The common consensus is that a celebrity does horror at one of two points in their career: they’ll do it when they’re starting out in their career and desperate for any role they can get, or they’ll do it toward the end of their career when they’re desperate for a paycheck. The key theme here is desperation. But while there’s plenty of that out there, that’s far from a universal thing and definitely a little condescending to actors. Horror is full of some of the best character actors in the business.
These people will do other genres and be just as great, but they’ll always come back to the genre. Way more A-list actors leave horror behind them as they advance their careers. But there are so many fantastic actors who are still household names and have lent several great performances to the lasting legacy of the genre.
I’ll be honest, this list was incredibly hard to put together and probably requires several follow-ups to feel anything close to complete. Many of the actors on this list are working actors on the same level as Brad Dourif or Robert Englund, they’re simply given bigger projects. You can tell that someone like Gary Oldman goes where the work is and that’s part of what makes him such a versatile actor.
That’s what I love about so many of these actors and the horror films they’ve been in over the course of the past several decades.
Obviously Kathy Bates is most well known in horror for her Oscar-winning turn in Misery. But she also returned to Stephen King territory with a great performance in the underrated dark drama Dolores Claiborne. And she’s been one of the standouts in even the most uneven seasons of American Horror Story. She also had a brief appearance in My Best Friend is a Vampire. Maybe she wasn’t a standout, but I just love that film.
Man, James Woods has delivered some great horror work in his career. As surreal, bizarre and intelligent as Videodrome is, it doesn’t work if he doesn’t work. But then we also get to see him in the Stephen King anthology Cat’s Eye. Both of those features prove that he plays desperate and vulnerable really, really well. Which makes his other huge horror performance so much more fascinating. Vampires is a quintessential, intentionally clichéd tough guy vehicle with the antithesis of that Kurt Russell type as its star. And it worked because he made it work.
Anthony Hopkins is as well known to horror fans as Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, but he’s had the mainstream success that so many people who get tied to the genre never get to have. He won an Oscar for his absolutely chilling—and relatively brief—performance in Silence of the Lambs. But way before that, Hopkins gave a fantastic horror performance in Magic. Easily one of the most underrated of his career. Then, of course, he went on to do some of the classics—Dracula and The Wolfman, in particular—as well as returning to Hannibal.
Crispin Glover has dipped into the DTV pool every now and then, but he always bounces back. He never manages to disappear from the A-list spotlight and American Gods is just the latest example of that. He’s such a presence. You never know exactly what he’s going to do. He’s completely unpredictable. But he’ll always do it well. He can be totally weird and sinister in Willard, but also quirky and charming in Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter.
Jennifer Jason Leigh
She almost never comes up in conversation about actors—I know this, because I’m always standing around wishing she would. Jennifer Jason Leigh is honestly one of my favorite actors. Leigh nailed Cronenberg’s style in the under seen ExistenZ. While people can debate whether this is a horror film or not, I think she gives an absolutely outstanding horror performance in Single White Female.
Sometimes I forget how good of an actor Kevin Bacon is, then I remember and I’m delighted. He’s hilarious in Tremors. Both he and Fred Ward are so charismatic in that movie. But then he gives such a sincere, serious performance in Stir of Echoes. He gets to be balls-to-the-wall sleazy and evil in Hollow Man. Also, while it’s nowhere approaching a horror movie, he’s pretty creepy in The River Wild.
Gary Oldman’s been all over the horror genre and he’s fantastic every single time. His Dracula stands comfortably beside Bela Lugosi and Christopher Lee. He has so much to do in that role and he nails all of it, from the menace to the romance to the pounds and pounds of makeup. But speaking of pounds of makeup, holy hell is he great in Hannibal. He’s basically immobile as Mason Verger, but he’s still absolutely chilling.
Johnny Depp is hugely popular despite rarely ever straying too far from the genre and that makes for a fascinating career. He’s a likable supporting role in A Nightmare on Elm Street. He gives one of my favorite performances of all time in Ed Wood, as the worst horror director of his day. Even in things I don’t necessarily love, like Secret Window, he’s still great in them. From Hell is one of those rare features where he gets to be several shades of Depp-ness without managing to actually distract from the movie itself.