There’s a theory among horror movie fans that big stars don’t really matter. That horror movies can succeed much better when they don’t have huge names among the cast but base themselves off the actual plot and writing to provide the right thrills to succeed. That’s been born out as the most successful horror movies are low-budget efforts that earn far more thanks to their critical acclaim and power. While some horror movies benefit a bit from a star, the majority are better off without them.
So, it’s notable when a horror movie does feature a big star being killed off. In most cases, these are actors who were in the early part of their careers, before becoming the major names we know today. However, every now and then, a major star is cast in a movie just so they can be killed off, a good way to show “no one is safe” and help push the thrills more. Some of them were big names when cast, others future stars but they all have in common dying in rather brutal ways on screen. Here are 15 major Hollywood names that bit it in horror movies and show how wild they can get.
Note: While it should be obvious, SPOILERS for several of these movies.
15. Joseph Gordon-Levitt – Halloween H2O
The 1998 revival of the classic horror franchise has Gordon-Levitt (still on the NBC sitcom 3rd Rock From the Sun) as one of the local teens helping Marion Chambers (original cast member Nancy Stephens) when her house is broken into. There’s a fake scare with some noises before a shelf falls but Jimmy eventually gives the all clear to Marion that things are okay. However, she discovers that the file on Laurie (Jamie Lee Curtis) has gone missing and that Michael Myers is alive and hunting. She races to warn Jimmy…only to find him seated in his chair with his own hockey skate buried in his face. It’s a shocking turn setting up Marion’s own death and the kick-off to the return of one of cinema’s most infamous slasher monsters.
14. The Scream Ensemble
Grouped together because of how daring the series has been in casting some pretty notable actors just to kill them off. One major exception has been saved for later this list but the number of deaths (and how they happened) have all been notable. Among the biggest: Rose McGowan (crushed by a garage in the first movie); Skeet Ulrich (the original killer, bumped off in the first film); Henry Winkler (the principal murdered in the first); Jerry O’Connell (set up as the killer in the second before murdered himself); Jada Pinkett (Stabbed to death in front of a movie theater audience); Timothy Olyphant (one of the killers in the second film); Laurie Metcalf (the true killer of the second movie); Parker Posey (the actress stabbed in the third film); Scott Foley (the killer in the third movie, shot to death); Jenny McCarthy (stabbed to death in the third film); Hayden Panettiere and Adam Brody as victims in the fourth; Allison Brie, tossed off a building in the fourth; and Emma Roberts who’s the killer in that last movie and ends up shot to death herself. That’s not to mention how the fourth film opens with cameos from Lucy Hale, Kristen Bell and Anna Paquin as victims themselves. The mantra of the movies has always been “no one is safe” and that’s been proven true which is a key reason it’s been so successful.
13. Kate Hudson – The Skeleton Key
Technically, we don’t really see her death although we sure can guess it and might actually have been easier if we had. In this 2005 thriller, Hudson is the nurse and caregiver of a plantation owner and her stroke-afflicted husband. She discovers that the couple have been haunted by the spirits of a pair of servants who worked there 90 years before and whose reflections appear in mirrors. With help from her boyfriend, Hudson starts to believe in all this and soon goes to try and find a way to counter the evil magic. Eventually, she sets herself up into a protective circle as the elderly woman enters, smiling as she says that voodoo only works if a person believes in it and she needed Hudson to do so. She shows a mirror to Hudson as she recites a spell and Hudson blacks out. When she comes to, she’s now in the body of the elderly woman as the woman is in hers and her husband is in Hudson’s boyfriend. It turns out the “elderly couple” are in reality the two servants who used magic to switch bodies with the owners long ago and now have done it to this young couple, achieving immortality by stealing other’s lives. They’ve already arranged for “themselves” to inherit the mansion as Hudson had been given a stroke so she can’t tell what’s happened, watching as her own best friend hugs the servant, not able to see the switch. The movie ends with the newly young couple smiling as Hudson and Ben, trapped in these old and dying bodies, are taken to a hospice to live their few last days out. A sharp ending that gives new meaning to the term “fate worse than death.”
12. Jack Black – I Still Know What You Did Last Summer
Before he took off as a major comedic star, Black was a struggling actor in bit roles. That included this 1998 sequel with Jennifer Love Hewitt and her friends winning an island vacation only to realize it’s a trap by a new killer. Black is the local weed-smoking fool who plays the island guide when he’s not hanging out with his bong in his own shed. He’s there alone when the killer arrives and buries his hook into Black’s hand, pinning him to the table. As Black screams, the killer goes through the various weapons inside the shed, Black groaning at each one in turn. Finally choosing a large pair of garden shears, the killer buries them into Black’s chest, killing him outright and leaving his body for the others to find. He’s known for funny stuff but Black gets a brutal end here and a highlight of the movie.
