With Halloween only a week away,I decided a great way to countdown to the holiday would a series of spooky top tens. Let’s start today with one of the classic creepy movie standby’s; the gypsy curse. The gypsies don’t make quite as may menacing appearances in the media these days, mostly due to politically correct reasons, but the curse angle still gets plenty of mileage. Why curses?
What better way to set up a conflict for your characters in a horror film than with a supernatural mandate that brings down specific and terrifying results? Horror films have played with the themes of morality, repression and original sin throughout the entire history of the cinema(one of our top ten is a silent picture) and bringing a curse down upon someone’s head, whether they are heinously guilty or unfortunately innocent, is a great way to introduce those themes.
Here we have the virtuous, cursed by an unfortunate coincidence, and the clueless who have stumbled into trouble by accident, and of course there are those curses that resonate the strongest with an audience: curses that are deserved. Their targets, by all rights, shouldn’t escape and if they don’t then we feel a sense of ‘justice’ prevails in the universe. Examine the use of the curse in modern film and you get a peek into the way our culture views issues of morality, justice and innocence vs. guilt.
The gypsy curse is an old standby, but in the following ten films or t.v. shows, it gets an iconic or fresh make-over. Lets start then, with…
10. Homer’s gypsy curse . The Simpsons: Treehouse of Horror- “Hex in the City”
The bumbling patriarch of the Simpson clan had been bringing trouble and calamity down upon his family’s head long before this 2001 segment of The Treehouse of Horror, but for one of the first times on the show, Homer was only partially responsible for the resulting woe. After trashing a fortune teller’s shop, and getting a curse that affects only those around him, Homer decides to fight back with the help of a Leprechaun. This particular curse isn’t very specific but it manages to do some pretty cool stuff, like stuffing Moe into a pickle jar while Homer’s back is turned. The central bit of hilarity is the wee little irish-man, who stomps through the six or seven minute segment like Warwick Davis on crack.
9. Robert John-Burke’s weight loss. Thinner, 1996.
Okay, we’re judging the curse here, not the movie, which is actually pretty terrible. In addition to making all of its gypsy characters look like leering deviants who are really no better than the amoral, cold-hearted protagonist, Thinner sports some terribly distracting fat-suit make-up. But the curse, which befalls Burke when he runs down a gypsy man’s daughter and then buys the trial and his freedom, is a humdinger. The corpulent attorney will continue to shed weight at an alarming rate until there is literally nothing left of him. A well-suited demise for a man who only consumes with no thought of others, the weight-loss curse also has an ironic cure. If Burke can feed his tribulation(in pie form) to someone else, he is free. The wicked man can’t resist using the pie for retribution in the process and compounds his misery.
8. The Home Owner’s Association curse . The X-Files. ‘Arcadia.’
To be honest, I can’t remember exactly whether this curse was acquired from gypsies or voodoo priests(on the X-Files it barely even matters), but as the owner of a town-house who was once ordered to paint his patio door brown to match the others, I find this curse has a particularly satisfying satirical hook. People are dying in one of those pristine gated communities, and it’s after small slights like lawns not mowed to spec, or lamp lightbulbs never changed. Mulder and Scully go in as undercover yuppies and discover it’s a monster designed out of garbage that rises to avenge any violation of the Home Owner’s Agreement. The pinnacle scene: Mulder marching out to the middle of the lawn, slamming down a pink flamingo and exclaiming “Bring it On!”
7. The Poster Boy for Supernatural Misfortune-Quentin Collins, Dark Shadows
The 1960s occult soap opera, Dark Shadows had an entire clan of the hexed and deranged in The Collinses, a time-traveling family of vamps, werewolves and generally ill-favored louts. Though Barnabas is the most well-known Collins, it’s Quentin, played by David Selby in all of his incarnations, who runs afoul of a gypsy curse that transforms him into a werewolf. The curse itself only compounds the myriad of problems Quentin already had. He was something of a tragic figure, always looking to understand the future, but his continued philandering and womanizing ultimately undid him and earned him a set of ears and a waggy tail.
6. The curse of Coffin Joe. At Midnight I’ll Take Your Soul (1964)
The curse is a long time coming in this early horror film from Brazil, but when it does it puts an unsettling cap on an already disturbing tale. This film was responsible for originating the character of Coffin Joe, an amoral, aetheist undertaker who murders his wife with a tarantula, bludgeons his lover’s husband to death, and then molests and kills said lover. For a film from the 60′s it was unthinkable to follow such attrocities through the eyes of a main character. And yet, in the end, like any good Tales from the Crypt ditty, Joe gets his and it’s an eternal retribution for a life of vile deeds. However, Joe’s such a bad egg, one has to wonder whether it’s worth following him at all just to get to the final turn of the knife.
