Many moving parts go into a film’s production. From the cast of actors to the camera operators, set designers, audio technicians and other crew members, many key roles are essential, and the loss of any one of them could be devastating to a film’s final product. Besides losing a director, the worst upheaval often stems from the unexpected death of a key actor before a movie is completed.
Through technology and recasts — depending on when the death occurred — movies can sometimes still be completed and released posthumously. The bigger question might be whether that’s the best choice, considering some films have seemed downright cursed after the death of a key player. Take a look!
Back in the days of Old Hollywood, producers were in charge of more than just production. They also controlled the ins and outs of the lives of their star actresses. One of the most gut-wrenching examples of this was young Jean Harlow, who died at the age of 26.
About 90% of her film Saratoga was complete when she died, and the crew had to finish her parts with body doubles and voice actors to imitate her signature sound. The film was a success, but the studio — MGM — constantly faced financial troubles after that.
To Be or Not to Be (1942)
Because he was one of the originators of the romantic comedy genre, audiences usually clamored to score a spot in the theater for Ernst Lubitsch’s latest film in the throes of Old Hollywood. However, his 1942 film To Be or Not to Be — released in the months following actress Carole Lombard’s death — was not very successful.
After his leading lady died in a plane crash, Lubitsch’s film went over quite poorly with audiences. They were confounded by the story, which relentlessly mocked the very real threat of Nazi Germany during World War II.
Brass Monkey (1948)
Believe it or not, the sensationalism of the tabloid magazine is not a new phenomenon. They have been around since the very beginning of Hollywood, and audiences have almost always been obsessed with the inner workings of the lives of their favorite stars.
When Carole Landis committed suicide before the release of 1948’s Brass Monkey — allegedly because of heartbreak over actor Rex Harrison’s rejection — moviegoers wanted to flock to see the film. However, once they learned that it was nothing to write home about, critics and audiences proceeded to ignore it.
Rebel Without a Cause (1955)
James Dean had barely gotten started when he was tragically killed in a car accident. Appearing in his first major screen role just months before in Elia Kazan’s East of Eden, Dean passed away before Rebel Without a Cause could be released.
Today, the film might be the role he’s most known for, although he didn’t live to enjoy the fame. Back then, the movie was almost universally panned by critics. The only reason it made so much money, according to experts at the time, was because of the spectacle of Dean’s death — not because of the quality of the movie.
High Society (1956)
A musical remake of the 1940 smash hit The Philadelphia Story, 1956’s High Society had plenty going for it to potentially transcend (or at least divert itself from) the success of its source material. Featuring the great Bing Crosby, Frank Sinatra and Grace Kelly, what could go wrong?
As it turned out, the death of one of the main actors was something no one could have predicted. This sort of thing generally sours a film, and High Society was no exception. Actor Louis Calhern’s death in the months leading up to the release essentially stained it.
The Misfits (1961)
Some actors are certainly a lot harder to work with than others. This is a lesson that Clark Gable knew better than almost anyone. In fact, the troubles he faced trying to get along with Marilyn Monroe during the filming of 1961’s The Misfits are often blamed for his death before the film’s release.
The Misfits didn’t just claim the life of Clark Gable, though. Less than one year later, Gable’s co-star Marilyn Monroe also lost her life, leading to rumors that The Misfits could be one of the most cursed movies ever.
The Exorcist (1973)
Widely regarded as one of the most cursed movies ever made, it only makes sense that 1973’s The Exorcist would be mentioned here. Naturally, this movie would include a posthumous performance from not just one actor, but two: Jack MacGowran and Vasiliki Maliaros.
The problems with The Exorcist go far beyond the simple fact that these two actors passed before the film’s release. Many reports claim that the set itself was haunted throughout the film’s shoot, with all kinds of spooky goings-on practically becoming commonplace for the cast and crew.
Enter the Dragon (1973)
There’s simply no better martial artist in cinema than Bruce Lee. This is basically a fact at this point. With nearly four decades between his death and the present day, his legacy is continually honored, and his image still as recognizable today as it was back then.
Unfortunately for the cast and crew of Enter the Dragon, Lee died before the now-famous film could be completed. His death during production would eventually be repeated with his own son, making his legacy of martial artistry — and a potential curse — a dark shadow on a sadder tradition.
Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
Based on the success of the television show of the same name, 1983’s Twilight Zone: The Movie should have gone off without a hitch. Bringing together three of the biggest names in sci-fi and fantasy filmmaking at the time to reproduce three classic episodes, the film was as mysterious and dark as an episode of the series itself.
Unfortunately, the film directed by John Landis claimed three lives — two children and a leading actor — in a helicopter accident. To make matters worse, the scene in question potentially violated California labor laws involving children. Criminal charges were filed, and various lawsuits followed.
Curse of the Pink Panther (1983)
When you put the word “curse” in the movie’s title, it seems like you’re more or less asking for trouble to happen. This was the case with 1983’s Curse of the Pink Panther, one of two films in the Pink Panther series made in the wake of actor Peter Sellers’ death.
