How many times have you watched a wooden performance in a B-movie and scoffed, “Oh yeah, that actor’s really going somewhere”? Well, in fact, he might be. For every community theater reject and director’s relative in a cheap horror movie cast (okay, maybe for every hundred), there’s a true thespian who will go on to superstardom and spend the rest of their lives hoping their youthful indiscretion never comes out on DVD.
Clint Eastwood in Revenge of the Creature (1955)
Clint Eastwood’s career has cycled through several phases. He first garnered attention in Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns, then moved on to the Dirty Harry franchise, and has recently made his mark as a critically acclaimed director. For some reason, however, most film historians ignore the phase in which he played bit parts in campy B-movies.
Revenge of the Creature, a sequel to 1954’s Creature from the Black Lagoon, was actually Eastwood’s first film appearance, although he isn’t mentioned in the film’s credits. (Screen Actors Guild, where were you?) He plays a technician at the laboratory where the titular Gill Man is studied, and his one and only dialogue scene revolves around him misplacing a rat in his pocket. It says a lot about Clint that even when he’s playing a dopey comic relief character, he still comes off as kind of badass.
How It Could Have Been Better:
Anonymous Lab Technician engages in a bloody final showdown with the Gill Man until the two characters realize that they aren’t so different after all. This leads to a poignant discussion revolving around the tragic consequences of violence.
Jack Nicholson in The Terror (1963)
Famed B-movie mogul Roger Corman wasn’t just the creator of such films as Attack of the Crab Monsters and She Gods of Shark Reef—he also helped launch the careers of such Hollywood luminaries as Francis Ford Coppola, Martin Scorsese, Jonathan Demme, and, of course, Jack Nicholson. Nicholson got his big break with 1969’s Easy Rider, but before that he had worked on many Corman productions, acting in several of them and even writing screenplays for 1965’s Ride in the Whirlwind and 1967’s The Trip.
In The Terror, Nicholson (along with his full, lustrous head of hair) stars as Andre Duvalier, a lieutenant in Napoleonic France who stumbles upon a complicated mystery involving possessions, witchcraft, and a haunted castle inhabited by one Baron Von Leppe (Boris Karloff). Nicholson’s wild, slightly-unhinged onscreen persona hadn’t been developed by this point; all he really gets to do in this film is angrily ask questions and then wait patiently while his co-stars deliver their expository answers.
Jack at 3:36
If The Terror occasionally seems disjointed and confusing, that might be because it was shot haphazardly over the course of only four days. Corman would occasionally shoot Nicholson or Karloff walking down a staircase for no reason other than the chance that such a shot might become useful during editing. However, Corman was not the only person behind the camera. Directing duties were shared by a total of five men (including Coppola and Nicholson), making The Terror probably one of the few films in history to boast more directors than days in its production schedule. Actually, given all that, we’re surprised that the end product wasn’t more disjointed and confusing.
How It Could’ve Been Better
Lt. Duvalier, a devout non-conformist, sardonically questions Baron Von Leppe’s patriarchal authority. Duvalier then goes crazy, picks up an axe and chases the Baron around the castle while shouting TV catchphrases.
George Clooney in Return to Horror High (1987)
Before ER catapulted him to fame, George Clooney acted in a variety of less-prestigious TV and film projects (including another hospital show called E/R, which ran for one season in 1984). Perhaps the least-prestigious of these efforts was Return to Horror High, a cheap, stupid slasher movie intended to poke fun at cheap, stupid slasher movies. Oh, the post-modern irony.
The plot revolves around a film crew shooting a horror movie at a high school where some sort of massacre occurred years earlier. The cast and crew start getting murdered one by one, beginning with Clooney’s Oliver, a mullet-ed actor who leaves the production after getting offered a TV pilot. That’s right, Clooney plays a disinterested actor who’s moving on to better things—quite a stretch, no?
Clooney at 4:50
Anyway, on his way out the building Oliver decides to investigate a strange noise in a dark hallway. You can probably guess what happens after that. (But if you can’t, what happens is that Oliver gets pulled through a doorway and vaguely murdered offscreen.)
How It Could Have Been Better:
Oliver discovers that the murders at Horror High are being committed by a multinational corporation bent on covering up its complicity in the genocide in Darfur. The truth is exposed (after several extended action sequences), and the closing credits direct the audience towards several worthy charity organizations.
Brad Pitt in Cutting Class (1989)
Cutting Class was one of few non-TV projects Brad Pitt was involved in prior to achieving fame with films like Thelma and Louise and A River Runs Through It. Pitt isn’t the main character in this high-school slasher, but he gets a lot of screen time as Dwight, the basketball-star boyfriend of protagonist Paula (80s scream queen Jill Schoelen). In short, Pitt plays an attractive, athletic love interest. Don’t look so shocked.
Pitt at :45
Needless to say, this being a slasher movie, various students and faculty at Dwight and Paula’s high school start disappearing/turning up horribly mutilated, and Dwight suspects Brian, a former friend who’s just been released from a mental institution. This film gets perhaps a tiny bit of credit for trying to convey some kind of teen-angst social commentary, albeit in an inept and ineffective way. Within that context, Pitt plays the James Dean figure, a moody hunk who breaks into hysterics when authority figures are around. He even gets to have a kind of you’re-tearing-me-apart moment in a phone booth. (Except instead of saying “You’re tearing me apart!” he says, “You know what Coach Harris can do with his gym clothes? He can shove them so far up they come out his FUCKING NOSE!”)
How It Could Have Been Better:
Dwight defeats the killer by removing his (Dwight’s) shirt, causing legions of young girls to show up and scream at such a high frequency that the killer’s head explodes. Honestly, that would have been a better ending than the real one.
Paul Rudd in Halloween: The Curse of Michael Myers (1995)
Curse came out in 1995, the same year as Rudd’s breakout role in Clueless, but the producers were apparently so proud to have gotten their hands on him before he went legit that the opening credits announce, “Introducing Paul Stephen Rudd.” The film’s plot is a little confusing, so stay with me here: There’s this Druidic cult in small-town Illinois which specializes in turning kids into mindless killers, as it did to Michael Myers decades ago, and now it’s trying to do that to this other kid living in Myers’ old house, and the cult also for some reason made Myers’ niece have a baby so now Myers has to kill the baby, and there’s this subplot about a DJ hosting a Halloween party, and the kid and his mom are living with the kid’s abusive grandad, and uh… Yeah… There’s a guy in a mask who kills people.
Rudd plays Tommy Doyle, who in the original Halloween was a young boy whose babysitter was terrorized by Myers. Since then, Tommy apparently switched barbers and began pursuing a male modeling career.
Rudd delivers his lines in a sleepy monotone, with, inexplicably, a hint of a Liverpool accent. The performance suggests that Tommy has been heavily medicated ever since his childhood trauma. Or perhaps Rudd was just heavily medicating himself in order to deal with the fact that he was starring in a movie with the logline, “It’s like Halloween 5, but not as good.”
How It Could Have Been Better:
Doyle’s girlfriend complains that his obsession with Myers (as played by Seth Rogen) is ruining their relationship. Myers hatches a wacky scheme to re-ignite his friendship with Doyle (namely, killing Doyle’s girlfriend). After a series of gags involving bodily fluids (mainly blood), Myers learns the true meaning of friendship, and Rudd and his girlfriend become engaged. Then Myers kills them.
These are just a few of the many Hollywood actors who cut their teeth on B-grade horror. It just goes to show you that there’s talent to be found even in the worst of films…like, Cutting Class. Ugh…
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