We all could name stars who got their start in B-horror movies. There’s Brad Pitt in Cutting Class, Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun, Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th, and Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween as just a small sampling. But did you notice that the reverse is also true? Luckily for us, there have been scores of big stars who, despite well-established acting chops and box-office draw, turned up in a low-brow or low-budget horror movies.
We’re not talking about prestige horror flicks like Jack Nicholson in Wolf or the entire cast of The Mist. Some of our listed actors were making comeback attempts, while others appear to have been trying to pay off gambling debts. In the case of the fifteen actors who made our list, they all brought their A-games to a plot or premise that…maybe didn’t deserve it. Horror fans are glad they did, however, because these are the times a big star in a small horror film actually turned out well.
15 Christian Bale - Reign of Fire
Christian Bale made his debut in the industry at a young age, and he made a name for himself early on in films like Newsies, Little Women, and Swing Kids. His turn as yuppie serial killer Patrick Bateman shocked the world—perhaps even more than the novel American Psycho did when it was released. Bale was well established as an intense, versatile actor with the power to pack theaters. So why would the guy from Velvet Goldmine suddenly turn up in an action/horror movie about dragons?
Maybe he always wanted to work with Matthew McConaughey. Maybe he wanted to get a jump on the dragon bandwagon before Game of Thrones took off. 2002’s Reign of Fire was a decent, if ultimately forgettable film. But the dragons? Amazing!! Hilariously, Jack Gleeson has an uncredited role as an extra, and he gets enough face time for us to recognize him. Gleeson, of course, was also rescued by Bale’s Batman in Batman Begins before his turn as King Joffrey sitting upon the Iron Throne of Westeros.
14 Samuel L Jackson - Snakes on a Plane
Imagine being a big star and deciding to take a role so outrageous that even the producing studio thinks it’s a hoax. That’s what happened when Samuel L Jackson signed on to appear in the 2006 release, Snakes on a Plane—to be directed by Chinese goremeister Ronny Yu. Yu was ultimately replaced as the director, but Jackson was contractually obligated to appear. As you’ll no doubt recall, Snakes on a Plane generated insane internet buzz and a legendary IMDB thread of hilarious taglines. Eventually, it led to one of TV’s funniest dubbed lines as well. Where were you the first time you heard Jackson bellow, “That’s it! I’ve had it with these monkey-fighting snakes, on this Monday-to-Friday plane!” It's not exactly what you’d have heard in the theater.
Why did Sam want to do a lowbrow horror film like this one? When asked, he simply said, “It was the kind of movie I’d have gone to see as a kid.” This film featured over 400 individual snakes, and one plane. This is a far cry from the roughly 10,000 snakes Spielberg used in Raiders of the Lost Arc. But this movie was bloodier, gorier, and, eventually, more uproariously funny than Indiana Jones’ first turn.
13 Brendan Fraser - The Passion of Darkly Noon
If you’ve not yet had the pleasure, The Passion of Darkly Noon is a disturbing little horror film from 1995. It also featured Ashley Judd and Viggo Mortensen before they both exploded into fame. At this point in his career, Fraser was already a big box office name thanks to films like School Ties, Airheads, With Honors, and The Scout.
In this intense horror thriller, Fraser plays Darkly Noon, the lone survivor of a zealously bible-based religious cult that was raided and incinerated by the Feds. Never knowing anything except cult-life, Noon dashes out into the surrounding woods, where he quickly becomes lost. He’s taken in by Judd and a non-speaking Mortensen. As you’d imagine, drama and conflict ensue.
The Passion of Darkly Noon was never a popular film. But it was atmospheric, creepily scary, and marvelously effective. Plus, if you like seeing muscular dudes shirtless and covered in red paint, this is your film!
12 Olivia de Havilland - Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte
Fans of the miniseries Feud: Bette and Joan, may already be aware of some of the drama surrounding Hush Hush, Sweet Charlotte. It was intended to be the smashing follow-up to Whatever Happened to Baby Jane. The stories both films were based on were written by Henry Farrell—one as a novel, the other a short story. A combination of illness and shenanigans kept Joan Crawford from returning to star in this film, so she was eventually replaced by Bette Davis’ good friend, Gone with the Wind star Olivia de Havilland.
Was it slumming to appear in a follow-up to a B-horror movie you weren’t even in, replacing an actress you don’t even like? Some said so. But de Havilland provided a stunning performance as the devious, resentful cousin Miriam, who appears to be helping her older cousin shut down the old plantation and move on with her life. Some say this film is every bit as good as the one that preceded it. Others think it falls short. We say that there’s plenty to love about both, and think de Havilland brought her A-game to this one in a huge way.
