From Matthew McConaughey to Jennifer Aniston, these stars appeared in horror movies early in their careers.
Many actors who got their start in horror movies have remained in the genre, either by choice or because the characters they played became defining pillars of the genre. Some actors use roles in horror movies as a stepping stone into other genres. I’m a huge defender of the horror genre, so while some may claim these actors moved past the genre (as if it’s something to grow out of), I don’t. I believe actors earn merit with their acting abilities, regardless of whether they’re playing a role in a period piece romance or a quiet drama or a horror flick. That said, some actors have opted to move on from roles as demons, vampires or sadomasochists from hell to broaden their résumés, lending their talents to other fare with mass appeal. And kudos to them for making a name for themselves in the biz. Here are six actors who kicked off their careers with promising beginnings in horror movies.
1. Matthew McConaughey in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation (1994)
Long before the Texas actor saw his McConaugheyssance with Dallas Buyers Club and True Detective, he played Vilmer in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, appearing alongside another Texas actor who’d go on to see massive mainstream success: Renée Zellweger. Rumor has it the slasher sequel sat on a shelf for years following completion. A dispute between the leads’ talent agency came about when, after McConaughey’s and Zellweger’s careers took off, Sony considered re-releasing the film to capitalize on the actors’ newfound success. When the agency said the actors would never appear in another movie from Sony if the company made good on their idea for a quick money-grab with the movie (which probably felt to the actors like their middle school talent show), the deal was scrapped and the sequel shuffled onto video rental store shelves. Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation became a horror novelty that, aside from this bit of trivia about its actors, is largely forgotten. While McConaughey acts like the movie never happened, Zellweger spoke fondly of the experience, calling it her first real role and saying that running away from a fellow actor with a live chainsaw was the “best workout ever.” Though Zellweger has yet to appear in another genuine horror film since, McConaughey has contributed his drawl to another horror movie: Frailty (2001).
2. Johnny Depp in A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)
Now more widely known for his portrayal of Jack Sparrow in the long-running Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, before one of the highest-paid actors of all time went super method and shaved his head for Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (1988), and even before he donned the iconic appendages for Edward Scissorhands (1990), Johnny Depp appeared as Glen in the 1984 Wes Craven classic, A Nightmare on Elm Street. While Glen survives quite a while, he meets his fate when Freddy Krueger pulls him down inside his bed, resulting in a geyser of blood dousing the heartthrob’s bedroom. Depp appeared in a couple other horror movies following his big break: Roman Polanski’s The Ninth Gate (1999), Sleepy Hollow (1999), The Astronaut’s Wife (1999), From Hell (2001), and the Stephen King adaptation Secret Window (2004).
3. Jennifer Aniston in Leprechaun (1993)
Remembered for playing Rachel Green on the NBC megahit Friends, Aniston has made something of a second career for herself appearing in many fantastic indie features like The Good Girl (2002), which I highly recommend, Management (2008), the Elmore Leonard adaptation Life of Crime (2013), and Cake (2014). But with only a couple of tiny roles in the short-lived Ferris Bueller TV series (1990-91) and an episode of Quantum Leap (1992), Aniston wouldn’t have a lead role to call her own until 1993’s Leprechaun, acting opposite genre film legend Warwick Davis (in some amazing makeup). Leprechaun, which was pretty silly and treated as such by the critics, trudged on for a handful of sequels, including one in which the Leprechaun is launched into space (Leprechaun 4: In Space, 1996) and another where he visits “the hood” (Leprechaun in the Hood, 2000). You can’t make this stuff up. Meanwhile, Aniston was too busy making a million dollars an episode with Friends to find any time to appear in the sequels. And though she has yet to return to anything resembling a horror film in her career since, she was in Marley & Me (2008), which, if you have dogs, is a horror movie of a completely different kind.
4. George Clooney in Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (1988)
The Cary Grant of our time, Clooney has an impressive filmography both in front of the camera as well as behind, having directed Good Night, and Good Luck (2005), The Ides of March (2011) and the new release Suburbicon (2017) from a script by the Coen brothers, with whom Clooney has collaborated in acting roles before (O Brother, Where Art Thou? and Burn After Reading). Basically, the guy is Hollywood gold, capable of handling both comedic and dramatic roles (or a mixture of the two) with aplomb. But before Clooney achieved his A-list status, he was like any other actor on this list — eager for his big break. For Clooney, he had two early appearances in horror with Return to Horror High (1987) and Return of the Killer Tomatoes! (1988), sporting quite the illustrious Kentucky waterfall hairdo. Both sequels were continuations of horror film franchises from the ’70s. The Killer Tomatoes! franchise is something of an odd duck. It wasn’t quite as schlocky as Troma fare, but its self-awareness made it endearing. It riffed on the creature-feature films of the ’50s and early ’60s, in which just about any mundane thing — plant, animal or mineral — could be made terrifying with a simple application of nuclear radiation, a fallen satellite or toxic waste. Killer Tomatoes! was promoted as “A New Musical-Horror-Comedy Show.” The franchise returned in the ’90s as a cartoon series called Attack of the Killer Tomatoes, featuring horror legend John Astin (The Addams Family, The Frighteners) who reprised his role as Dr. Putrid T. Gangreen. Unfortunately, Clooney was too busy to reprise his role as Matt Stevens because he was punching dead bodies as Dr. Doug Ross on ER at the time.
5. Kevin Bacon in Friday the 13th (1980)
Long before we had Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon to keep us occupied on slow days at the office, Bacon kicked off his career with a very small role in Animal House (1978) playing a foil to Belushi’s fun-loving good times. But soon horror came calling for young Mr. Bacon when he appeared in Sean S. Cunningham’s Friday the 13th as Jack. Spoiler alert: Jack doesn’t make it to the credits. Bacon would go on to become one of the most versatile actors in Hollywood, using the springboard that was the phenomenon Footloose (1984) to work for directors like Oliver Stone (JFK, 1991), Rob Reiner (A Few Good Men, 1992) and Ron Howard (Apollo 13, 1995), swiftly becoming a household name. And during that time, probably more than any other actor on this list, Bacon has appeared in multiple horror movies over the years, including Tremors (1990), in a role he’ll reprise in an upcoming reboot, Flatliners (1990), Stir of Echoes (1999), Hollow Man (2000), along with the horror TV series from Scream writer Kevin Williamson, The Following (2013-15).
6. Leonardo DiCaprio in Critters 3 (1991)
Before he wrassled bears and got the Oscar for it, before he wolfed any Wall Streets, before he Romeoed any Juliet or screamed from the front of any large, doomed, seafaring vessels, DiCaprio was in the third installment of a little motion picture franchise, Critters. The Critters movies are tough to nail down. Not really comedy, not really straight-ahead horror but something of a wobbly mixture with comedy that, at least some of the time, doesn’t feel like it’s on purpose. But there is a dedicated fan base for the Critters films. Anytime the films are mentioned — and they are rarely acknowledged in flattering terms — Critter-Heads come scuttling from the woodwork to ask when the next installment will begin production. The studio behind Critters 3 is sure to let you know DiCaprio is in their movie: the cover art on Amazon has his name in glowing letters nearly as big as the title itself. If another Critters ever did get produced, it would be something to see DiCaprio return in a cameo role — but none of that is likely to happen. Since his foray with horror in his youth, DiCaprio hasn’t returned to the genre, unless you count the Scorsese-helmed thriller Shutter Island (2010). Frankly, it’s kind of a shame he hasn’t. DiCaprio brings a manic energy of his own brand to the screen. It might be cool to see him inject that into another horror film sometime, especially if he were to play the villain.