Actors Who Made Their Name In Horror Films

8 minute read

By Jack Sackman

Actors have to work just like everybody else, and they can’t always be Shakespeare in the Park. The reality is that many talented, versatile and classically trained actors have to take the acting jobs available to them, even if this means starring in a soap opera or (gasp!) a horror movie. In fact, some extremely talented and well-known actors and actresses have made their name and reputation in the horror genre. We’re not talking about actors who did one horror movie at the start of their career and then never looked back as they sped towards the top of the Hollywood A-list. We’re talking about actors who made multiple horror movies during their careers and have become well-known in the genre.

10. Jack Nicholson

Believe it or not, three-time Oscar-winning actor Jack Nicholson started his career and earned his reputation, starring in a string of low-budget horror movies made by B-movie king Roger Corman. These included movies such as The Little Shop of Horrors, The Raven, The Terror and Back Door to Hell. These were usually quickie movies made fast and on the cheap. And Jack Nicholson not only starred in the films, he often performed other behind-the-scenes roles as well, including co-directing the 1963 movie The Terror. Schlocky and poorly acted, these movies helped Jack Nicholson pay the bills and got him valuable experience in the movie business, but they are certainly not great films. Interestingly, Jack Nicholson transitioned out of the horror genre in the mid-1960s only to find himself starring in a string of low budget biker movies until one of those biker films, 1969’s Easy Rider, earned him his first Oscar nomination and sent him on a path to better projects and stardom. Yet it was because of his connection to the horror movie genre that director Stanley Kubrick cast Jack Nicholson in his 1980 film The Shining, based on the Stephen King book.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros.

9. Christopher Lee

He died earlier this year at age 93 and spent the last years of his life starring in quality films such as The Lord of the Rings (Saruman) and Star Wars (Count Dooku) trilogies, but respected British actor Christopher Lee spent most of his career starring in horror films. Specifically, he starred as Dracula in a series of movies from the 1960s and 1970s. These included movies such as Dracula (1958), Dracula: Prince of Darkness (1966), Dracula Has Risen from the Grave (1968), Taste the Blood of Dracula (1970), Scars of Dracula (1970) and The Satanic Rites of Dracula (1973). So popular was the classically trained Christopher Lee as Dracula that his turn as the vampire-led him to starring roles in many other horror movies, including City of the Dead, Castle of the Living Dead and Howling II. A hard-working and prolific actor, Christopher Lee’s long string of low budget horror movies was punctuated with turns in better quality films. He memorably played the villain Scaramanga in the 1974 James Bond movie The Man With The Golden Gun, and also had a well-reviewed turn as Sherlock Holmes.

Source: Screenshot via Rank Film Distributors

8. Dee Wallace

She’s best remembered as Elliott’s mom in the classic movie E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial, but Dee Wallace has spent most of her career starring in horror movies of varying quality. This began in 1983 when Dee Wallace followed up her success in E.T. by starring in the horror movie Cujo about a rabid dog, based on the book by Stephen King. After Cujo, Dee Wallace appeared in other horror movies such as Critters, Alligator II: The Mutation, Skeletons, House of the Devil, Death House and My Stepbrother Is A Vampire. And while many of these horror movies have been z-quality, Dee Wallace’s reputation in the genre is such that Rob Zombie cast her in his 2007 remake of the classic horror movie Halloween, and director Peter Jackson of Lord of the Rings fame gave her a meaty role in his 1996 film The Frighteners, starring Michael J. Fox.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros. Pictures

7. Anthony Perkins

It’s largely a case of typecasting, but respected actor Anthony Perkins never really escaped his most famous role as Norman Bates in the Alfred Hitchcock-directed horror classic Psycho. So identified did Anthony Perkins become with the role that strangers who met him often called him “Norman.” And while the tall and twitchy actor went on to star in quality projects such as the Orson Welles-directed film The Trial, the Agatha Christie thriller Murder on the Orient Express and Catch-22, Anthony Perkins continued to return to the role of Norman Bates throughout his career in several sequels to Psycho. In fact, in the last decade of his life, Perkins turned playing Norman Bates into an institution for himself, starring in two theatrical sequels—Psycho II (1983), Psycho III (1986) and the TV movie Psycho IV: The Beginning (1990). He even directed Psycho III and heavily promoted each movie—milking the character of Norman Bates and the horror genre for all it’s worth.

Source: Screenshot via Paramount Pictures

6. Tony Todd

He started out his career with turns in the respected, Oscar-nominated films Platoon and Colors, but character actor Tony Todd is best known for his roles in multiple horror movies—most notably as Candyman in a trilogy of horror films about a demonic killer who appears if you look into a mirror and say his name three times. So terrifying was Tony Todd as Candyman that he went on to star in many other horror films, including Army of the Damned, Hatchet and Hatchet II, Vampire In Vegas and To Hell and Back. However, in addition to his role as Candyman, Tony Todd also starred as Bludworth/Voice of the Devil in all of the Final Destination movies. And while he has had guest starring roles on television shows such as Criminal Minds and the soap opera The Young and the Restless, it is in the terrifying world of horror movies where Tony Todd is best known.

