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10 Legendary Actors Who Appeared in Awful Horror Films

by Nolan Moore
fact checked by Jamie Frater

The horror genre has probably launched more superstar careers than any other kind of film. Actors like Kevin Bacon and Jennifer Aniston got their start in scary cinema, and people like Sigourney Weaver and Sissy Spacek made silver screen history acting in some of the greatest horror films of all time.

However, it’s a whole lot rarer to witness a well-established actor successfully transition into horror. Sure, Jack Nicholson was scary in The Shining, and we all rooted for Gregory Peck in The Omen, but they’re exceptions. For the most part, when iconic actors experiment with the genre, they usually end up in really awful movies that are more humiliating than horrifying.

Think Robert De Niro in Hide and Seek. Or how about the actors on this list? They’re all Hollywood legends, but despite their incredible acting talent, they couldn’t save these horror flicks.

10Charles Bronson
The White Buffalo

Charles Bronson is one of Hollywood’s greatest tough guys. Whether he’s killing Nazis in The Dirty Dozen or hunting down a young Jeff Goldblum in Death Wish, Bronson is a man you don’t want to mess with.

Bronson also made quite a few Westerns like The Magnificent Seven and Once Upon a Time in the West. Those movies were great, but they didn’t feature an incredibly fake robotic bison.

Inspired by the success of Jaws, producer Dino De Laurentis released The White Buffalo upon the world, a tale of two guys who want to shoot a killer cow. Bronson plays Wild Bill Hickok, a legendary lawman haunted by dreams of an albino buffalo. Naturally, he decides to hunt it down.

Chief Crazy Horse (played by Will Sampson) also wants to turn this bison into beef jerky for destroying his village and killing his daughter. The two heroes meet up and form an uneasy bond in their quest to catch the monster, but what sounds cool on paper doesn’t exactly play out on screen. Thanks to cheap sets, weird dialogue, and a lousy-looking buffalo that roars, Charles Bronson was sentenced to a future of starring in a string of subpar Death Wish knock-offs.

9Ernest Borgnine
The Devil’s Rain

The Devil’s Rain (1975) – Trailer

One of the big lovable dimwits of cinema, Ernest Borgnine is probably best remembered for the TV show McHale’s Navy, The Wild Bunch, and his Oscar-winning role in Marty. The man even did voice work in SpongeBob SquarePants and The Simpsons. Borgnine played his fair share of bad guys, too, but none were quite as campy as the robe-wearing Satanist in The Devil’s Rain.

Released in 1975, this horror flick features Borgnine as Jonathan Corbis, the leader of an undead cult that worships Satan and has a major grudge against William Shatner. Three centuries ago, one of Shatner’s ancestors stole a book containing the names of all the damned souls under Corbis’s command. This doesn’t sit well with our antagonist, and the high priest will do pretty much anything to get the book back, even if it means morphing into a demonic goat monster along the way.

The film really earns its awful reputation thanks to the over-the-top ending when the titular “devil’s rain” finally starts pouring. In the climactic scene, the thunderstorm from hell turns Corbis’s cronies into puddles of satanic sludge. Sure, it sounds awesome, but the scene goes on for far too long. Film critic Roger Ebert described the movie as “painfully dull,” although he did admit Borgnine was the highlight of the picture.

Oddly enough, Anton LaVey, founder of the Church of Satan, worked as the movie’s technical adviser, and if you’re paying attention, you’ll spy a very young John Travolta in his feature film debut.

8Rock Hudson

Rock Hudson – ” EMBRYO ” – 1976

While he earned success in melodramas like Magnificent Obsession, Rock Hudson is probably best known for his rom-com pairings with Doris Day. However, he wasn’t afraid to occasionally shake up his onscreen persona. In 1966, Hudson starred in Seconds, a sci-fi thriller that’s become a cult classic, and that wasn’t the last time he’d try acting in a new genre.

