5 Famous Actors Who Survived Their Horror Film Debuts

They all had to start somewhere.  Most performers in Hollywood with the good fortune to experience any kind of lasting commercial or artistic success initially had to struggle to get any paying gig they could get their hands on.  When you’re starving, your standards can never be too low.  More often than not, this means being cast in a horror movie.

It’s bad enough being slaughtered by a masked or disfigured menace with an insatiable appetite for unknown talent.  It’s even worse not being able to move on to better roles in stronger films regardless of the genre.  Sadly, this is the fate of most young actors in horror.  For whatever reason, we rarely, if ever, see them again.

Thankfully, not everyone in the business sees their burgeoning careers stalled after becoming a Dead Teenager (or the sole survivor, as the case may be).  Quite the contrary.  In fact, not only are these select few able to breakthrough to the mainstream with one key performance (or become a familiar face in various projects), they tend to stay there for years and years.  Here are five such stars who were able to move up the Hollywood ladder after debuting in a horror movie:

Johnny Depp – A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)

Long before he was Captain Jack Sparrow, J.M. Barrie and Hunter S. Thompson, this longtime, eccentric leading man was a likeable, funny high school student in the first Freddy Krueger thriller.  Originally an aspiring musician, a fateful conversation with Nicolas Cage changed his career trajectory entirely.

Unlike many horror fans, I’m decidedly in the minority when considering the merits of A Nightmare On Elm Street.  Honestly, I’ve never thought much of this movie.  Krueger is too vaudevillian to be scary and the death scenes are more graphic than chilling.  (Don’t get me started on the logic of the plot, either.)  That said, Depp made a good first impression in the film (and had a memorably gory death scene) which led to an appearance two years later in Oliver Stone’s brilliant Platoon.

Three years after being cast as a police officer on 21 Jump Street, he became Edward Scissorhands.  More than a decade later, after delivering more terrific performances in modest grossing titles as varied as Benny & Joon, Ed Wood and Sleepy Hollow, Depp finally hit the big time with his well-regarded Oscar-nominated impression of Keith Richards in the first Pirates Of The Caribbean.  He snagged another nod for playing the creator of Peter Pan in Finding Neverland.

In between making these immensely popular Pirates sequels, he continues to do what he’s always done:  alternating between quirky weirdo roles (Charlie & The Chocolate Factory, Sweeney Todd, Alice In Wonderland, Dark Shadows) and more traditional leading men parts (The Libertine, Public Enemies, The Tourist).  Look for him next year as Tonto in The Lone Ranger.  By the time of its July release, he’ll be 50 years old.  Hard to believe.

Patricia Arquette – A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)

Two decades ago, Entertainment Weekly did a sidebar article in its home video section about acting siblings.  The piece involved a series of comparisons between a number of famous actors on the A-list and their struggling brothers and sisters who were at the lower end of the show business totem pole.  Looking back, the only pairing of note were the Arquettes, Rosanna and Patricia. 

At that point, the eldest Arquette sister had appeared in Desperately Seeking Susan and Martin Scorsese’s After Hours (and was just a few years away from doing Pulp Fiction and David Cronenberg’s Crash) while her much younger sibling had yet to make a name for herself through various TV and film appearances, her first being a significant role in Dream Warriors, the third Nightmare On Elm Street.  (She plays Kristin, one of the troubled teen patients in a mental ward constantly tormented by Freddy.)

The sequel was the first in the series to dip in quality (not that any of the chapters are any good) but thankfully, after a series of TV guest spots the younger Arquette would catch a better break when she was cast alongside David Morse (The Green Mile) and Viggo Mortensen (The Lord Of The Rings trilogy, A History Of Violence) in The Indian Runner, Sean Penn’s fine directorial debut about two polar opposite siblings.

From there, she went on to play Christian Slater’s sweet hooker girlfriend in True Romance, Johnny Depp’s second wife in Ed Wood, a widow in Beyond Rangoon and Ben Stiller’s wife in Flirting With Disaster, all worth checking out on DVD.  Like her sister, she would secure a gig in a Martin Scorsese picture.  In Patricia’s case, it was 1999’s Bringing Out The Dead. 

By the middle of the Aughts, after appearing in a number of films including Holes, Arquette started a seven-year run as a psychic crime fighter on Medium.  She won an Emmy for her work in the first season.  The show wrapped up last year.

While Rosanna’s profile dipped significantly after The Whole Nine Yards (lots of credits since then, though), her younger sister is definitely the more famous and accomplished of the two now.  She’s no longer the underachieving nobody from that old EW piece.

Jennifer Aniston – Leprechaun (1993)

18 years ago when I screened this monstrosity on VHS, I had only one thought:  “What is this pretty girl doing in this horrible movie?”  Several months later, she started playing Rachel Green on Friends.

Originally released in January 1993, Leprechaun was a surprise hit thanks to an unusual promotional tie-in with Pizza Hut.  Released by the independent Trimark Pictures, this low-budget craptacular needed all the help it could get.  If only more attention had been paid to the screenplay.  Even Meryl Streep couldn’t save this piece of shit.

A year and a half later, everyone would know Jennifer Aniston’s name as she finally found her ideal role in Rachel, a gig that would last a decade.  In between the seasons of the show, she would make numerous films like the underrated cartoon The Iron Giant (she voiced Hogarth’s mom, Annie) and the critically acclaimed indie, The Good Girl.  Last year she had a well-regarded supporting role in the black comedy, Horrible Bosses. 

