We go way back, Jay Cheel and I. Although I don’t think I am able to put my finger on it, he has been a part of my life for a better part of the last decade. However, there’s only one problem: he has no idea who I am, which potentially makes me look like a bit of a stalker…
I don’t exactly remember how I found the Film Junk podcast, where Jay is one of the founding co-hosts. What I do remember, though, is that I immediately latched onto his voice and immediately fell in love with his passionate rants, crass humour and unabashed vigour he brought to the table. As a result, I internalized listening to the Film Junk crew as an indispensable part of my daily operations and to this day I often find myself (even at work) waltzing around with the guys’ voices pouring into my right ear as I re-listen for the umpteenth time to one of their numerous premium shows.
I suppose this is how unhealthy obsessions start. After all, Film Junk’s unique quality as a show is that it doesn’t aspire to join legions of faux professional critics passing their judgments on movies like it was gospel. Instead, it is a strange capsule that turns the listener into a fly on the wall and allows them to eavesdrop on a lively chat between friends. And if you do it for long enough, the line will blur eventually and you will convince yourself you are a part of this group and believe that – by extension – Jay is also a friend of yours.
Consequently, being able to watch Jay’s Cursed Films documentary series felt as though I was watching a movie made by one of my best mates, which put me both in an awkward position and a unique one. It’s awkward because I don’t think I am able to review his work as objectively as I would if it was made by Joe Schmoe; and it’s unique because I know more about him than any other filmmaker thanks to his long history of immensely candid podcasting I have been religiously tapping into on a daily basis. Therefore, it is probably best I admit right here that the five-star rating attached to this text comes with a caveat of extreme personal bias and I will not be held accountable if you, The Reader, find it completely misleading or even divorced from reality if you end up disappointed by Jay’s work.
Nevertheless, I might be able to articulate a handful of interesting points that my position as Jay’s long-standing fan enables. Cursed Films isn’t just a piece of disposable content online streaming platforms are teeming with. Sure, one of its primary missions is to entertain and educate its audience about nuggets of fan wisdom regarding five horror films known for infamous incidents surrounding their production, release, or legacy: Poltergeist, The Omen, The Exorcist, The Crow, and Twilight Zone: The Movie. But every movie fan worth their weight in in salt should be at least vaguely aware of the alleged curse following the cast of Poltergeist, the grueling shoot of The Exorcist, or the fatal accidents on the sets of The Crow and Twilight Zone: The Movie that coloured their respective legacies anyway. In fact, a cursory Google search is more than enough to get the basic facts of what each episode of Cursed Films entails.
This immediately invites a question: why should anyone watch this series in the first place? What is its point? Granted, Jay is a massive horror nut and he clearly conveys his passion for movies through his filmmaking, but Cursed Films rises well above the crowd of its competitors found in the depths of the Netflix library for a different reason. As much as this series is in its own right a celebration of the genre Jay has a massive soft spot for, it is also a product of his love for something else entirely. You see, Jay is even more passionate about obsessives. He has indicated numerous times on the podcast, somehow very directly, that he loves people driven by obsessions: professionals who are great at what they’re doing, hobbyists, as well as folks who border on being clinically deranged. Judging by his previous feature output, Beauty Day and How To Build A Time Machine (which I sadly know only by reputation and from short snippets found online owing to lack of availability in my neck of the woods), one of Jay’s primary driving forces as a filmmaker is to reflect this passion in his work. And that is a vestige of his own personal adoration towards two of the greatest documentarians working today: Werner Herzog and Errol Morris.
Without a shadow of a doubt, Jay’s filmmaking style and process are heavily influenced by these two juggernauts of non-fiction storytelling. When view through this prism, Cursed Films gains a whole new dimension and some of its aspects that some viewers might find bizarre or tonally jarring immediately begin to make sense. For example, viewed in vacuo, the idea of seeking out a real-life black magician and asking him to perform a cursing ritual as accompaniment to The Omen episode looks a bit weird. The same goes for getting a real exorcist (and a former furniture salesman) to feature prominently in The Exorcist gig and seeing him ‘do his job’ as well. But there’s a logic to this tonal madness. That’s just Jay’s own artistic soul protruding through the dry pattern a documentary of this type is expected to have. Jay’s obsession with pointing the camera at quirky people and hanging out with them is what gives this entire series its unique character.
Consequently, I ended up watching this whole affair with a massive grin on my face. That’s because as much as it tries to adhere to a familiar regiment, Cursed Films is laden with little snippets of character which are hard to come by elsewhere. Jay occasionally indulges in egging on his subjects with off-hand remarks from behind the camera. He might even insert a shot from City Slickers to comically undermine some of their bizarre statements. But he is never disrespectful. He rides this line perfectly, thus internalizing these seemingly conflicting influences drawn from Herzog and Morris: he is not necessarily as interested in getting to the truth of the matter as he is in understanding his fascinating subjects (just like Herzog), but he is persistently sharp and driven by his intuition in the way he conducts conversations to get what he wants (just like Morris). He even frames like the latter by having the subjects look straight into the lens, as though they were speaking directly to the audience. Though, this could equally be connected to Jay’s other idol, Jonathan Demme.
The synthesis of these artistic inspirations is what elevates Cursed Films well beyond the echelon of forgettable content. It is a fascinating example of a documentary that pays due homage to its primary material of interest, the movies, and capitalizes on the filmmaker’s own obsession with investigating interesting people. A love letter to a genre too often dismissed as lacking artistic aspiration and a tonally complex collection of miniature character studies and thematic conversations about the blurry line between reality and superstition, Cursed Films is something Shudder ought to be proud to have in its repertoire.
To top it all off, it is an amazing treasure hunt for anyone who is just as well acquainted with Film Junk as I am. The series is simply littered with nods of varying magnitude, as well as thematic and character references that can be tethered to Jay’s involvement with what stands proudly as the longest-running film podcast in the world. It’s comfort food: familiar, engaging and immensely satisfying. I should know, my buddy Jay made it.