film 13 Horror Movie Sets As Terrifying As The Films Themselves  

David Sharp
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It's a director's job to get the best performances possible out of their actors. So maybe it's not shocking that egomaniacal auteurs with their name on the line will go to some pretty insane lengths to get the most out of their performers. But when the film you're directing is a horror movie, and the look that you're trying to capture is sheer terror, there have to be some limits on what's considered humane, right? Right?

Well, maybe not as many as one might hope. Directors have shot in terrifying locations; they've broken their actors down psychologically; and they've put their cast and crew in genuine risk - all for the sake of selling a few more tickets.

For some actors, however, the director isn't the (only) problem. Veteran actors who've survived some of the creepiest horror sets possible can attest to that fact. Whether it's nearly drowning on a set with a very demanding James Cameron barking orders at you or making it through the night in a haunted hotel, actors on horror movies have lived through some pretty terrifying on-set situations.


Twilight Zone: The Movie is listed (or ranked) 1 on the list 13 Horror Movie Sets As Terrifying As The Films Themselves
Photo: Warner Bros./Fair Use

Steven Spielberg was already mad at John Landis, who'd been cutting corners and making risky choices since the start of production for The Twilight Zone: The Movie, before the real trouble on set even began. Landis and Spielberg were longtime friends and collaborators that were working together as two of the four directors hired to recreate episodes of the classic sci-fi/horror/existential philosophy TV show; however, the tragic events of the filming would end their friendship forever.

Landis, known for his dictatorial on-set style, had already made some, shall we say, questionable choices. He screamed at actors and technicians, forcing them to do things his way, even if it went against their better judgment. Landis skirted the laws about shooting at night, pyrotechnics usage, and he even chose to use live ammunition during some of the filming. But none of that even comes close to the horrifying events of July 23rd, 1982.

Veteran actor Vic Morrow was shooting a scene with two child performers named Myca Dinh Le, age seven, and Renee Shin-Yi Chen, age six. He was supposed to scoop the kids into his arms and carry them to safety as a helicopter barreled down at them from the sky. The windy day required the crew to climb up 30-foot high scaffolding that was swaying as it was buffeted by the rotators of the helicopter. When some of the technicians balked at what they perceived to be unsafe conditions Landis furiously screamed: “Is there somebody on this electrical crew who’s not too chickensh*t to do the job?”

Despite the misgivings of the pyrotechnicians, the helicopter pilot, and basically everyone else on set, Landis insisted on going forward with shooting, ignoring warnings from his crew and goading the pilot to "get lower, get lower." Though the exact order of events remain unclear, it seems that compromised audio due to the chaotic conditions led to one of the mortar effects being blown at the wrong time, destabilizing the helicopter. Vietnam War veteran helicopter pilot Dorcey Wingo did his best to get his craft back under control but was unable to keep it from careening toward the three helpless actors.

Morrow, in a last selfless gesture, did his best to try to save the children from the crash, attempting to push them to safety into the nearby pond but was unable to escape the fast onrushing blades of the machine. Morrow and Le were decapitated by the propeller blades and, despite Morrow's efforts, Chen was then crushed by one of the landing skids.

Though Landis was acquitted of manslaughter charges in the subsequent trial, the incident did lead to greater regulations in on-set safety that are still in place today. The multiple film production unions worked together unilaterally to ensure that accidents like the horrific Twilight Zone helicopter crash never happened again. But as well intentioned as they were, you know directors...

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The Omen is listed (or ranked) 2 on the list 13 Horror Movie Sets As Terrifying As The Films Themselves
Photo:  Gilbert Taylor courtesy 20th Century Fox

Even before the shooting began on The Omen, the production was given a few bad... well, you know.

Two separate planes - one carrying lead actor Gregory Peck and the other carrying producer Mace Neufeld - were both struck by lightning only eight hours apart. Peck also came to the set only two months removed from having to tragically bury his son who had committed suicide. Unfortunately, these events were just the beginning of what stands today as one of the most enduring "cursed" movie myths.