The romantic comedy Wanderlust may have come and gone this past February but the ageless Aniston rolls on.  She’s got three more films on the go at the moment.  None of them feature a sadistic little Irishman.

Paula Marshall – Hellraiser III: Hell On Earth (1992)

The beautiful daughter of Rob Reiner and Penny Marshall began her film career by starring in the worst Hellraiser theatrical sequel 20 years ago.  In it, she plays a troubled street kid named Terri stuck in a dead-end relationship with a slimy club owner.  Early on, we learn that she’s the reason he’s gone to an art gallery late at night to buy a strange statue in the film’s opening scene.

It’s no ordinary piece of art.  This contraption contains the souls of the dead and, most importantly, Pinhead.  Long story short, she makes a deal with him and gets transformed into the insatiable Cenobite you see above. 

For such a confusing, at times grotesque mess of a movie, Marshall stands out in a positive way.  She’s often better than the weak material she’s shackled to here.  It’s no wonder she’s been working steadily in both films and TV ever since.  (She actually did a number of series guest spots before landing the movie.) 

Although she’s never had that single defining part in her long career, I’ll always remember her best for playing the nosy, ill-informed NYU reporter who foolishly thinks Jerry and George are a gay couple in one of the most famous episodes in Seinfeld history.  Marshall had the thankless yet crucial job of being the straight woman in a number of key scenes on the show.  She sets up many of the killer punchlines with professional ease.  (The gig came the year after Hellraiser III, interestingly enough.)

After numerous stints on TV (Snoops, Cupid, Spin City, Cursed, Hidden Hills, Out Of Practice, Veronica Mars and Nip/Tuck among many others) and the occasional film project (the Cheaper By The Dozen remake, I Know Who Killed Me), she has one of the most appeallingly familiar faces in the business.  Now someone give her that career-defining role already.

Adam Scott – Hellraiser: Bloodline (1996)

No, that’s not Falco without his powdered wig.  And he’s not about to sing Rock Me Amadeus.  Believe it or not, it’s actually one of the future stars of Parks & Recreation, the acclaimed NBC sitcom that just began its fifth season.  Before he joined the cast in season two to play Ben, this California native had already been going back and forth between film and TV projects for almost two decades.

His film career began inauspiciously (at least, creatively) with a supporting role in the fourth Hellraiser.  Scott plays Jacques, a horny protege of an 18th century French duke who dabbles in black magic.  After seducing a remarkably attractive peasant girl (Valentina Vargas) with no family ties to speak of, Jacques strangles her.  The two non-French-accented villains then remove her insides and all of her skin.  Why, you ask?  Because they want to reanimate her into a controllable demon, silly.  (If it was me, I would’ve stuck with the sex.  Way more fun.  But what do I know?)

Ultimately, the duke gets bumped off because his young apprentice wants Angelique (the former peasant girl turned demon) all to himself.  (Can’t exactly blame him.)  The now-immortal couple don’t age a day as the story (told mostly in flashbacks because it’s actually a sci-fi thriller that begins and ends in the middle of the 22nd Century) progresses to 1996, the year this so-so sequel was released.  When Jacques refuses to let Angelique go to America (for reasons that will take too long to explain), she reminds him that when you stand in Hell’s path, you relinquish your control.  You can pretty much guess what happens to Jacques.

Hellraiser: Bloodline is certainly better than its predecessor but not by much.  With the exception of Pinhead, the most articulate of horror movie villains, and Paula Marshall’s appearance in number three there’s not been much else to care about in this franchise.  These films just aren’t terribly scary or intellectually provocative.  For his part, Scott didn’t embarrass himself in this fourth and final theatrical chapter (the series has relegated itself strictly to the home video market since 2000).  How could he?  He has few decent lines and barely any screen time.  Plus, he’s completely overshadowed by that hammy duke. 

Thankfully, for Scott’s sake, Bloodline was a modest hit which meant more work for him.  He quickly moved on to a small role in the overrated Star Trek: First Contact and kept busy throughout the late 90s with numerous appearances on Party Of Five and Wasteland as well as a number of theatrical and TV-movies you’ve never heard of.

By the start of the new millennium, he landed a couple of guest spots on Six Feet Under, made an appearance on CSI: Miami and secured a supporting role in another lousy film, High Crimes.  By the middle of the Aughts he was getting hired for The Aviator, Monster-In-Law (that dreadful Jane Fonda/Jennifer Lopez debacle), and some indie films.  For the most part, things were starting to get better.  After playing a male nurse in the hit comedy, Knocked Up, Scott got a major role in Step Brothers, another financial success.

Fourteen years after debuting in Hellraiser: Bloodline, he foolishly chose to play a seismologist in the dead-on-arrival comic horror misfire, Piranha.  Yes, it received mostly good reviews and made enough money to spawn a sequel, but let’s get real.  Did we really need this unfunny, suspenseless remake?  Nevertheless, Scott’s profile remains high as he continues to act on Parks.  Plus, he’s shot three movies, including The Secret Life Of Walter Mitty, which should start rolling out within the next year or so.

So, you see, for the lucky few in Hollywood, there is life after horror.

(Photos taken from whyimnotanartist.com, wikia.com, fanpop.com and wearysloth.com.)

Dennis Earl
Hamilton, Ontario, Canada
Monday, September 24, 2012
3:19 a.m.

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Published in: on September 24, 2012 at 3:19 am  Comments (1)  

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  1. […] on, I included photos in 5 Famous Actors Who Survived Their Horror Movie Debuts.  Rather than write proper reviews of the third and fourth Hellraiser movies, which I had just […]


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