In the first of five weekly articles spotlighting the horror genre this month, we take a look at 20 Academy Award winning actors and actresses who delved into cinematic horror at one point in their careers
Speaking of which, since there is no simple definition of “horror” films per se, we’ll be casting a very wide net throughout the month as we dig deep into the illustrious Warner Bros. Film Library. From slasher flicks and campy cult classics to those with eerie dramatics or comedic twists, you’re certain to find the right fright night movie for whatever mood you’re in as we approach All Hallows’ Eve.
So let’s kick things off with our look at formidable Oscar winners who have appeared in some of the most memorable (and perhaps least remembered) horror flicks over the past 80+ years. We’re running the gamut from those who made these films at the height of their career to those who made their acting debut (Tom Hanks) or finished off their career (Joan Crawford). Without further ado and in no particular order, here we go:
Tim Burton’s 1988 twisted horror/comedy was a box office bonanza and remains go-to fun every October. The tale of a dead couple (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin) who are so unsuccessful in their attempts to scare away the family that bought their house (Jeffrey Jones, Catherine O’Hara and Winona Ryder) that they hire the wacky Beetlejuice (Michael Keaton in his memorable role) to do their dirty work for them. Davis would win the Academy Award the following year for The Accidental Tourist. As for Beetlejuice, rumors are heating up again about a long-awaited sequel based on recent comments from both Burton and Ryder. Stay tuned!
Another witty fantasy/horror film released around the same time as Beetlejuice, The Witches failed to reach the box office heights of Burton’s film but has grown to become somewhat of a fall classic. In fact, kids who saw the film when it first hit theaters may still have a few nightmares today, due to the amazing work of Muppets creator Jim Henson and make-up artist John Stephenson. Anjelica Huston, who won the Academy Award a few years earlier for Prizzi’s Honor, gives a rousing performance that has been universally praised and the film itself is one of the few to have a 100% rating from critics on Rotten Tomatoes. A horribly overlooked film that is a true must-see for movie fans this time of year.
Turning our sights away from the tongue-in-cheek to a far more serious tone, the third installment in The Exorcist franchise features Oscar winner George C. Scott (Patton) at his gravelly-voiced best. Unlike the previously released and disastrous The Exorcist II: The Heretic, The Exorcist III was written and directed by the original Exorcist author William Peter Blatty and was based on his 1983 best-selling novel Legion. The film serves as much more a successor to the first film but was no doubt harmed at the box office by The Exorcist II which had no involvement from the creative team behind the original film.
This frightening adaptation of the Stephen King novel of the same name is a thrill ride mixing aliens, telepathy and outright horror into an unsettling mix perfect for those looking for some chills this season. Morgan Freeman picked up a “Best Supporting Actor” two years later for Million Dollar Baby, but here he dons the wildest eyebrows since 60 Minutes’ Andy Rooney as a crazed military colonel bent on destroying the aliens and anyone who has come into contact with them. A modest success at the box office in 2003, Dreamcatcher has grown in stature over the past decade, leading to its Blu-ray debut just last year.
One of the most erotic horror films ever made, 1983’s The Hunger stars Oscar winner Susan Sarandon (1995’s Dead Man Walking), Catherine Deneuve and David Bowie as two vampires and a mortal caught up in a frightening love triangle. Like Dreamcatcher’s continued popularity, The Hunger has become a neck-biting favorite in the cult horror sub-genre over the past 30 years, so much so, that the Warner Archive Collection finally brought the film to Blu-ray this past August. Stylishly shot, controversial and sensual, The Hunger is everything the immortal life of bloodsuckers should be.
Heeeerrreee’s Jackie! In one of the horror genre’s most legendary performances three-time Oscar winner Jack Nicholson brought Stephen King’s character Jack Torrance to a level of insanity only dreamed of on the page. Directed by Stanley Kubrick this ghostly film from 1980 has grown to become one of the most popular horror films ever made, despite King’s initial lukewarm response to the adaptation. For those looking for a closer adaptation to the book, you can always check out the four-and-a-half-hour television miniseries from 1997, Stephen King’s The Shining, which was written by King himself.
A year after her Oscar-winning performance in 2002’s Monster’s Ball, Halle Berry entered the world of the supernatural in this psychological horror thriller about a psychiatrist working in the psychiatric ward of a women’s prison who, after an encounter with a ghost, finds herself in her place of employment but now as a patient. Robert Downey Jr. is her co-worker who is now her doctor trying to help her as she learns she is also the prime suspect in her husband’s murder. While the critics were less than kind, horror audiences turned Gothika into a worldwide box office hit.
Two years after winning her second Academy Award for 2005’s Million Dollar Baby, Hilary Swank starred in this frightening tale of a former Christian missionary who now spends her time investigating and debunking religious phenomenon. That is until she is called to a town in Louisiana where the ten Biblical plagues are playing out. From rivers of blood to deadly swarms of locusts, The Reaping is guaranteed to keep the tried-and-true horror fan on the edge of their seat.
Fredric March is the only actor on our list who actually won the Oscar for his performance in the horror film we are spotlighting (he tied for the Academy Award with Wallace Beery in The Champ). Based on Robert Louis Stevenson’s classic tale of a scientist, Dr. Jekyll, who concocts a formula that turns him into a madman, Mr. Hyde, March’s portrayal is a riveting one. The visual transformation sequence of March from Jekyll to Hyde was groundbreaking at the time of its release on New Year’s Eve, 1931.
