Why Big Movie Stars Ruin Horror Films

40 horror movies with A-list actors earned less than 60 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes in the past decade

the happening illo mobile
The Happening starred Zooey Deschanel and Mark Wahlberg / Derek Eads for ONE37pm

A good horror movie requires the right combination of ingredients.

Among other things, a nail-biting, pants-wetting horror should include a good premise, some earned scares, and ideally bring something totally new to the genre. One thing it shouldn’t have? A-list movie stars. As a devout horror fan who has feasted upon hundreds of scary films, a trend jumped out. Basically, if a top-billing actor is in a horror movie, it’s not going to be any good. Think Mark Wahlberg in The Happening, Jennifer Lawrence in House at the End of the Street, Helen Mirren in Winchester, Robert De Niro in Hide and Seek and Samuel L. Jackson in Cell

Yes, there are exceptions. And yes, art is subjective. However, it turns out that my opinion can be measured—and the data backs me up. Using Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregator scale, good ol’ fashioned Google and some investigative know-how, I have done the research to prove my thesis: Big stars ruin horror movies.

For starters, I looked at Rotten Tomatoes’ own list of the 150 best horror films of all time, which takes into account both critical and audience reviews. Of those, there are around 30 American-made movies that have been released in the past decade. However, only eight of those films star a boldface name.

carrie 2
Julianne Moore starred in 2013's Carrie / Carrie/Sony Pictures

Eight films out of 30 good ones released in the past ten years may seem conclusive on its own. For the onslaught of horrors churned out every year, it's a pretty anemic list that includes both good actors and a redeeming narrative. But it’s the number of low-rated movies released during this same time frame that really hammers my point home.

I also painstakingly looked at most of the American horror films that have been released over the last ten years and looked at the Rotten Tomatoes scores for the ones that starred A-List actors. By that measure, it’s pretty easy to see that the vast majority of horror movies led by big-name celebrities are simply not very good.

Obviously, this cultural disease affects far more than the last ten years. Do you want to talk about Liam Neeson starring in the cesspool that is The Haunting in the same year he was Qui-Gon Jinn in Star Wars Episode I? Or how about the stain on society that is Dreamcatcher and how Morgan Freeman somehow found himself in that cast?

From 2007 to now, there have been over 40 films with big-name actors that received less than 60 percent approval on Rotten Tomatoes’ aggregation scale. While not an exhaustive list, I believe it is comprehensive enough.

Check out these beauties:

The Happening (Mark Wahlberg)

Winchester (Helen Mirren)

Flatliners (Ellen Page)

House at the End of the Street (Jennifer Lawrence)

Carrie (Julianne Moore)

Hide and Seek (Robert De Niro)

Silent House (Elizabeth Olsen)

1408 (John Cusack)

Amityville Horror (Ryan Reynolds)

The Messengers (Kristen Stewart)

Jennifer’s Body (Megan Fox, Amanda Seyfried)

Another Me (Sophie Turner)

6 Souls (Julianne Moore)

The Reaping (Hilary Swank)

All of the Resident Evil movies

Stir of Echoes 2: The Homecoming (Rob Lowe)

Vacancy (Luke Wilson, Kate Beckinsale)

The Alphabet Killer (Eliza Dushku, Cary Elwes)

The Eye (Jessica Alba)

The Strangers (Liv Tyler)

Blood Creek (Henry Cavill, Michael Fassbender)

The Wolfman (Benicio Del Toro)

Bag of Bones (Pierce Brosnan)

Don’t Be Afraid of the Dark (Katie Holmes, Guy Pierce)

Drive Angry (Nic Cage, Amber Heard)

Red Riding Hood (Amanda Seyfried, Gary Oldman)

The Thing (Joel Edgerton, Mary Elizabeth Winstead)

Twixt (Val Kilmer, Elle Fanning)

Maniac (Elijah Woods)

Dark Shadows (Johnny Depp)

Deliver Us from Evil (Eric Bana, Olivia Munn)

Crimson Peak (Jessica Chastain, Tom Hiddleston)

Maggie (Arnold Schwarzenegger)

The Lazarus Effect (Olivia Wilde)

Poltergeist (Sam Rockwell, Rosemarie DeWitt)

Cell (Samuel L. Jackson, John Cusack)

The Forest (Natalie Dormer)

The Veil (Jessica Alba, Thomas Jane)

With all of these, the goal of the studio is to bring star power to these horror movies. That intention seems to have little regard for the quality of the film being made. To wit, the inclusion of A-list actors actually hurts the chances of making a good horror movie.

It costs a lot of money to bring big stars onto a project. That’s money most studios won’t want to waste on a script that could alienate possible audiences and affect box office numbers. Horror, just like every other genre, can get weird and experimental, which is often when it’s at its best. Studios wouldn’t want to take a chance on that and instead make a safe bet of hiring big actors.

Sorry, but putting Mark Wahlberg and Zooey Deschanel into a bad movie isn’t going to make that bad movie much better. Wind? As a villain? Mmk.

Another large problem is that stars are pretty recognizable. That’s why they’re stars. More than most other genres, horror movies demand a suspension of disbelief that takes you out of your life and puts you in danger. It can be tricky to get into that headspace when it’s Robert De Niro being haunted.

A good actor can make this work, sure. But no one is going to believe that Nic Cage is a small-town detective visiting an island in search of a missing girl. That’s going to lead to an utterly terrible movie (albeit a timeless internet meme).

house at the end of street 2
Jennifer Lawrence starred in 2012's House At The End of the Street / House At The End of the Street/FilmNation Entertainment

Seeing enormous stars in some of these movies also makes me wonder if everything is OK with them. While Helen Mirren is wandering through her many haunted rooms in Winchester, all I can think is, “U OK Hun? You don’t need this.” Many fine, popular actors have begun their downward slope into obsolescence. You really, really don’t want to see some of the horror films that Cary Elwes, of Princess Bride fame, has been doing lately.

From the actors’ point of view, A-listers themselves must consider their value and choose career projects carefully to ensure they can keep their jobs. We all know that horror can create some, er, compromising situations for the actors involved. It’s a genre that thrives on creative mutilation, like Dead Alive’s inventive use of a lawnmower, You’re Next’s blender head scene or anything in the Hostel films.

It is also interesting to look at the box office numbers for American horror movies over the past ten years. There are many star-led horror movies that show up high in the box office rankings, like Crimson Peak and A Quiet Place. However, the majority of those that have earned the most money have casts of lesser-known, or unknown, actors. The box office successes of the Saw films or the Conjuring films all cast lesser-known actors and go on to great financial gain (even though they severely lack in quality).

Other outliers to this whole theory exist, and they often come from alternative sources. International funding is one. A recent, and fantastic, exception to this rule is 2017’s The Killing of a Sacred Deer, starring Nicole Kidman and Colin Ferrell. It was directed by the Greek filmmaker Yorgos Lanthimos and produced by British and Irish production companies. Often, foreign producers are more willing to take risks on avant-garde stories.

Big studios probably won’t change up their strategies anytime soon, so the data will most likely continue to speak for itself. Though it’s not impossible for A-listers to make good scare fare, if a horror movie has a big star in it, you might want to wait for the reviews.

Did you like this article?
Thumbs Up
Thumbs Down