11 Cary Elwes - SAW
After being in one of the most whimsical and beloved romance movies of all time, Cary Elwes probably could have stopped working and lived off of the residuals from conventions. But he didn’t. Even after becoming our beloved Westley in The Princess Bride, Elwes went on to appear in Coppola’s gothic version of Dracula, as well as in Robin Hood: Men in Tights, Shadow of the Vampire, Twister, Kiss the Girls, and The Crush. Elwes is no stranger to horror, but his fans were still surprised when he turned up in a low budget piece written by then-unknowns Leigh Whannell and James Wan.
Wan, of course, is now a big name in horror. Elwes is a big name in…well, pretty much every genre. You wouldn’t expect a big Hollywood name with a boy-next-door face to wind up in a horror movie where he eventually saws his own leg off (hence the title). Um, spoiler alert? The Saw franchise spawned many sequels, a few of which featured Elwes. What a good sport!
10 John Heard - Sharknado
Actors are sometimes referred to as “stars of stage and screen” if they do movies and theater, or as working “the big and small screen” if they do both movies and television. It used to be considered slumming for movie actors to do TV at all. But that all changed right around the time guys like Burt Reynolds and Jon Lithgow got involved. John Heard has done both movies and TV for decades. He was featured in huge franchises like Home Alone, played the heavy in the movie Big, and appeared in highly acclaimed TV shows like Law & Order and The Sopranos.
So why would someone with a long and impressive history like John Heard agree to star in a made-for-TV CGI-crapfest about tornados that throw sharks (and absolutely no other sea creatures whatsoever) at unsuspecting citizens? Because it’s a ton of fun, that’s why! Heard told the A.V. Club that he knew all along that 2013’s Sharknado would be a huge hit and maybe even a franchise. It's fair to say that he called it, as Sharknado V promises to invade your TV this summer.
9 Joan Crawford - Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
As mentioned earlier, Joan Crawford took her first gig in years as the protagonist of the horrifying 1962 film, Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? Having never done a horror movie before, the term “hagsploitation” was coined to describe the then-new practice of putting older actresses in disturbing films. This same term was applied to Crawford’s follow-up performance in Straight-Jacket. Apparently even back then, older actresses were largely relegated to playing mothers and curmudgeonly nurses.
In this horror classic, Crawford plays Blanche Hudson, aging movie star. Due to an accident, she is wheelchair bound and in the care of her bitter sister, Jane. Did we say, “care?” As the movie goes on, it becomes clear that Blanche is at the mercy of Jane—something Jane does not hesitate to use to her advantage. Both stars might have thought they were slumming, but we know that this film is considered a powerful classic these days. But you know, Mommie Dearest is a pretty scary film too.
8 Jeremy Renner - Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters
Jeremy Renner stood out as an exceptional performer from his very first big movie role. The problem? Even the darkest movie fans can only heap so much praise on the guy who played Jeffrey Dahmer, lest people start giving them funny looks. When Renner caught audience eyes as Hawkeye in the MCU, studios wasted no time finding another vehicle to feature him in. Sadly, this came in the form of a truly awful film that only worked because it knew exactly how awful it was.
Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters features Renner and Gemma Arterton as siblings who fight witches. Oddly, the pair look about the same age when shown as children, yet Renner is 15 years older than Arterton. (Isn’t that always the way?) Despite an absurd plot, laughable FX, and props that look like they were made by a high school drama club, this film is oddly compelling if only for the performances of the leads.
7 Hugh Jackman - Van Helsing
Similar to what happened to Jeremy Renner above, studios were in a frenzy to capitalize on the fan fervor over Hugh Jackman after he played Wolverine. Despite X-Men and the MCU not getting along, they're both star-making superhero franchises, after all. While Van Helsing had a lot of action, staple horror characters, and a pretty effective Dracula, it didn’t have enough heart to make it a truly great film.
The idea is solid. You take a good-looking action hero and give him something highly heroic to do. When you establish that vampires are bad, the guy who kills them for a living can’t help looking like a badass. But when Dracula’s wives are made entirely of bad CGI, and the weapons look like they came from a closeout sale at the toy store, any low-budget vampire movie will look every bit as cheap as it is. Too bad too, because we now know that Jackman is highly versatile and pretty dang tough.
6 Malcolm McDowell - 31
One could argue that McDowell is another guy who could have stopped working after his first huge role, and just played Alex DeLarge at Comic Cons forever. But no. Malcolm McDowell has gone on to undertake an insane number of roles in movies, TV shows, and theater works, and he’s even done a few commercials. Surely we all remember him and James Earl Jones doing dramatic readings of text messages about, “probably not going out later…but I might!”
In Rob Zombie’s 2016 film 31, McDowell plays the curiously named “Father Murder,” the ringmaster in a gruesome survival game that pits unwitting kidnappees against finely honed sadistic killing machines. To many gore fans, 31 represents one of the “good” Rob Zombie films because it’s actually scary and has a plot that can be followed by a sober person. Other fans love it because it’s heavy on killing and light on Sherri Moon Zombie’s grating laugh. Whatever your reasons, 31 is a fun little horror film thanks in no small part to the presence of Malcolm McDowell.