Ten years after March’s portrayal and two years after winning consecutive Academy Awards in Captains Courageous and Boys Town, Spencer Tracy took on the iconic horror role of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. The remake was surprisingly not as popular as the earlier version among critics, who preferred March’s performance. Still, the sterling supporting cast, including three-time Oscar winner Ingrid Bergman, Oscar winner Donald Crisp and screen legend Lana Turner, makes for a great popcorn fest entry.
A year before winning the Oscar for her performance in Moonstruck, Cher played one of a trio of Rhode Island-based witches—along with Oscar winner Susan Sarandon and Oscar nominee Michelle Pfeiffer—who become fixated on a mysterious stranger (Jack Nicholson in another memorable performance) who is actually the Devil himself. A box office hit with some frightening sequences to offset the dark comedy, The Witches of Eastwick is another favorite of horror followers and non-horror movie fans alike.
Oscar winner Nicole Kidman took a break from heavy dramatic roles to star in this 2007 adaptation of the classic horror film, Invasion of the Body Snatchers. Along with Daniel “James Bond” Craig, this contemporary take on the age-old classic story of aliens turning the human race into “pod people” brings a fresh twist to the proceedings. In The Invasion, Kidman is a psychiatrist whose ex-husband and director of the CDC is infected by the alien virus and further spreads it amongst the population. Kidman’s child just may be the key to ending the threat throughout this exhilarating ride of frightening suspense.
Making his movie debut in this low-budget slasher flick in 1980, the then-twentysomething Tom Hanks was a few years away from turning into a box office superstar and more than a decade away from his back-to-back Oscar wins in 1994-95 for Philadelphia and Forrest Gump. Here, he’s simply “Elliot” (last names have never been a prerequisite for low-budget blood baths) and he doesn’t get to do much. But He Knows You're Alone is an interesting curiosity for anyone interested in one of the first slasher films to come out in the wake of the 1978 smash hit Halloween, which created a seemingly endless stream of knife-wielding maniacs in its wake.
Critically acclaimed upon its limited theatrical release in 2007, this four-story anthology of horror became a genre standard once it hit the Blu-ray and DVD market after its brief run in theaters. In “Surprise Party,” one of the film’s quartet of stories, Anna Paquin, who received her “Best Supporting Actress” Academy Award for The Piano at the ripe old age of 12, plays a virgin girl who…well, we won’t spoil the trick or the treat. Trick 'r Treat is definitely worth a look this month.
Humphrey Bogart. The name itself instantly brings to mind the golden age of Hollywood and such immortal films as Casablanca, The Maltese Falcon, The Big Sleep, The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and…The Return of Doctor X? Well the actor did successfully distance himself and his legacy from this campy 1939 horror mystery, what with his Bride of Frankenstein bleached stripe it’s no wonder. But for some harmless fun, it’s certainly enjoyable to see Bogie, literally, like you’ve never seen him before.
Bram Stoker, the author behind the Dracula phenomenon, also wrote the 1903 horror novel The Jewel of Seven Stars on which this 1980 movie is based—the third such adaptation. Some 20 years after his Academy Award performance in the epic Ben-Hur, Charlton Heston plays an Egyptologist who unearths the tomb of an ancient Egyptian queen at the very moment his daughter is born. What follows is a series of mysterious deaths and a realization that no father should discover. While some decry the slow moving story, others revel in the unhurried frightening suspense of The Awakening. Pick your poison.
The Lost Boys was the first film to mix vampires with a rockin’ 1980s soundtrack, this hugely popular comedic film from 1987 remains a classic. Oscar winner Dianne Wiest plays the mother of two sons who discover that their new hometown is overflowing with vampires. The cast of then-largely unknown young-ins including Kiefer Sutherland, Jason Patric, Jami Gertz, Corey Feldman and Corey Haim is spot on, making for a very unique and always enjoyable entry in horror genre viewing.
Featuring three Oscar winning actresses—Sandra Bullock (The Blind Side), Nicole Kidman and Dianne Wiest—this comedic look at a family of witches topped the box office on its opening weekend back in 1998. Bullock and Kidman are sisters who discover they carry a family curse in which any man they fall in love with will die a premature death. Determined to break the curse, spells and hexes are tossed around by the sisters while other forces may bring an end to their own lives.
Based on a true story, this 2011 dramatic film follows two priests fighting demonic possession. Without the pea soup projectiles or head-spinning of The Exorcist, The Rite contains enough eeriness and spine-chilling atmosphere of its own to make viewers want to keep the lights on. Anthony Hopkins, Oscar winner for his unsettling portrayal in The Silence of the Lambs, is more reserved here as the exorcist Father Lucas but no less brilliant.
And we’ll wrap up this week’s edition of 31 Days of Horror with what has got to be one of the campiest and unintentionally hilarious films to ever star a former Academy Award winner. Granted, 1970’s Trog was shot nearly 25 years after silver screen icon Joan Crawford picked up Oscar gold for her historic role in Mildred Pierce, but still it’s mind-boggling—although campy cult fans delight in this tale of an anthropologist who discovers a living troglodyte. The make-up of the troglodyte, AKA Trog, is hilariously bad, but then again so are Crawford’s boldly colored pantsuits. Trog was Crawford’s final film, followed eight years later by her daughter’s infamous tell-all book, Mommie Dearest.