The laundry list of creepy, unexplained, and awful things that happened on The Omen's set include:

  • The trained stunt dogs freaking out and attacking their wrangler so viciously that they injured him, even through his animal protection suit.
  • The hotel the Neufeld was staying in being bombed by the IRA.
  • A private plane that the crew hired to transport props and set pieces mysteriously going down, crashing into another vehicle on the highway when it tried to land, killing everyone aboard.
  • Alf Joint, a stunt man working on the film, getting injured on the set of his next movie when he fell awkwardly from the top of a building during a stunt, claiming that he felt he was "pushed by an unseen force."
  • Most bizarrely, Liz Moore, one of the designers for the film, getting killed in an automobile accident with special effects coordinator John Richardson. In a gruesome twist, Moore was cut in half during the crash in a scene eerily similar to the car accident in the film. Weirder still, the car was traveling to the Dutch town of Ommen at the time.

Producer Harvey Bernhard, who started wearing a cross on the set out of fear, explains all of the freak occurrences like this: "The devil was at work and he didn't want that film made."

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Maximum Overdrive is listed (or ranked) 3 on the list 13 Horror Movie Sets As Terrifying As The Films Themselves
Photo: Image courtesy of DeLaurentis Entertainment Group/imdb.com

Stephen King is the undisputed master of horror books.

Movies? Not so much. "If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself" proclaimed King in the trailer for Maximum Overdrive - a proclamation he'd have trouble living up to (but not for lack of trying). If King suffered from any problems as a director, ambition wasn't one of them. But lack of experience and a massive cocaine habit were.

Silvia Giulietti, a camera assistant on the film, remembers the atmosphere on set like this: "[King] liked very much the extreme danger. Every day, we had a security because the movie was a very dangerous movie. Every day there were explosions. Was very dangerous. I was scared, sometimes. I was scared because I remember Stephen King had a kind of pleasure to see difficult situations."

Actress Laura Harrington put it succinctly: "You just always felt like someone was going to die on this set." There was an accident involving an ice cream truck that almost killed a cameraman; a hurricane struck the set during filming; and there was another incident where the crew had trouble putting out a stunt man doing a man-on-fire stunt. 

King's greatest miscue was during a scene involving a runaway lawnmower, which was being controlled remotely and shot from below. Everyone on set urged King to remove the blades from the mower (especially since they weren't even visible), but he refused, saying "There’s no f*cking way. We have to be as real as possible."

Real blades can really cut things, and, during the shot, the renegade lawnmower went, well, renegade, speeding past where it was supposed to stop and hitting the camera with the unremoved spinning blades. The blades sliced off a splinter of plastic and sent it flying, where against all odds it struck veteran director of photography Armando Nannuzzi in the eye. Nannuzzi was rushed to the hospital where surgery was performed to remove the piece, though ultimately he never regained sight in that eye. He did however return to finish out the project, because it takes more than being blinded by wanton negligence to stop Armando Nannuzzi. He also sued King and the studio for $18 million dollars, a suit that was settled out of court.

King, for his part, has since retired from directing after his one and only feature. When questioned about why he hasn't directed again since Maximum Overdrive, King responded "Just watch Maximum Overdrive."

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Cannibal Holocaust is listed (or ranked) 4 on the list 13 Horror Movie Sets As Terrifying As The Films Themselves
Photo: F.D. Cinematografica/Fair Use

Cannibal Holocaust is a 1980 Italian found-footage horror film that is notorious for how realistic its depictions of violence and degradation are. And just how did director Ruggero Deodato get everything to seem so realistic? Well, whenever possible he just made it real.

The tiny village surrounded by lush, unimproved rainforest that traps the actors? A real tiny village surrounded by actual rainforest that was accessible only by private plane, trapping the actors on location.

The native peoples that don't seem like actors? Those are residents of the village that spoke no English and may or may not have known exactly what they were signing on for.

And the animal slaughters depicted in the movie? Also 100% real. At least seven animals were killed on-camera for the film, a fact that led to the film's banning in several countries on the grounds of animal cruelty (though, in fairness, the animals were all later eaten).

The film was so realistic that it led to Deodato actually being put on trial in Italy for the murder of his actors. Luckily for him, he was able to produce those same still-alive actors, which is pretty iron-clad evidence in a murder trial. Still, despite not being murdered, the actors did come away with a distinctly bad taste in their mouth after Cannibal, calling Deodato "a sadist," "remorseless," and "uncaring."

Even given all that, there are still those that would claim that Deodato's biggest crime was creating the found-footage genre.

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