It’s a sad fact that many A-list actors are wary of starring in horror films, either out of fear they’ll be seen as “slumming it” by appearing in a genre so oft-maligned by snobby elites or because they look down upon fright flicks themselves. Even in those rare instances when you do get to see a major star covered in corn syrup and/or doing battle with a horde of bloodsuckers, you’ll often hear said project billed as a “psychological thriller” or some other such nonsense, regardless of how much it wallows in the tropes and traditions of conventional horror.
Of course, the flip side of this is that many hardcore horror fans simply don’t want to see A-list actors appearing in the genre, the argument being that watching a big star like Sandra Bullock or Will Smith in a scary movie makes it harder to suspend one’s disbelief and become truly immersed – and therefore frightened by – the situation at hand.
Nevertheless, every once in awhile a horror project comes along – often one with a top-shelf director attached – that manages to attract major movie stars either drawn by some whiff of “artistic credibility” or, perhaps more commonly, a considerable payday. In rare instances these films actually end up being decent, somehow managing to skirt the pitfalls of bloated budgets and movie-star egos to become a respected entry in the genre. With all that in mind, B-D reporter Chris Eggertsen recently put together his list of the ten best star-driven horror (or horror-adjacent) films that succeeded in giving both genre fans and mainstream audiences alike something to scream about. See inside for his selections.
1) The movie stars in question must have been big names at the time they appeared in the film. Yes, Renee Zellwegger and Matthew McConaughey both had roles in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, but neither of them were famous yet either.
2) No “hot for a minute” teen stars or up-and-comers qualify as “movie stars”. For example, Scream may have starred a host of fresh young T.V. faces and notable personalities, but none of them were major stars – at least not yet (this includes Drew Barrymore).
3) Actors big with horror audiences but not widely known by the general public don’t count as “big names”. Danielle Harris and Kane Hodder may be A-listers in your book, but they aren’t mainstream stars and therefore don’t count for the purposes of this article.
4) “Stars” famous simply for making sex tapes or walking innumerable red carpets don’t qualify as “big names” here. Paris Hilton may be a huge celebrity as far as the tabloid press is concerned, but she’s not a movie star.
5) The criteria for number of stars appearing in a horror film in order for that film to qualify depends on the totality of star power possessed by the ensemble cast. If there’s only one big name appearing in the horror movie in question, it simply doesn’t qualify for the list no matter how famous they are. If there are just two, they must be major, A-list superstars on the order of a Reese Witherspoon or Johnny Depp. If there are more than two, there must be a significant amount of collective star power on display for the movie in question to pass muster. “B-listers” like, say, Matthew Broderick or Jennifer Jason Leigh aren’t enough on their own for the movie they’re starring in together to be considered; there would need to be at least one other notable actor starring opposite them for the movie to qualify.
Clear enough for everyone? Alrighty then, let’s begin.
While I found myself let down by the film’s misguided denouement – sorry, but Harrison Ford just isn’t scary – in its first two acts at least (not to mention that standout bathtub scene) What Lies Beneath proves to be a pretty good blend of Hitchcockian suspense and supernatural horror. Its $100 million budget (nearly unprecedented for a horror film) no doubt bloated by the presence of its two above-the-line superstars (Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer, who was still a major star at the time despite several recent flops), director Robert Zemeckis at least made pretty good use of all that cash, managing to imbue the film with a sheen of high-class sophistication that harkened back to the glory days of predecessors like Hitchcock and Roman Polanski.
Granted, Charlize Theron wasn’t a star yet when she came out in this film, but when you’ve got heavyweight Al Pacino and the inexplicably A-list Keanu Reeves in the same movie, that’s a big-name cast whether you like it or not. And in all truthfulness, while it’s far from a perfect film The Devil’s Advocate is also way more fun than I ever expected. Director Taylor Hackford manages to work up a genuinely sinister atmosphere in the early sequences – with Theron giving an unhinged performance to rival Mia Farrow’s in Rosemary’s Baby – before going completely off the rails (in a good way) somewhere around the midpoint. The main strength of the film is Hackford’s deft balancing of the material – while it’s somewhat intelligent, it also never forgets that at heart it’s essentially a glossed-over “B-movie” – and Pacino seals the deal with his deliberately over-the-top performance as the literal boss from Hell.
Wildly divergent from its relatively subdued Oscar-winning predecessor, director Ridley Scott went in a bold and far more indulgent new direction with Hannibal, though admittedly that’s due to the far more lurid tone of the novel, which one-upped the previous two books in the series (Red Dragon and The Silence of the Lambs) in its willingness to go to some truly gruesome places. Scott, obviously taking the book’s Grand Guignol sensibilities as a license to kill, crafted sequences of such over-the-top grisliness that many reviewers went on to derisively label the film as “repugnant”, “distasteful”, and “stupid”, among other choice adjectives. Yet in retrospect, even if you consider Hannibal a failure (I don’t, though Lambs is without a doubt a superior film), it certainly has to qualify as one of the most interesting failures from the last decade in cinema. Julianne Moore, taking on the role of Clarice and starring alongside such luminaries as Hopkins, Ray Liotta and a gruesomely unrecognizable Gary Oldman, should also be applauded for bravely taking on the essentially “lose-lose” challenge of following up Foster’s legendary Oscar-winning performance.