5 Jim Carrey - The Number 23
When an actor is known for his work in a single genre, any attempt to break out is met with the ire of hardcore fans. In fact, when Jim Carrey went from one type of comedy to another (from goofy comedy to black comedy with The Cable Guy), it almost ruined him. Fans couldn’t handle his ascension to satirical social commentary with humor as opposed to playing characters that literally talked out of their butts.
The Number 23 is an unexpected little horror film that blends taut thrills with a compelling mystery—all carried by an exceptionally subtle performance by Carrey. We know now that Jim Carrey can do everything from comedy to high drama. But in 2007, we weren’t quite sure. A skillful performance by Virginia Madsen and direction by Joel Schumacher make this a film every horror fan ought to check out for themselves. Once you do, you might find it sad that Carrey didn’t do more horror thrillers.
4 Bette Davis - The Nanny
Once Bette Davis started doing horror, it could be argued that she developed a taste for it. After an Academy Award nomination for Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (her final of ten total Oscar nods), Davis followed up with Hush, Hush Sweet Charlotte, and then this 1965 film about a young boy returning from a mental hospital, now cured of the delusion that his nanny wants to poison him. Davis went on to do more horror in the '70s and '80s, often in small but effectively creepy roles in movies like Burnt Offerings or Scream, Pretty Peggy.
The Nanny is a particularly great horror film, easily on par with Jane and Charlotte. The Nanny deals with themes involving marriages, grown women treated as children, uninvolved fathers, the death of a child, and abortion. Most of that was considered dangerously heavy for a '60s movie, and certain scenes had to be cut based on provisions of the Hays code. With all that in mind, it’s surprising that this movie turned out as compelling and scary as it did. If you’ve never had the pleasure, we can’t recommend this horror classic highly enough.
3 Anna Paquin - Trick ‘r Treat
As a rule, horror fans love anthology films. Movies like Creepshow, Trilogy of Terror, Three Extremes, Night Gallery, Twilight Zone: The Movie, and this one, Trick ‘r Treat, become instant classics if they’re any good at all. And this quirky killfest is nothing if not good. In addition to Paquin (already way famous thanks to True Blood, her work in the X-Men franchise, and that Oscar she won as a tiny kid), 2007’s Trick ‘r Treat also features performances by Dylan Baker, Brian Cox, and Battlestar Galactica’s Tahmoh Penikett.
Maybe it’s not a huge stretch to go from a silly vampire show to a silly Halloween anthology film. But Paquin reportedly took a reduced salary to make this film, which can only mean that she really wanted to make it happen. Who wouldn't want to wear the Little Red Riding Hood costume, after all? She also appeared as a brunette, which HBO viewers weren’t prepared for, but X-Men fans totally expected. This film also features a ton of excellent child-performers and a handful of creepy stories—the endings to which you might not see coming.
2 Christopher Lloyd - Piranha 3-D
We had a little trouble deciding where to go with 2010’s Piranha 3-D. Alexandre Aja’s remake of a ‘70s classic was pure exploitation; from the bulbous beach scenes to the underwater naked swimming and scantily clad carnage, this movie is nothing short of a big-breasted bloodbath. And that’s okay. That’s what audiences showed up for. With that in mind—what are so many huge stars doing in this film? Granted, Elizabeth Shue had been out of the public eye for a while. But Ving Rhames? A cameo from Richard Dreyfuss that references a scene from Jaws?!? That borders on utter madness.
We choose to mention Christopher Lloyd’s performance in particular for a few reasons. A) He’s a giant star central to enormous franchises like Back to the Future and the Addams Family movies. B) In Piranha 3-D, Lloyd plays an actual character rather than popping in for a simple cameo. C) Lloyd looks more out-of-place than anyone else in the film. Yes, even more than Ving Rhames (who almost made our list thanks to his turn in Day of the Dead). This movie is good fun, and would have been far less so without Lloyd hamming it up.
1 Betty White - Lake Placid
This may be the quintessential ‘veteran-TV star in a low-budget horror movie’ appearance. Before anyone tries to assert that the 1999 film Lake Placid isn’t a horror movie—let us remind you that several people are eaten alive by a giant croc. And that laughing a few times doesn’t negate the horror. Anywhoo…Betty White plays Mrs. Bickerman, one half of a married couple (the husband is mysteriously missing…his absence explained later on) living on the lake that this giant croc calls home. Lake Placid also features Bill Pullman, Oliver Platt, Bridget Fonda, and Brendan Gleeson.
What’s so special about Betty White in this movie? She swears up a blue streak in ways so witty and hilarious you’ll forget that she covered up her husband’s death by croc in order to protect the animal. White has long been known for her demure appearance coupled with a loose and sometimes venomous tongue. Ms. White could live a thousand years and still be remembered for this film in particular.
Did we forget your favorite giant actor appearance in a low-budget horror film? Tell us all about it in the comments!