In 1976, Hudson played Dr. Paul Holliston in Embryo, but unlike Seconds, few remember this movie with any kind of nostalgia today. An expert on fetal development, Dr. Holliston develops a strange serum that speeds up the aging process. After injecting a premature puppy with a dose of “placental lactogen,” the doctor is amazed to see the Doberman grow into an adult in just a matter of days.

Inspired, Holliston fills a fetus full of the stuff, and before he knows it, he’s cooked up a super-sexy lady named Victoria, a usually nude genius who doesn’t care all that much about morality. When the two aren’t busy conducting an affair (which is really creepy, as she’s only a few days old), Victoria is busy beating a chess whiz who looks a lot like Roddy McDowall.

Of course, Victoria is actually an evil murderer (and so is that crazy dog), and when she starts rapidly aging, she learns the only way she can keep her eternal youth is killing a pregnant woman and sucking the juices out of the baby’s pituitary gland. We’ve come a long way since Pillow Talk.

When Victoria decides to kill Holliston’s daughter-in-law, the doctor and the dame battle it out, master versus monster. If you’ve ever wanted to hear Rock Hudson scream, “Die! Die, damn you!” then this is your movie, especially if you like twist endings. Even better, the film starts off with a real scientist warning audiences that scientists might unleash this terrible technology on the world someday soon . . . maybe even today.

7Tony Curtis
The Manitou

The Manitou (1978) – Official Trailer

The Manitou
In 1978, Jamie Lee Curtis made her film debut in Halloween, one of the all-time horror classics. It was a family tradition. Back in 1960, her mother, Janet Leigh, made cinematic history by taking a shower in Psycho. As for her father . . . well, Tony Curtis was better suited for dramas like Sweet Smell of Success and romantic comedies such as Some Like It Hot.

Nevertheless, in the late ‘70s, Tony tried his hand at the horror genre, but instead of creating a classic, he ended up in one of the all-time best bad movies. Supposedly based on a true story, The Manitou starts off with a woman getting impregnated in her neck by the spirit of a 400-year-old Native American medicine man, and it just gets crazier from there.

Curtis plays Harry Erskine, a fake psychic who wears a wizard getup while conning old women out of their money. But when his ex shows up with a tumor on her neck, he gets a little weirded out, especially when she starts chanting in a strange language while asleep. Things get especially eerie when a possessed woman falls down a staircase, a Native American head pops up in the middle of a seance, and a surgeon trying to remove the neck fetus is forced to slice open his own hand.

A tad concerned, Curtis hires a friendly medicine man to do battle with the neck spirit. The totally insane climax takes place in a hospital where a rubbery, dwarf-like monster crawls out of the woman’s neck, freezes the floor, and attacks the heroes with his giant pet lizard. Fortunately, the good guys win the day by harnessing the spirits of the hospital machines and blasting the bad medicine man with laser beams.

On second thought, this movie is awesome.

6Veronica Lake
Flesh Feast

Flesh Feast (1970)

A sultry blonde with a penchant for playing femme fatales, Veronica Lake found success in classic movies like Sullivan’s Travels, I Married a Witch, and This Gun for Hire. But while she’s today considered one of Hollywood’s legendary leading ladies, Lake’s film career was short-lived. By the 1970s, she was a washed-up paranoid alcoholic, working as a waitress while dreaming of a comeback.

After publishing her autobiography, Lake used the profits to finance what would hopefully become her triumphant return to the silver screen after 19 years away from Hollywood. But instead of starring in a film noir or romantic comedy, her two best genres, Lake made Flesh Feast, a cheap indie flick about maggots, Nazis, and a mad scientist.

Lake plays Dr. Elaine Frederick, a scientist trying to stop the aging process with a lab full of flesh-eating maggots. These bugs nibble away at old flesh, rejuvenating the patient, and Frederick spends her time experimenting on corpses stolen from a nearby hospital. But when a group of South American rebels asks her to reinvigorate their elderly leader, the screwy surgeon finally gets to operate on a living human being.

In the film’s finale, her new patient turns out to be Adolf Hitler himself. The wrinkly dictator has been hiding out in the South American rain forest, and now he’s ready to regain his youth and conquer the world. However, things take a nasty turn when Frederick reveals that her mother was tortured to death in a concentration camp. You might guess what happens next.

