6. Cyborg (1989)
Cyborg is one of several titles that helped transform Jean-Claude Van Damme into a household name. Two years prior he’d starred in Bloodsport, a surprise hit that showcased his movie-star looks and martial arts skills. The success of Bloodsport led to a flood of offers, including starring roles in American Ninja 3 and Delta Force 2. Van Damme chose the only project that wasn’t a sequel – Albert Pyun’s Cyborg. He would later state that he went into Cyborg reluctantly and wasn’t fond of the experience, and his on-set behavior made that abundantly clear.
Several formal complaints were made about Van Damme during the Cyborg shoot: stunt coordinator Tom Elliot later testified in court that he warned Van Damme to restrain himself after an occurrence involving the lead repeatedly kicking stuntman Timothy Baker in the crotch (according to witnesses, Baker couldn’t stand for a full ten minutes).
The most unfortunate incident occurred when Van Damme, filming a fight scene with actor Jackson Pickney, struck his fellow actor with a prop knife. Pickney was permanently blinded in his left eye; he sued and was awarded $485 thousand in damages.
A glance at the court documents reveals a crew largely united against Van Damme – casting agent Elizabeth Featherston testified that the actor “had a widely discussed reputation of making unnecessary contact with people and hurting them”. Cyborg ended up being the last film released theatrically by Cannon Films, who filed for bankruptcy in 1987.
7. The Sword of Tipu Sultan (1990)
The largest number of on-set deaths in history occurred during the making of an Indian historical drama, The Sword of Tipu Sultan. While shooting an elaborate wedding sequence at Premier Film Studios in Mysore, India, several firecrackers were set off indoors and the resulting sparks started a fire that killed dozens of people.
Many factors contributed to the conflagration spreading as quickly as it did, including lack of firefighting equipment, improper ventilation, inflammable materials scattered everywhere, and powerful lights burning at high temperatures; in addition, the large sound stage had only two exits, one of which was completely blocked off by film equipment.
Director Sanjay Khan bravely remained inside until much of the crew had made an escape, eventually staggering out horribly injured, his body 65% burned. He was hospitalized for over a year, and underwent 72 surgeries. When the smoke had cleared and survivors re-entered the building, charred bodies littered the floor; the final death toll was 62.
8. Sliver (1993)
Phillip Noyce’s erotic thriller Sliver is set almost entirely within the confines of a bourgeois apartment complex; strangely, a planned sequence required flying over an active volcano and filming its interior. While performing this risky task (above the Kilauea volcano in Hawaii), the helicopter lost power and plummeted into the crater, landing roughly 150 feet below its rim.
Pilot Craig Hosking and two cameramen, Chris Duddy and Michael Benson, were trapped inside the stifling chasm. The three men left the aircraft in an attempt to climb their way out, but Hosking decided to turn back and radio for support. He was successful, and a rescue team found the downed helicopter within a few hours. Duddy and Benson, however, were still attempting to reach fresh air and could not be located.
Duddy eventually made his way to the surface, but Benson remained stuck on a small ledge just 275 feet above a bubbling lake of molten lava. There he sat for two entire days until the rescue crew located him. Miraculously, the three men suffered only minor respiratory problems as a result of inhaling noxious fumes; all footage captured was destroyed in the crash. How utterly senseless it would have been for three people to die, inside a volcano, in the name of a film like Sliver.
9. Vampire in Brooklyn (1995)
Throughout the early 1990’s, Sonja Davis was one of few African American stuntwomen in the film industry. Having already served as a double for such stars as Whoopi Goldberg and Janet Jackson, Davis was fast on her way to becoming one of the most prolific female stunt actors. Tragedy struck in 1995 on the set of Wes Craven’s failed horror-comedy Vampire in Brooklyn when a stunt went terribly wrong and Davis plummeted to her death.
The stunt involved Davis (doubling for co-lead Angela Basset) plunging backwards off a rooftop; on the ground, 42 feet below, waited a large air bag to cushion her fall. Unfortunately this air bag reacted unexpectedly, sending Davis soaring through the air, into the side of the building, and then down onto the city street. She died instantly.
Making this occurrence even more tragic, Davis’s family was visiting the set that day and witnessed the fatal accident. Sonja’s last words, shouted to the stunt coordinator, were overheard by her mother: “Are you sure?”; she repeated the query three times. The Davis family sued Paramount and Wes Craven but their lawyer, Melvin Belli, passed away during the proceedings. The outcome of this case remains unknown to the public.
10. Midnight Rider (2014)
Midnight Rider, an adaptation of Gregg Allman’s autobiography My Cross to Bear, began filming on February 20, 2014. Early that morning, an assortment of crew and cast members, including star William Hurt, were gathered around the CSX railroad in Wayne County, Georgia, breath visible in the brisk winter chill.
The scene scheduled for that day, a dream sequence, involved Hurt (as Allman) waking up in a hospital bed on a train trestle, perched high above the Altamaha River. The production had been denied permission to shoot at that location, and was there illegally; this decision to film on an active railroad without authorization would prove fatal. While cameras were rolling, a train suddenly appeared, barreling towards the set at 58 miles per hour.
Many of those in the vicinity were not able to clear the tracks in time; seven people were injured, one very seriously, and camera assistant Sarah Jones was killed. Director Randall Miller and his producer, Jody Savin, intended to immediately proceed with Midnight Rider despite the tragedy, but this was not to be: industry insiders virulently protested, William Hurt left the project, and Gregg Allman himself filed a civil suit to prevent the movie from being completed.
On July 30, 2014, four of those involved (Miller, Savin, assistant director Hillary Schwartz, and production manager Jay Sedrish) were charged with involuntary manslaughter and criminal trespass. Miller was sentenced to a decade in prison, but served only one year and was released in 2016. The remaining defendants were given ten years probation.
Author Bio: Derich Heath is a writer, filmmaker, and musician living in Los Angeles. He has made a documentary on the making of Prom Night II and is currently in post-production on his debut feature, Night Owls.