Low-Budget Horror Flicks: A Hollywood Rite of Passage

Cheap, creepy movies can scare, bore, and delight audiences—and sometimes launch legendary film careers.

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A young Matthew McConaughey stars in 1994's 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation.' (Columbia Pictures)

Being a young working actor can be a grueling gig. You make your living with service jobs that you can drop at a moment's notice if you get a role, planning your schedule around audition after audition only to meet various spins on the same rejection. You're too short for this role. They loved you for another one, and if only you were ten pounds thinner, you'd have had it. Or you're just missing that indefinable something that the director simply must have for the vital part of Security Guard No. 2.

Then one day your agent calls with good news! Not only was there a callback, but it's a big role. Maybe even a lead. As long as you don't mind a shoot that will take place mostly at night, on a shoestring budget, and require you to spend most of your time doused in mud and corn syrup. Congratulations, the part that's going to feed you for the next couple of months (if you're lucky) is in a quick-and-dirty horror flick.

Take heart, though. There are many dues to pay in Hollywood, and the horror movie is a time-honored rite of passage, even for some of the biggest and most prestigious stars. Johnny Depp might be raking in the Disney money these days, but famously, his big screen debut was as a teen in the original Nightmare in Elm Street. Really, what could be cooler than being introduced to the world by getting swallowed by a bed and then expelled as a geyser of blood? And any decent player of Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon knows that one of his earliest acting challenges was getting stabbed in the throat with an arrow in the original Friday the 13th.

There's no shame here. Beginning actors are young and hungry, and horror films are hungry for the young. If you're willing to work cheap and die gruesomely, there's a place for you. But it's also an effective proving ground. Can you learn to work under adverse conditions? Can you distinguish your performance from that of a dozen other scream queens while a bulky stuntman in a ridiculous mask is chasing you with a meat cleaver?

Sometimes there are fine lines between a completely awful horror movie, and one that's merely bad but still watchable. In many cases, the difference is made by an actor who seems immediately better than the material, showing a spark that is perhaps the first sign of a star in the making. In that spirit, and for your home-viewing convenience, here's a list of horror not-quite-favorites that feature some such stars before they were household names.

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Ian Buckwalter is a freelance film writer based in Washington, D.C. He contributes regularly to NPR, Washingtonian, and DCist.

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