Despite its gory climax, Flesh Feast was labeled an “embarrassing, amateurish gorefest.” Crushed, Veronica Lake permanently retired from the movies and moved to England, where she died of hepatitis in 1973.

5Henry Fonda
The Swarm & Tentacles

The Swarm 1978 TV trailer

Henry Fonda was the star of classics like 12 Angry Men and My Darling Clementine. The American Film Institute declared him the sixth-greatest screen legend of all time. But during the 1970s, the all-American movie star lost some of his steam. Things got really sad when Young Mr. Lincoln decided to take a stab at the horror genre.

Fonda’s first foray into scary cinema was the Italian horror film Tentacles, produced and directed by Ovidio Assonitis. The monstrous animal in this Jaws rip-off is an oversize octopus with a really bad attitude, and Fonda plays the CEO of an underwater tunneling company that angers the creature with its use of seismographs. Fonda is only on for a few scenes and even turns out to be an okay guy. He cancels his underwater project when he learns it’s ticking off the octopus, a move that flies in the face of every monster movie businessman ever.

In the end, the octopus is killed by a team of orcas (that occasionally transform into handheld puppets), but this wasn’t Fonda’s last attempt at a horror film. In 1978, he starred in The Swarm, a disaster flick by Razzie Award–winning producer-director Irwin Allen. In this film, a swarm of African killer bees murder hundreds of people and attack everything from a grade school to a nuclear power plant. Fonda plays a scientist trying to find an effective antivenom, but to test his serum, he first has to inject himself with bee venom . . . a plan that majorly backfires.

Unfortunately, Fonda wasn’t the only star to get suckered into The Swarm. This nature-gone-amok movie also featured big names like Olivia de Havilland, Michael Caine, and Richard Widmark. On the upside, Fonda would redeem himself by winning an Oscar for On Golden Pond just a few years later.

4Joan Crawford

TROG (1970) trailer w/ Joan Crawford

If you’ve seen Mommie Dearest, you know Joan Crawford was allegedly a real-life monster, especially when wire hangers were involved. But while she might not have been mother of the year, Crawford did star in quite a few classics like Mildred Pierce, The Women, and the majorly macabre Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

Trog was not one of those classic Joan Crawford films. In this bizarre British movie, a group of hikers stumbles into a cave and accidentally unleashes a killer caveman. This troublesome troglodyte murders everyone in its way, until Joan Crawford shows up with a tranquilizer gun. Playing anthropologist Dr. Brockton, Crawford captures the missing link, nicknames the monkey man “Trog,” and tries to civilize the beast with classical music and wind-up toys.

Crawford has to deal with a town of mindless villagers who want to execute Trog (which makes sense, considering the creature killed a whole bunch of people). Eventually, the monster gets loose and wreaks havoc on the town. Trog even goes so far as to kidnap a little girl, but Dr. Broderick convinces the creature to hand the child over . . . before the army comes in and goes full King Kong.

Trog had a pretty pathetic budget. The film used stock footage from a 1950s documentary to create flashbacks of Trog’s glory days . . . back when he was hanging out with dinosaurs. In fact, the crew had such a strict budget that Joan Crawford had to bring along her own wardrobe. The film totally bombed, and Trog marked the end of Joan Crawford’s film career.

3Kirk Douglas
Holocaust 2000

Holocaust 2000 (1977) Trailer

Kirk Douglas is the last of the Hollywood giants. While he never won an Oscar for any of his amazing performances, the man had an incredible career, playing in films like Paths of Glory and Lust for Life. (He was also Spartacus, but don’t tell the Romans.)

If you’ve been around as long as Douglas—the man is 98—you’re going to make a poor horror film sooner or later, like Holocaust 2000. Also known as The Chosen, this Italian Omen rip-off stars Douglas as Robert Caine, a businessman who wants to build the world’s most powerful thermonuclear power plant in an unnamed Middle Eastern country. Things get biblically bizarre when Caine discovers the very cave where St. John had his apocalyptic visions. There’s even a cave painting of a seven-headed beast with 10 horns per head and 10 crowns per horn.