Source: Screenshot via TriStar Pictures

5. Brad Dourif

Brad Dourif was nominated for an Academy Award in 1975 for his role opposite Jack Nicholson in the classic movie One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest. However, most of us know character actor Brad Dourif as the voice of demon doll Chucky in the Child’s Play series of films. Brad Dourif has voiced Chucky in every single Child’s Play sequel—right through 1998’s Bride of Chucky and 2013’s Curse of Chucky. Brad Dourif has starred in several other horror movies over the years, including The Exorcist III, Critters 4, Alien Resurrection and The Prophecy 3. In a nod to his role in horror movies, director Rob Zombie cast Brad Dourif as the local sheriff in his series of Halloween film remakes. Dourif also had a good role in the Lord of the Rings trilogy as the rather disgusting character Wormtongue.

Source: Screenshot via MGM/UA Communications Co.

4. Jamie Lee Curtis

Before Trading Places, A Fish Called Wanda and True Lies, actress Jamie Lee Curtis was known as the original “scream queen.” She starred as terrorized babysitter Laurie Strode in the original, and classic, 1978 John Carpenter-directed film Halloween, and then reprised the role in several sequels throughout the 1980s and 1990s—most recently in the 2002 movie Halloween: Resurrection. Jamie Lee Curtis also starred in horror movies such as The Fog, Prom Night and Terror Train at the start of her career. And while she has gone on to more respectable movies, Jamie Lee Curtis has never hesitated to return to her horror roots. She currently plays on her reputation as America’s first “scream queen” with a role in the new television series called Scream Queens as the Dean of a college where a series of murders are taking place.

Source: Screenshot via Compass International Pictures

3. Kane Hodder

He’s not a household name and works mostly as a stuntman, but Kane Hodder stars as probably the best-known horror movie killer of all time — Jason in the Friday the 13th films. And, in addition to wearing the famous hockey goalie mask and wielding a machete as unstoppable killer Jason, Kane Hodder has also appeared in numerous other horror movies, including Alligator II: The Mutation, Ghoulies III: Ghoulies Go To College, Pumpkinhead II: Blood Wings, Wishmaster, Children of the Corn 5: Fields of Terror, Night of the Living Dead: Contagion and all of the Hatchet movies. In fact, Kane Hodder has become so well known among horror film aficionados that a documentary was made about him in 2013 called Unmasked: The True Life Story of the World’s Most Prolific Cinematic Killer.

Source: Screenshot via Paramount Pictures

2. Vincent Price

Few actors are more closely identified with horror movies than Vincent Price. And while he spoofed his image as the Prince of Darkness later on in his career, Vincent Price made his name and earned a reputation as a horror icon by starring in a number of classics in the genre throughout the 1950s and 1960s, many of which have since been remade. These include films such as The Fly, House of Wax and The House of Usher. Vincent Price starred in a number of other horror films during his career, including Scream and Scream Again, the Oblong Box and Journey Into Fear—usually playing a mad scientist or the keeper of a haunted inn or castle. And with his creepy voice and arched eyebrows, Vincent Price became the archetype for horror movie stars. He was a favorite of director Tim Burton who gave Price a cameo in his film Edward Scissorhands as the scientists who invents the movie’s title character. But it was not all horror for Vincent Price. He had a memorable role on the 1960s camp TV series Batman opposite actor Adam West playing the villain Egghead.

Source: Screenshot via Allied Artists

1. Robert Englund

For modern audiences, there is probably no actor more identified with the horror movie genre than Robert Englund, who originated the role of Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare On Elm Street films. A classically trained actor and avid surfer, Robert Englund started out his career in television—appearing on shows such as CHiPs and Simon and Simon, and playing the good alien Willie in the original sci-fi series V. However, once cast as everyone’s worst nightmare, Freddy Krueger, in the Wes Craven-directed A Nightmare on Elm Street, Robert Englund’s career took off. He reprised the role of Freddy Krueger in seven sequels, including the infamous Freddy vs. Jason movie made in 2003. Over the years, Englund has appeared in many other horror movies, including Hatchet, 2001 Maniacs, Urban Legend and Night Terrors. Ironically, A Nightmare On Elm Street was not Robert Englund’s first foray into horror movies. He appeared in the classic 1981 Roger Croman-produced film Galaxy of Terror.

Source: Screenshot via Warner Bros. Pictures

Jack Sackman


Jack Sackman has been writing about movies and TV for Goliath since 2013.