11. Katherine Heigl – Valentine
In between Roswell and before her star-making role on Grey’s Anatomy, Heigl was part of the cast of this 2001 horror thriller. She plays one of four girls who cruelly put down a nerd asking them out for dates back in high school and now seems to be seeking revenge. Heigl is the first of the girls to pay that price, a med student working alone in the morgue one night when she hears a noise. It’s a tense scene as she realizes she’s not alone, looking around before the masked killer strikes at her. She manages to get away, rushing to hide and hitting on the smart idea of hiding herself in a body bag. Sadly, it doesn’t work as the killer zips the bag down over her screams and slits her throat. It’s a good opening and no doubt one a lot of Heigl haters will enjoy.
10. Bill Murray – Zombieland
This hysterical 2009 horror comedy puts a wild spin on the zombie apocalypse trope. Jessie Eisenberg, Woody Harrelson and Emma Stone are part of a group traveling across the country, killing zombies as they try to find some shelter. The highlight of the film is when they stop off at Los Angeles and crash at Bill Murray’s mansion when a zombie Murray himself shows up. Only he’s not a zombie, he just dresses up that way to stay alive which makes total sense for him. It backfires as he ends up being shot by one of the gang who mistake him for the real thing. But it’s still hysterical as only Murray could make it, particularly when he’s asked if he has any regrets. “Garfield, maybe.”
9. Chris Hemsworth – Cabin in the Woods
Joss Whedon shot this horror comedy in 2009, before Hemsworth was cast as Thor. Thus, he was able to utilize the guy before his stardom and he does a good job as Curt, the high school jock who joins his friends at a cabin for a fun weekend. What they don’t know is that they’re the latest subjects of a ritual meant to quiet ancient gods that basically plays off all the classic horror movie clichés. Curt is actually quite smart but the drugs pushed by the company behind this make him the stereotype “dumb jock” to fit the ritual but he sobers up when he sees his girlfriend killed. Realizing they need help, Curt gets a motorcycle and revs it by the large ravine cutting the Cabin off, giving a big speech to the others on how he’s going to get help and come back, takes off to fly across the ravine…and slams straight into the force field surrounding the place, crashing to the bottom in a fiery heap. It’s both funny and tragic to see him go down like this which sums up the film and interesting how Whedon’s first go-around with the future God of Thunder went.
8. George Clooney – Return to Horror High
Before ER, before the Oscar win, before his rise as a respected actor/director, George Clooney made his debut in this 1987 horror comedy. It’s an odd movie, mixing reality and fantasy with the idea of a film crew shooting a documentary on murders but somehow creating even more. Clooney is the actor playing the security guard going around the school grounds in a tense shot in darkened hallways. He ends up in a storage room, finding a body in the ceiling before he’s attacked. We see from the outside as he’s hacked up, slamming on the glass window of the door before sliding down to his death. Like much of the rest of the film, it’s up in the air what really happens but still fun to see this future mega-star killed off with that goofy ‘80’s haircut.
7. Owen Wilson – Anaconda and The Haunting
Well known for comedic roles, Wilson has tried his hand in horror films although often his character getting the worst of it. In Anaconda, he’s one of the members of a film crew shooting in the jungle who are targeted by a monstrous snake. His character is a jerk insisting on going to hunt the creature and make money off selling its body. He pays for it as the snake wraps around him, crushes him and then swallows him up before the horrified eyes of his teammates. That’s followed by the wild shot of the snake underwater as we see the outline of Owen’s body still screaming inside its belly. In Haunting, he’s part of a research team investigating a supposed haunted manor, unaware he’s part of an experiment to study fear. As it turns out, the place really is haunted with Luke attacked by one of the vengeful spirits and dragged to the fireplace where he’s decapitated by the large silver ornaments around it. Wilson may do comedy a lot more but his deaths here showed dying really isn’t as easy.
6. Sarah Michelle Gellar – I Know What You Did Last Summer and Scream 2
In 1997, Gellar was taking off thanks to her lead role on Buffy the Vampire Slayer but found time to appear in two major horror films. In the first I Know movie, she’s the town beauty queen whose life comes apart when she and her friends cover up an accidental killing. Hunted by someone who knows their secret, Gellar’s Helen is targeted, her hair cut off and soon losing it big time. Hunted by the hook-handed killer, Helen watches as first a police officer, then her own sister, is killed by the man and takes off running. She’s just steps away from the town’s big parade, about to reach some help and safety when the raincoat-covered figure catches up and stabs her hard. Her death just seconds away from the town is a chilling shot that boosted the movie. Her role in Scream 2 is shorter but still notable as a college girl who’s pursued by Ghostface who ends up tossing her out of a window to her death. It’s interesting to see the Slayer taken out both times but each time a highlight of their film.