Things get even weirder when Caine’s supercomputer starts spitting out gibberish like 2V231 (which is IESUS backward, no J in Latin), and isn’t it convenient that everyone who opposes construction of the power plant is gruesomely killed at just the right time? One man even takes a helicopter blade to the head. But Caine only puts the pieces together after realizing his power plant has seven turbines, each with 10 circulation conduits, and of course, each conduit has 10 automatic control systems, just like that creepy cave painting.

His fully grown son is named Angel whose health insurance PIN just so happens to be the number of the Beast.

What follows next is a weird mash-up of forced abortions, mental asylums, dynamite vests, and a crazy dream sequence where a naked Kirk Douglas witnesses his beloved nuclear power plant transform into a gigantic seven-headed monster.

2Orson Welles

Orson Welles worships Satan in The Witching (1972)

One of the most influential filmmakers to ever pick up a camera, Orson Welles is best remembered for his infamous War of the Worlds broadcast and for directing Citizen Kane, widely considered the greatest movie ever made. In addition to Kane, Welles directed classics like Touch of Evil, The Magnificent Ambersons, and Chimes at Midnight.

Despite his genius, Welles never really reached his full potential, thanks either to meddling movie studios or his own ego, depending on whom you ask. And as the man’s waistline and alcohol intake grew and grew, he started showing up in more and more garbage. Desperate for cash, Welles appeared in a series of commercials, shilling everything from cameras to board games.

However, none of those commercials were half as bad as Necromancy. Also known as The Witching, The Toy Factory, and Rosemary’s Disciples, this piece of schlock found Welles playing the enigmatic Mr. Cato, an evil wizard who runs an occult toy company in the ominously named town of Lilith. Not only is he one creepy CEO, he’s also the head of a satanic coven that includes pretty much everybody in town.

In true horror movie fashion, Cato is one of those bad guys who can’t get over the death of a loved one. In this instance, the villain plans on bringing his deceased son back to life with the help of the innocent woman who’s just moved into town. Directed by Bert Gordon—the same man who made The Amazing Colossal Man and Attack of the Puppet PeopleNecromancy is a lousy flick chock-full of nudity and orgies and possibly the lowest point in Orson Welles’s career.

1Marlon Brando
The Island Of Dr. Moreau

THE ISLAND OF DR. MOREAU – Best Lines (1996) Marlon Brando

Sure, he’s one of the greatest actors ever, but Marlon Brando was a crazy person. A binge eater who was notoriously difficult to work with, Brando had pretty much stopped caring about his reputation by the time he made The Island of Dr. Moreau. Not only was he morbidly obese by this point, he was starring in one of the worst movies ever made, all while acting like a mad man.

Fans of the H.G. Wells novel probably know Dr. Moreau is a mad scientist with his own personal island, full of half-man, half-animal abominations. He rules the bipedal beasts with an iron fist, and of course, the creatures eventually rebel. There’s a lot of potential here for a good horror flick, but this adaptation misses the mark in every way possible.

With a Rotten Tomatoes score of 23 percent, The Island of Dr. Moreau was a $40 million disaster, largely thanks to Brando’s insanity. While covered in pasty white makeup, the actor slurred so badly he made Vito Corleone sound like Shakespeare. Incredibly bored on set, Brando put an ice bucket on his head and wore it while filming. He also insisted on having his own look-alike dwarf sitting alongside him in every scene.

True to form, Brando didn’t know his lines. Admittedly, it wasn’t quite his fault, as the script was constantly being rewritten. Having trouble keeping up, Brando wore an earpiece so someone could feed him his new lines. Unfortunately, the radio occasionally picked up police transmissions, and Brando occasionally informed the cast and crew about ongoing robberies.

Brando wasn’t the only troublesome actor on set. At the end of filming, director John Frankenheimer loudly declared, “There are two things I will never do in my whole life: I will never climb Mt. Everest, and I will never work with Val Kilmer ever again.”

fact checked by Jamie Frater