Co-star David Niven was boosted to a more prominent role in the wake of Sellers’ passing, but he also passed in the days that preceded Curse of the Pink Panther‘s release. Clearly, Peter Sellers was considered irreplaceable by the man upstairs.
Poltergeist II: The Other Side (1986)
Like The Exorcist, the Poltergeist films have ended up carrying with them a terrifyingly cursed reputation that far exceeds the scares on-screen. For the Poltergeist movies, the deaths of main actors almost seem like a way of life, as commonplace as a director calling “action.”
Actor Julian Beck passed away before the second film could be released, and — tragically — the franchise’s main star, little Heather O’Rourke, passed away at a devastatingly young age before the release of this sequel. Thankfully, nothing went wrong with the remake.
The Exorcist III (1990)
Speak of the devil, The Exorcist III seems to be as cursed as the first entry in the series. A second follow-up to the events of the first film — which remains one of the most highly-praised horror films ever, despite the dips in quality of its sequels — The Exorcist III can’t escape the franchise’s reputation.
An incredibly strange sequel, the movie saw actress Barbara Baxley die two months before the movie’s premiere. It lives on as one of the weirdest horror sequels to come out of the 20th century.
Canadian Bacon (1995)
First and foremost, Michael Moore is a documentary filmmaker. He has tried his hand at acting before and has even attempted stage shows in the past, but at the end of the day, he is always going to be known best for his documentaries. At one point, he even tried doing comedic films.
John Candy starred in Moore’s first — and only (so far) — fictional film titled Canadian Bacon. Strangely, the movie was as political as his other films but untethered from reality. Candy passed away before the movie’s release. Maybe Moore should have taken it as a sign.
Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)
Like Curse of the Pink Panther in 1983, it’s more than likely that the producers of Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers sealed their own fate when they decided to include the word “curse” in the title of their film.
In addition to many horror movies naturally carrying a “cursed” reputation, this Halloween sequel also saw the death of main character actor 0 in the months that followed the final days of shooting. The movie was ultimately a complete hack job, cut to pieces in the post-production editing process.
The Crow (1994)
Just like his father before him, Bruce Lee’s son Brandon tragically passed before the completion of what would be his final film. An aspiring actor who hoped to one day reach the heights of his father, Brandon was robbed of the opportunity in an accidental shooting.
The movie took quite some time to complete after Lee’s inopportune death. While it was well-received upon its eventual release more than a year later, the movie was ultimately destined to live in the shadow of the fateful incident that occurred on set. That is its curse.
Cult classics don’t have to be good. If there was a cult classic rulebook, that would be rule number one. Look at Waterworld, for example. The 1995 Kevin Costner vehicle was almost universally panned and a total flop here in the United States. As it happens, it may have also been cursed.
Actor Rick Aviles, who had a supporting role in the infamous Waterworld, died before the movie premiered. Could Aviles’ death be the source of the blame for the film’s horrendous performance? While it probably would have flopped, regardless, it’s interesting to consider.
Lost Highway (1997)
Leave it to David Lynch to create one of the most cursed films of the 1990s. While it features only one posthumous performance, the entirety of Lost Highway radiates an ominous sense of fear that seems to have seeped into the lives of the other actors as well.
Lynch favorite Jack Nance died a mysterious death before Lost Highway could be released. Co-star Robert Blake went on to be arrested for murder not long after, and co-star Richard Pryor didn’t appear in another film for the rest of his life.
Queen of the Damned (2002)
Very loosely based on the third novel in the popular Vampire Chronicles series, 2002’s Queen of the Damned was a horror movie destined to be a huge hit. Starring superstar Aaliyah as the titular evil royal, the film was halted when the singer-actress was killed in a plane crash.
A year later when the film was finally completed, all hopes of it being a success were essentially tossed out. It barely made back its budget and was nearly undone by the negative reception from both critics and audiences alike.
For a movie about domestic violence and the harmful effects on the victims as well as their friends and family, it’s a horrible twist of fate that writer, director and actor Adrienne Shelly was killed before her film Waitress could be released. When you hear she died from a horrific act of violence, it just makes the death even harder to bear.
The movie has enjoyed success as of late, thanks in large part to its Broadway adaptation, but the real shame is that Shelly never got to make another film. She was destined to be a real success, and her death truncated any and all hopes of that happening.
The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus (2009)
After playing the Joker in Christopher Nolan’s 2008 film The Dark Knight, Heath Ledger died from an accidental overdose of prescription medications. Many considered his untimely death to be a direct result of the psychological torment he supposedly experienced during the shoot.
While this was later disputed, his unfinished role in The Imaginarium of Doctor Parnassus proved to be pretty troubling for the rest of the cast and crew. Four other actors were brought in to finish Ledger’s role, but — unlike The Dark Knight, which was already mostly complete — this posthumous completion resulted in the movie flopping hard.
