veteran status of the actors, production crew and director, it seems unlikely that such a big mistake would be made and not immediately noticed? And there’s more…
In another part of the movie what seems like a boy’s ghostly face is seen in the kitchen window. Strange glows appear where none should be and a ghostly hand appears to touch a dresser. An odd and unexplained hum comes and goes as the bachelors talk to one another in the kitchen, but is heard at no other time during the film. All this may be coincidence or totally explainable phenomenon, but THREE MAN AND A BABY isn’t the only movie with a supernatural connection that goes beyond the plot.
It’s easy to read too much into what happens during production. Because of the time it takes to make a feature film, people will die, get married, divorced, start new and end old relationships, have children and move. Life doesn’t stop for Hollywood. But some films have gained reputations for being haunted or cursed because of the unusual number of deaths or strange incidents associated with them.
POLTERGEIST was released in 1982 and became the first of three films in the series. The production was plagued with odd events like stunts and special effects that didn’t come off correctly and dire predictions from a psychic who acted as a consultant to the film. Craig T. Nelson (Steve Freeling) and Jo Beth Williams (Diane Freeling) had such an unpleasant experience during production of the original film, that when talk of a sequel came up, they had no interest in repeating the roles. Both were eventually lured back by the promise of a huge payday.
Twenty-two year old Dominique Dunne (Dana Freeling) played the teen daughter in the first film. In what seemed like a confusing bit of plot manipulation, Dominique had just a few scenes with the family and was absent during a majority of the movie. She returns at the end, just in time to escape the bedeviled house. Despite her brief appearance, Dunne was noticed and seemed to be on the fast track to young stardom. But fate had other ideas.
On Halloween Eve of 1982, Dunne received a visit from an obsessed ex-boyfriend named John Sweeney while rehearsing a script with another actor at the residence the ex-lovers had once shared. Dominique decided to come outside and discuss Sweeney’s plea to take him back. Once outside, Dunne told him the relationship was over. Sweeney went wild and strangled Dominique for 4-6 minutes. After several days in a coma, Dunne passed away on November 4, 1982. Sweeney was later convicted on voluntary manslaughter charges, but was released in 1986 after having served just a little over three years in prison.
No one who has seen the first POLTERGEIST film can deny that the real star of that movie was six year old Heather O"Rourke (Carol Ann Freeling). Her innocent portrayal of the haunted Carol Ann is what drives the plot. Heather came back for more in POLTERGEIST II along with Craig T. Nelson and Jo Beth Williams. Two veteran actors joined the others to make the second installment of the series at least as scary, and possibly more frightening then the first film.
Native American actor Will Sampson played Taylor, the good spirit trying to help the Freelings. Julian Beck, known as an actor’s actor, played Kane, the evil spirit trying to pull the family into his own supernatural world of hell and torment. Both actors were ill while making the film, so their deaths came as no surprise. On September 14, 1985, sixty year old Beck died of stomach cancer. On June 3, 1987, fifty-three year old Sampson died of complications from a heart-lung transplant six weeks earlier. POLTERGEIST II was released in May of 1986.
Even more troubling and bizarre incidences occurred during the making of the second film. Almost everything that could go wrong, did, and all the cast members were haunted by an uneasy feeling. When it was decided that a third POLTERGEIST film would be made, Nelson and Williams opted out. Now twelve years of age, Heather O’Rourke was again to be the focal point of the plot. During filming, the cast and crew became concerned about Heather. Her face was often bloated and she complained of being sick. Despite several trips to the doctor, a bowel obstruction went undetected and she was diagnosed with the flu.
On February 1, 1987, Heather O’Rourke died while on the operating table. The obstruction had been discovered too late. Toxins released into her blood stream brought an end to the young star’s short life. During her final days, Heather told her mother that she would die. The third film was completed in June of 1987, but its release was delayed until June of 1988. An alternative ending was shot with a stand in for Heather. Apparently, the original ending was deemed too dark for audiences to accept, given Heather’s death and the other odd events surrounding all three films. Despite the deaths and strange happenings associated with that trilogy, the haunted reputation of just one film released years earlier surpasses that of all three POLTERGEIST movies.
THE EXORCIST opened to big box office in 1973. Based on the 1971 novel of the same title by William Peter Blatty, the film took on a life of it’s own with stories of disappearing props, sick actors and dangerous sets. Linda Blair, who played a young girl tormented by evil spirits, almost had her back broken by a mechanical device gone awry during one of the shaking bed scenes. A healthy Max Von Sydow, who played the veteran Catholic Exorcist, experienced several bouts of unexplained illness during filming. Props were regularly shipped to or ended up in the wrong locations, while large industrial lights used for the filming inexplicably fell onto various sets several times during the production. No one was injured, but the actors were not amused either.
The film was officially considered haunted after a British Teenager killed his girlfriend, claiming a demon possessed him while watching the film and made him do it. A man in New York City suddenly dropped dead while viewing the movie in a New York City theater, while other people fainted or went into epileptic fits when the demon-possessed girl appeared on screen. None of this hurt the movie’s box office take, but England, Canada and several other countries banned the film from further showings or release on video. In 2000, THE EXORCIST was released with eleven minutes of footage originally cut from the movie.