5. The Yelnats Curse. Holes (2oo3)
This curse isn’t really that original or specific–it’s essentially just a proclamation of bad luck upon a man and his ancestors–but its importance to the overall story of Holes is what gives it such a high rating. Stanley Yelnats IV doesn’t just believe he is cursed, he really seems to be. A series of bizarrely random events send him to a youth reform camp in the middle of the desert where he finds his fate intersecting with many others, including the great, great grandson of the gypsy who cursed his family in the first place. Holes is a first rate youth adventure, with lots of talk of fate and destiny, and it helps that the late great Eartha Kitt played the giver of the curse, Madame Zoroni.
4. Allison Lohman and the curse of the Lamia. Drag Me To Hell (2009)
Sam Raimi’s goofy, gloopy Drag Me to Hell features a very versatile and nasty curse. When Christine Brown buckles to the pressure of a promotion and denies a destitute gypsy woman an extension on her loan that would stay foreclosure, the old hag gives her the curse of the lamia. Horrible dreams and visions–involving lots and lots of flies and vomit–will torment Christine until the Lamia, or Black Goat, will come to drag her off to that titular hell. This curse essentially lets Raimi work on two levels–one slapstick manic level with the dark unseen demon behaving like Moe from the Stooges, dumping every kind of physical attack and humiliation he can down on Christine’s head. The other is that moral fatalistic bent, where Christine slowly becomes a darker, harsher person as a result of the curse. Here mistake is momentary, but in the finanical climate that the film opened in, it feels eerily right to have a self-centered bank teller being persecuted by forces from beyond. And did I mention there’s a creepy talking goat? And lots and lots of vomit.
3. Irena’s panther curse. The Cat People (1942).
Irena Dubrovna has real problems. She has just married handsome architect, Oliver Reed but she has yet to consumate their relationship out of fear. She believes that a gypsy witch cursed her people centuries ago, and if she were to ever participate in sexual activity she would literally become a panther in the bedroom. Yea, go ahead and yuk it up, but this Val Lewton produced chiller is amazingly effective at suggesting paralyzing fears and crippling repression without a single cat person ever showing up on screen. The movie uses the curse to evoke dread and to draw out themes regarding marriage and female sexuality that weren’t ready to be openly expressed in the medium of film at that time. Slinky Simone Simon is excellent as the tragic Irena who yearns to love her husband but is afraid she will endanger his life, and watches her marriage disintegrate as a result of her reservation. In the end, it’s feasible, from a historical perspective, to wonder whether Irena’s curse is the shape-shifting or being an independent female in the 1940s.
2. Larry Talbot’s curse. The Wolfman (1941)
Yes, being bitten by gypsy Bela Lugosi in german shepherd–er, wolf–form is considered a curse. The easy-going Larry runs head-long into his tragic destiny( the film’s original working title), saves a young gypsy girl and is rewarded for his heroism with the titular malady. This curse is one of the best to ever show up in cinema because of the detailed world that exists around it. It doesn’t just affect Talbot, and the elderly gypsy and Talbot’s father play equally large roles in the film’s climax. In the end, it isn’t a question of whether Larry deserves what befalls him (from an outsider perspective he does not) but whether or not it was destined, or fated, for this chain of events to transpire. In this way, fate becomes the curse, and there is no way for Talbot to outrun it.
1. Angelus’ cursed soul. Buffy the Vampire Slayer/Angel. (1997-2004)
Yes, when Joss Whedon first introduced the idea of a vampire with a soul, it seemed endlessly hokey(now that Twilight is around, I see the error of my ways) but as the story developed it became clear that this was going somewhere. Somewhere dark and somewhere interesting. David Boreanaz’s hunky Angel started as the ‘perfect’ tortured hero; he has walked the earth as a force of evil for centuries and then is cursed by gypsies in a rather creative way. Instead of destroying this vile thing, the curse returns Angelus’ soul to him and thus allows him to feel the pain and impact of his evil for the rest of his unnatural life. The nature of his curse was explored as the show went on, and we learned that a moment of true joy would rip the soul right out of him and return him to his vampiric identity. When Angel left Buffy the Vampire Slayer and got his own weekly series, Whedon used the curse as a jumping off point to explore issues of sin, redemption, penance and atonement. It was heady and deep stuff for a series that began with an awful Kristy Swanson movie. The curse at the center of Angel, and the character himself, opened the door to truly explore the nature of both good and evil. No show since Buffy, save for maybe Lost, has found a way to redeem so many dark and nasty characters. By positing that salvation is not beyond even the most loathsome, Whedon managed to bestow his series with what had cursed his vampire creation: a soul.