Yes it was directed by Brett Ratner, but Red Dragon is still a more-than-worthy entry in the storied serial-killer franchise. Essentially a remake of Michael Mann’s 1986 film Manhunter – though both were based on the same book by Thomas Harris – the film featured a bigger-name cast and higher production values than that previous adaptation, with top-shelf actors like Edward Norton, Ralph Fiennes, Harvey Keitel, and Philip Seymour Hoffman starring alongside Hopkins as the highly-intelligent cannibal/former psychiatrist Dr. Hannibal Lecter. While it doesn’t take the breath away like Jonathan Demme’s superior Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon is nevertheless a well-crafted horror/thriller that boasts some genuinely thrilling sequences and impressive performances all around.
The closest Scorsese has ever come to full-fledged horror, Shutter Island boasts an A-list star in Leonardo Dicaprio and surrounds him with other weighty names including Mark Ruffalo, Ben Kingsley, Michelle Williams, and Patricia Clarkson. While far from the director’s most accomplished work – which isn’t saying much considering he’s arguably never made a bad film – as a gothic chiller it works better than most in working up an atmosphere of intense paranoia and existential dread. Utilizing the eerie sound effects employed by traditional “spooky old house” movies in service of an ultimately human story, the quietly ambiguous ending is an undeniable tragedy no matter which way you choose to interpret it.
Though generally considered more of a crime thriller/police procedural than a genuine horror film, Zodiac nevertheless ranks on this list due to several nerve-jangling scenes in which the eponymous serial killer’s real-life murders are horrifically reconstructed by director David Fincher. High-profile above-the-line leads Jake Gyllenhaal, Mark Ruffalo, and Robert Downey, Jr. are certainly effective in their roles as three men obsessively searching for the true identity of the infamous Zodiac killer, but the real star here is Fincher’s direction, which effectively captures the paranoia and desperation that came to characterize the atmosphere surrounding the still-unsolved murders (though the film could’ve admittedly benefited from a little trimming). The scene depicting the daylight stabbing of two young lovers by Lake Berryessa is so matter-of-fact in its outright brutality that it’s remained seared into my brain ever since.
Marking Francis Ford Coppola’s first foray into the horror genre since directing Dementia 13 for Roger Corman, Bram Stoker’s Dracula featured a top-shelf early-`90s cast including Anthony Hopkins, Keanu Reeves, Winona Ryder, and the chameleonic Gary Oldman starring as the titular Count. Despite some rather wooden acting from a miscast Reeves (shocker!) and a painfully unconvincing English accent by Ryder, Coppola nevertheless imbues the film with a genuinely gothic atmosphere and some of the most breathtaking art direction I’ve ever seen in a horror movie. In the pantheon of contemporary vampire films it’s no doubt one of the greatest, and certainly one of the best post-Apocalypse Now offerings of Coppola’s career.
Neil Jordan’s visually stunning adaptation of Anne Rice’s 1976 novel stirred up quite a bit of controversy prior to release, specifically due to Rice’s displeasure over the studio’s decision to cast box-office draw Tom Cruise in the role of Lestat (she wanted Julian Sands). Adding to the project’s star-studded credentials were newly-minted heartthrob Brad Pitt as Louis, Christian Slater as Daniel, and Antonio Banderas – just off an attention getting-role as Tom Hanks’ lover in Philadelphia – as Armand. With this many stars in the mix the film could’ve easily ended up as an inflated mess, but as seductively helmed by Jordan it nevertheless proved worthy of its source material and succeeded in becoming one of the greatest horror films of the 1990s (at least in this writer’s humble opinion). As for Rice, she later sent a letter of apology to Cruise, recanting her earlier displeasure after being shown a cut of the film. “From the moment he appeared [on screen], Tom was Lestat for me”, she was quoted as saying.
It’s a good thing stars Morgan Freeman and particularly Brad Pitt (starring opposite an unbilled Kevin Spacey and rising star Gwyneth Paltrow) possessed the sort of clout they did at the time of Seven‘s release; if it weren’t for them, the film’s classic shocker ending would’ve most likely been replaced with a more “upbeat” studio-preferred finale that had Pitt and Freeman’s characters successfully saving Tracey from the clutches of John Doe. According to commentary on the DVD release, both actors, along with director David Fincher, adamantly refused to participate in the film if the studio and producers chose to go with the latter ending. Ironically, it was the film’s bleak denouement that most drove audience word-of-mouth, allowing it to finish with over $100 million in domestic receipts and earning Fincher plaudits for his willingness to plumb the darkest recesses of human depravity.
While I imagine many of you will be scratching your heads over this one, at the end of the day Ghostbusters is enough of a horror film to qualify for this list. While I’ll admit it’s a comedy first and foremost, the way it weaves the conventions of supernatural fright films into the mix is undeniably effective, and a big part of why the movie succeeds as well as it does. Featuring a who’s-who of the day’s top comedic actors including Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd and Harold Ramis, Ghostbusters became the second highest-grossing film of 1984 on its initial release and launched its already-popular stars – including then-rising actress Sigourney Weaver – even further into the stratosphere. Deftly helmed by director Ivan Reitman, Ghostbusters is indisputably a classic of its type and succeeded in delivering some of the most iconic cinematic moments of the 1980s. Its subsequent influence on future entries in the horror/comedy sub-genre is nothing short of colossal