The Last Film Festival (2016)
Dennis Hopper is a pillar of the New Hollywood movement. At a time when the moviemaking industry faced plenty of uncertainty — the focus of Quentin Tarantino’s 2019 film Once Upon a Time… in Hollywood — Hopper and friends came along and revitalized the process.
His death in 2010 was nothing short of difficult, not just for his family and friends but for the crews of the films he was working on. Still unreleased, Hopper’s final role The Last Film Festival has been shelved and considered doomed in the wake of the actor’s death.
Furious 7 (2015)
From the very beginning of the franchise, Paul Walker was the most important character in the Fast & Furious universe. It started with him, dating all the way back to 2001’s The Fast and the Furious, but after 2013, the series had to continue on without him.
His death in a car accident during the shooting of Furious 7 resulted in Walker’s role being completed through CGI and body doubles. The franchise has been on a rocky road in the years since, coming across as more unfocused and increasingly ridiculous.
Wish I Was Here (2014)
At the time, news of Zach Braff’s follow-up to his debut film Garden State was quite buzzworthy. Funded largely through Kickstarter, Wish I Was Here had both fans and audiences talking before the movie had even gone into production.
One of the film’s co-stars, The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air‘s James Avery, didn’t live long enough to see the film through to the end, however. His death was an early indication that the movie wasn’t destined for the same heights as Braff’s first. It ultimately disappeared into obscurity soon after its release.
The Hunger Games: Mockingjay – Parts 1 and 2 (2014, 2015)
Was there a greater actor to come out of the last few decades than Philip Seymour Hoffman? It’s not likely. Working on a slapstick comedy one day and a gripping drama the next, Hoffman’s range often surpassed his colleagues and consistently garnered praise.
His death in early 2014 meant that his final two roles — Plutarch Heavensbee in the final Hunger Games entry, Mockingjay, which was split into two parts — were released posthumously. Once intended to be a long-spanning series of main entries followed by spinoffs, The Hunger Games craze has practically vanished.
Absolutely Anything (2015)
A new movie from the Monty Python boys should have been a smash hit. Judging by the sheer amount of success achieved with earlier films like Monty Python and the Holy Grail and Monty Python’s Life of Brian, a brand new collaboration could have allowed the troupe to reach new heights.
2015’s Absolutely Anything, starring Simon Pegg and Robin Williams, was absolutely anything but a hit, unfortunately. Put out a year after Williams’ death, the movie was a box office failure and a critical disaster.
Independence Day: Resurgence (2016)
Robert Loggia had a long and fascinating career. Born in 1930, the actor enjoyed all kinds of notable Hollywood roles. From An Officer and a Gentleman and Scarface to Big and Independence Day, Loggia was a character actor who refused to play the same character.
Reprising his Independence Day role for the sequel was a fun bit of news at the time, but his death six months before the film’s release cast a shadow on the whole affair. The movie was supposed to soar, but it never exceeded its predictions. Cursed or simply lacking Will Smith? It’s hard to say.
Star Trek Beyond (2016)
Still a relatively up-and-coming talent at the time of this death, Anton Yelchin had just started to begin his slow, steady rise to the A-list. An absolutely fantastic performer, no matter the size of the role, Yelchin was a promising talent, and his death in 2016 still hurts today.
A supporting player in J.J. Abrams’s revived Star Trek trilogy, Yelchin’s death marked the end of the series dubbed the Kelvin Timeline. Many directors have tried and failed to get the rebooted series going again, but all efforts have been squelched before any progress was made.
The Circle (2017)
Bill Paxton was a staple of blockbuster filmmaking ever since he first appeared in the first Terminator movie in 1984. From there, he went on to be an essential part of various action franchises like Aliens, Predator 2 and various movies made by James Cameron.
His death in 2017 was a devastating blow to fans of his filmography and his franchises. His final role, a thriller starring Tom Hanks, Emma Watson, John Boyega and Karen Gillan, should have been a sure-fire hit. It released two months after his death and flopped.
Star Wars – Episode VIII: The Last Jedi’ (2017) and Star Wars – Episode IX: The Rise of Skywalker (2019)
Carrie Fisher has always been an integral part of the Star Wars universe. One of the very first characters seen in the first entry, Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope, Fisher was a main character for six of the series’ nine films.
After her death in 2016, the final two entries in the Star Wars sequel trilogy faced a tough decision: remove her character or repurpose footage. The filmmakers went with the latter, and the films ended up being two of the most contested entries in the entire saga.
The Other Side of the Wind (2018)
Orson Welles was no amateur. He was the man responsible for the movie many consider to be the greatest of all time: 1941’s Citizen Kane. Originating as a stage director and moving into the film industry in the wake of the success of his first film, Welles enjoyed a long and successful career.
Unfortunately, he died before he could finish his final film in 1985. Titled The Other Side of the Wind, Welles’ death resulted in decades of troubles until Netflix finally managed to release it in 2018.