The past few years have been incredible for new franchises: from superhero to space opera, by the end of the year, 2015 will have seen some of the biggest blockbusters of all time. But beyond all that fanfare, horror has quietly forged a dominant return to the big screen. Most horror films – with enticing viral campaigns and the backing of well loved directors and producers – have sold incredibly well. But beyond the social media and box office success, horror permeates Hollywood in a way most audiences may not recognise: through the histories of many, many Hollywood greats.
Some of our most beloved writers, directors, and actors dipped their toes into the bloody waters of horror long before their careers surged to stardom. It could be argued that barebones indie horror is the very reason that they are now so highly regarded for the deep creativity in their craft. When you work in Hollywood, you work with a crowd, from codirectors and writers to the people in suits who are paying for your film. The list of demands can be grueling, and the money on the line can be paralyzing. But in horror (and especially the broad world of indie horror) there seems to be room for anyone with an idea to try their hand at filmmaking, or even learn from one of the masters. It’s one of the few genres where cheap special effects can turn into gory, terrifying scenes, and where those with a vision and some passion can make it not just within the genre, but in the film industry as a whole.
Here we have pulled together some of our favorite Hollywood greats you might not realize got their start in the terrifying and underrated world of horror.
Francis Ford Coppola
The legendary filmmaker has delved deep into the dark and scary areas of our minds, but the man behind The Godfather got his start in low-budget horror projects known as The Terror and Dementia 13, both released in 1963. One of the pioneers of the era’s new wave filmmaking, Coppola’s roots in horror have allowed him to explore the weird and unexpected in all aspects of filmmaking — from monologues that pick at the darkest corners of your mind to terrifying displays of murder, Coppola, who is currently working on the third installment of Jeepers Creepers film series, is a go-to role model for young directors.
Dawn of the Dead remake
As he gears up to deliver Batman V. Superman: Dawn of Justice next spring, Zack Snyder has a lot riding on his next installment in DC’s growing Extended Universe. While some of Snyder’s films may not be the most popular, the multitalented upstart has delved into risky, unexplored territory with his unique style of filmography. His roots, of course, are in horror: terrifying and blood-curdling, Snyder’s remake of Dawn of the Dead has received massive critical acclaim, and spurred the young director into the spotlight.
The Amityville Horror
While Chloe Grace-Moretz will go down in geek history as the fierce and vulgar Hit-Girl, the multifaceted actress got her start in horror, and respectfully returned to it for the remake of a lifetime. Originally featured in The Amityville Horror at the young age of seven, and was nominated for a Young Artist Award the following year. After taking on films ranging from superhero epic to classic young adult romance, the actress took on the title role in the 2013 remake of Carrie. When asked why she gravitates towards dark roles, the actress told crushable: “I have a really good family; my mom loves me, I have a really supportive family. I like playing characters that aren’t me and that actually challenge me, because it’s not as fun to just play yourself, you already do.”
Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation
With a resume that spans a lifetime, actress Renee Zellweger’s long history of rom-coms might distract from the fact that her early work happened within the hallowed halls of horror. She featured in two TV movies — A Taste for Killing and Murder in the Heartland — but came into her own in 1994’s Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation, as Jenny. Zellweger has since shied away from the dark and bloody, but it’s always fun to know where Bridget Jones got her start.
While Kristen Stewart’s major film debut didn’t exactly feature your standard sort of vampire, her humble beginnings were much more terrifying. She starred as Sarah in the 2002 claustrophobic thriller Panic Room, as unimpressed with the world as she really always is, and took on a slew of smaller films before landing the fateful role of Bella Swan.
Tromeo & Juliet
The director of Guardians of the Galaxy hid a special easter egg in the film as a nod to his roots in horror: his old boss and codirector, Lloyd Kaufmann, founder of Troma Studios. Gunn got his start making low-budget horror for the creative New York production company, with films such as Tromeo and Juliet, and his unique brand of creativity can be partially credited to the almost limitless experimentation that he could conduct in his early films.
The Valley/Dead Alive
Before the shire, Peter Jackson’s humble beginnings existed within the realm of low-budget horror fantasy that involved murderous harpies (The Valley) and disgusting, gory takes on zombie horror, with 1992’s Dead Alive. Called the "Goriest Fright Film of All Time” by the New York Daily News, Dead Alive did nothing to spare its audience from gagging during certain scenes, and the campy special effects are still unsettling today.
James Cameron's first moment in horror has gone down in history as one that the legendary director, screenwriter and producer completely hates. James Cameron was basically forced into the director’s chair for Piranha II: The Spawning, a low-budget JAWS rip-off that he was originally hired to do lighting for. Despite that, Cameron went on to make one of the greatest sci-fi horror films of all time — Aliens — and, of course, the Terminator franchise.
Jamie Lee Curtis
Often referred to as the original Final Girl, Jamie Lee Curtis defined what it means to be a “scream queen” with the perfect display of horror and heroism in Halloween. She’s since returned to her roots several times, and currently stars in Scream Queens, for obvious reason. But beyond that, Horror is in Curtis’ blood: her mother, actress Janet Leigh, is best known for her blood-curdling scream during her short performance in PSYCHO, where she is stabbed to death in the shower. Thanks to Leigh and Curtis, a genre staple was defined, and countless young women have taken on the mantle of Final Girl ever since.
This article was originally posted in the Moviepilot Magazine – Fear Issue.