We all gotta start somewhere. Once upon a time, Godzilla was just another lizard. Derry was just another sleepy town in Maine. Even Michael Myers was nothing more than a mopey lil ragamuffin before discovering the pleasures of vivisection.
Here’s our list of A-list actors and filmmakers who launched big, fat careers by cashing checks for horror flicks.
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Jennifer Aniston | Leprechaun (1993)
The original Leprechaun is better than you remember. The plot is garbage and the limericks are cheesy, but name one other horror movie that even tries to rhyme “bear trap” and “stupid sap.” Exactly, nada! It’s also the breakout starring role for Jen Aniston, aka my crush for most of the ’90s. She had been on screen before, including the short-lived Ferris Bueller TV show on NBC, but this was her first film. She plays Tory, the object of the leprechaun’s mirth (and affection) as he goes on a killing spree in search of stolen gold. Aniston followed it up with a little something called Friends, and then a ton of Hollywood movies, plus a whole lotta gossip in the tabloids. And she’s still my biggest ’90s crush (sorry Sarah Michelle Gellar).
Matthew McConaughey and Rene Zellweger | Texas Chainsaw: New Generation (1995)
If you’re saying, “Idiot, McConaughey’s first big role was Dazed and Confused like 2 years earlier,” then congrats, you’re right, go tell it to Reddit. But I’ll argue that his role as Creeper “They Stay the Same Age” Wooderson only seems big in hindsight. His screen time is minimal, and his career didn’t exactly skyrocket until a decade later. In 1995 he was slumming around the dregs of Hollywood with this latter-day Chainsaw sequel. He goes full-on psycho to play a member of the sadistic Leatherface clan, starring opposite a 26-year-old Renee Zellweger as the feisty Final Girl. This technically wasn’t her first role either (she played a bit part in Reality Bites, among others), but 1995 was a hell of a breakout year: first Texas Chainsaw, then Empire Records, and then Jerry Maguire just one year later.
Paul Rudd | Halloween 6: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)
Paul Rudd is the only reason to watch Halloween 6. Well, one of two reasons. Rudd plays grown-up Tommy Doyle, the same kid terrorized by Mikey in the original. He’s dealing with psychological damage and a seriously sloooow script. Like many horror sequels this one gets bogged down with backstory — why do we NEED to explain Michael? — but it’s oddly satisfying to see Rudd play the straight man. The other reason to watch this one? We find out what happens to Dr. Loomis, played for the fifth time by Donald Pleasence in one of his final film roles.
Steven Spielberg | Firelight (1964)
That’s right: big, bad Steven Spielberg’s first feature-length film was a flying-saucers-attack-earth sci-fi flick. It makes sense though, right? The guy who ushered in the era of blockbusters (Jaws), Hollywood throwbacks (Indiana Jones) and big-budget spectacles (most everything he’s ever done) started with homemade homage to B-movies. Legend has it one of the reels is lost forever, so not even Spielberg can re-release it as bonus material. Legend also has it this is the inspiration for Close Encounters of the Third Kind, done on 16mm film with Chinese lanterns. Not bad for a 17-year-old wunderkind.
Crispin Glover | Friday the 13th: The Final Chapter (1984)
Two words: dance party. There is so much to like about Friday Part IV, but Crispin Glover steals the show as the doofy third wheel at a cool-kid party with jocks and sexy twins. His move bustin comes soon after the first kill and not long before shit really hits the fan, predicting the tonal mish-mash of modern-day horror. Seriously, just watch the GIF a few times. It’s George McFly in a bloody alternate universe!!
Sigourney Weaver | Alien (1979)
This one’s become Hollywood legend: unknown stage actress plays lead in a sci-fi movie directed by a future Oscar winner (Ridley Scott), opposite Duke fuckin Forrest from MASH (Tom Skerritt) and a whole buncha character actors. More than forty years later and Weaver is still killing it. If you can, track down the bonus content for Alien (comes with the quadrilogy DVD box set), in which she looks back on the wild ride of filming and promoting a movie she swore was B-movie trash.
Patricia Arquette | A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors (1987)
Love her or hate her, Patricia Arquette is the perfect actress to play Kristen Parker, the sleepless psych-ward patient tortured by Freddy Krueger in Nightmare 3. It helps that the movie around her is the best of the ’80s Freddy sequels, featuring the return of Heather Langenkamp as Nancy and the debut of horror-movie superheroes.
Josh Hartnett | The Faculty (1998) and Halloween H20 (1998)
1998 was a weird year for Josh Harnett. At 20 years old, he landed juicy supporting roles in The Faculty and Halloween H20. The Faculty is like fine wine, improving with age and repeat viewings, while Halloween H20 is the same clunky, late-’90s cash-in it’s always been. Hartnett is a bright spot in both… except both films bombed. His Hollywood career went cold for 3 years until Pearl Harbor, another ’90s-style cash grab released in 2001. Good thing Hartnett appeared in Black Hawk Down the same year, or we’d know him as that good-looking second-year senior dealing drugs to the dorks, like Ryan Reynolds Lite.
Jamie Lee Curtis | Halloween (1978)
We can’t forget the original Scream Queen! Jamie Lee Curtis was 20 years old when she played Laurie Strode for the first time, and yet she came across as a fully formed movie star. (She also looked years older than her “high school” co-stars, but not nearly as old as she did in Prom Night just two years later.) Like Sigourney Weaver, she turned a bare-bones B-movie about omnipresent evil into a white-knuckle classic. And when she reunited with John Carpenter for the 2018 Halloween reboot? We fell in love all over again.
Sam Raimi, the Evil Dead trilogy
No list of cult directors-turned-Hollywood heavyweights is complete without Sam Raimi. He and two friends, including Bruce Campbell, dicked around with slapstick horror-comedy in the late ’70s, eventually making a long-forgetten flick called Within the Woods. This was the prototype for the original The Evil Dead, released in 1981. Evil Dead 2 was bigger, bolder and bawdier, but nothing compares to the batshit insanity of his 1992 masterpiece, Army of Darkness. Since then he’s directed Westerns, crime thrillers, mysteries and two of the best Spiderman flicks.
Peter Jackson | Bad Taste (1987)
Yep, THAT Peter Jackson. The same guy who won Oscars and made zillions with his Lord of the Rings adaptations launched his career in New Zealand with weird, off-kilter — and sometimes off-putting — horror satire-comedies. I’ve never seen his debut, Bad Taste, but it’s on my short list of weird shit to see. His 1992 third feature, Dead Alive, is one of the strangest zombie movies I’ve ever encountered. I can’t say I like it… but I don’t hate it, and I’ve got to respect Jackson’s commitment to gore. There’s a reason his Orcs don’t look like anything else in big-budget Hollywood.