Exorcist: The Beginning is a self-described prequel that was released in August of 2004. Opening with earnings of around eighteen million dollars the first weekend, the film would have been a moderate success had it not been for all the production problems. Did the alleged curse of the first film infect this prequel?
Ten years in the planning, the project was supposed to be directed by the legendary John Frankenheimer (The Manchurian Candidate, Birdman Of Alcatraz). Just before filming was to begin, Frankenheimer died. As a result of the delay caused by the death of the director, Liam Neeson had to pull out of the project due to scheduling conflicts. Now without the original director and with the loss of a major star from the cast, the prequel was off to anything but a smooth start.
By the time filming started on the prequel in 2002, Paul Schrader (Taxi Driver, Cat People) was in the director’s chair and Stellan Skarsgård had filled the void left by Liam Neeson. Apart from a few malfunctioning cameras and special effects mishaps, things went according to plan as far as Schrader was concerned. But after forty million dollars and a virtually complete movie in the can, Morgan Creek executives felt they had a real stinker on their hands.
Schrader had made a psychological thriller in the style of a Hitchcock film, but what those in charge of the production at Morgan Creek really wanted was a supernatural thriller. In an unprecedented move, they shelved the entire film and opted to start all over again from scratch. A new script was prepared, Renny Harlin (Die Hard II, Deep Blue Sea) was hired as the Director, all the cast members except Stellan Skarsgård were replaced and things moved forward.
During early filming of the prequel’s second version Renny Harlin was hit by a car and severely injured. He directed the film on crutches with metal pins holding one of his legs together. Members of the production team started to experience unexplained headaches and some became quite ill according to several sources who worked on the film. Apart from all the bad luck surrounding this production, the biggest curse or jinx might have been the project itself! When it was all said and done, the second film was still not what Morgan Creek wanted.
Morgan Creek envisioned a fast moving, frightening story with lots of pea soup vomit and horrific make-up. They hoped such a project would scare up some big profits at the box office by tapping the wallets of young people eager to be entertained with fast action and frightening effects. What they ended up with was a boring, slow moving character study of Father Merrin and his spiritual duel with the devil. The star of the original film was the devil and anything less was not going to make for a good prequel.
It"s a bird, it"s a crane, it"s a hanging Munchkin! One of the silliest haunted film rumors I have ever come across involves the beloved 1939 film version of "The Wizard of Oz." The story started circulating on the internet in the late 1990"s and remains there today.
There are actually several versions of this rumor based on where people believe they actually see what appears to be a person hanging in the background of a scene during the film. The first occurs when the Wicked Witch is standing on top of the Tin Man"s house and throws a fireball at the Scarecrow. Dorothy, the Scarecrow and the Tin Man talk briefly after the witch leaves and then start skipping down the Yellow Brick Road. Sometime during this sequance of events a close up on the Scarecrow appears to show something odd in the background which appears to be someone hanging, swaying back and forth.
The second or competing version involves Dorothy in Munchkinland. She is in the horse drawn coach when something appears in the background. Most who like this story over the other say it"s a little person who had hanged themselves. Some refer to this version as the plastic girl story claiming that the object appears to be a plastic looking person swaying back and forth.
Those who believe these rumors say that the hanging caused MGM to reconsider completing or releasing the film. If that were the case, it would have been easy to edit out the offending footage. Actually, that was more about studio politics then anything else. Others claim that the lackluster box office performance of the movie was a curse caused by the studio cover up of the hanging. A better explanation would be that people just weren"t interested in seeing such a happy film at a time when war was looming around the world.
The problem I have with all these stories is based on visual and supportive evidence. The visual evidence is lacking in every way. We all know that video versions of older movies produce less then stellar results when it comes to seeing things that are small or in the background. That"s true even when restored versions of those movies are released on video. The object that is the basis for the first rumor is likely a bird. Experts say it"s a type of Crane. Both incidents could also be explained by the fast exit of a grip or stagehand who suddenly realized they were in the shot. We"ve all seen those reels of movie mistakes.
Beyond the uncompelling visual material, there are no stories that might constitute any sort of collaborating evidence. Most of the known scandals involving the film include taping Judy Garland"s breasts down to make her appear younger, hotel rooms full of fornicating Munchkins who shocked other guests with orgies in the hallways, wage disputes and studio swabbles that almost kept the film from being made or released.
Given the controversy that already surrounded the 1938 film, any story about a hanging or other horrendous scandal would have been quickly picked up by reporters eager to report all of Hollywood"s biggest secrets. If "The Wizard of Oz" is haunted, it"s by internet rumors with no basis in fact.
It would be easy to attribute any reputations that films acquire to over-zealous publicity departments. But most of the events surrounding films that seem haunted or cursed are far more interesting and unbelievable then the plots themselves. Coincidence? Fate? Maybe, but it seems only fair to say that film projects are subject to the same paranormal influences that affect other things (regardless of the plot line).
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