5. Kevin Bacon – Friday the 13th
We’ve become so used to the Friday series as a source of parody and such that it’s easy become obvious to forget how terrifying the first film remains. The direction, the music, the strikes by the murderous killer (who was not Jason in that movie), it’s truly gripping and still makes an impact. Among the young actors was a then-unknown by the name of Kevin Bacon who plays the somewhat jerk Jack who brushes aside any talk of the deaths and just wants to have fun. He’s thus subjected to one of the best deaths of the series: While lying in bed, a hand from under it grabs him and then a knife thrusts right up through his throat before slicing around. It’s a brutal ending but it pays off to help the movie become a landmark success and one of Bacon’s first major on-screen roles.
4. Johnny Depp – A Nightmare on Elm Street
The other great slasher franchise, folks forget just how gripping and amazing the original Nightmare was as Wes Craven tapped into the primal fear of our dreams to present a terrifying film. In what would be his most iconic role, Robert Englund played Freddy Krueger, the twisted serial killer murdered by the families of his victims and seeking revenge on their children. Before it descended into camp, the series was amazingly freaky and truly scary with Freddy hitting at any time. In his early role, Johnny Depp is Glen, one of those kids who blows off the talk of a boogeyman hitting in dreams, lounging in his bed when heroine Heather tries to call him for a warning. It doesn’t work as Freddy’s glove pops out of Glen’s waterbed to attack him and drag him down into the bed itself. Seconds later, blood sprays all over, a pretty wild sight in 1984 and one of the most famous deaths of the entire series. It was Depp’s first brush with a quirky film but far from his last and helped cement what would be a classic horror character.
3. Drew Barrymore – Scream
It’s ironic that Scream was intended to be the satire that put the slasher genre to bed and instead revived it for a new generation. The body count of big stars killed throughout the series is pretty high (as seen earlier on the list) but Barrymore has always been the standout thanks to how iconic her turn was. The opening of the first film set the tone with Barrymore at home talking to her boyfriend when the character we know as Ghostface calls to ask “what’s your favorite scary movie?” At first thinking it’s a friend, Barrymore plays along before realizing how dangerous things are. She soon realizes her boyfriend is being held captive in the front yard and is murdered before her eyes when she answers a question incorrectly. Finally, she tries to dial 911 only for Ghostface to attack and stab her to death, leaving her body for her family to find. It’s one of the greatest opening scenes in movie history that sets the tone for the thrillers and a great use of Barrymore to throw the audience off.
2. Samuel L. Jackson – Deep Blue Sea
This 1999 film was an interesting take on the classic “giant beast” idea. Jackson is the millionaire financier of a scientist (Saffron Burrows) who’s conducting research in curing Alzheimer’s. She takes him to her research facility in the ocean where she’s been harvesting the brain matter of sharks for her cure and pushing the idea of growing them larger in order to harvest more which means making them smarter. It backfires spectacularly as the sharks gets loose and start rampaging around the base, picking off the staff one-by-one. It builds up to the survivors stuck in a small pool chamber as Jackson does a major speech on how he survived an avalanche against all odds, that fighting among themselves does nothing and they need to hold together and…
With absolutely no warning, the shark leaps out of the pool, clamps down on Jackson and bites down, dragging him into the pool. We see the sharks pairing up to literally rip Jackson in half as they swim off, leaving the characters staggered. It’s a moment that elicits both screams and laughter, totally unexpected as the supposed big star of the movie is taken out so suddenly. It’s the most memorable moment of the movie and a fun turn by Jackson to keep you off balance.
1. Janet Leigh – Pyscho
It’s become a movie staple as to how Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 masterpiece is a breakthrough thriller that plays with audience expectations and provides a great series of twists. But it’s forgotten the huge risk the director was taking with his big gambit. That was to cast Janet Leigh, a major star of the time, and promote her as the lead in all the trailers and posters. Viewers thus naturally assumed that she was the central character as the secretary fleeing with a briefcase of money and the movie would follow her journey. She stops at a hotel run by a creepy clerk (Anthony Perkins) and apparently just a brief stop on her journey.
And then comes the now iconic scene where she’s stabbed to death in the shower, the blade lunging forward as she screams to that infamous musical cue, the blood pouring down the drain around her. Suddenly, the entire movie is shifted to become a study of one man’s madness and we realize Leigh was just the window dressing. It’s truly amazing and a daring move to kill the big female lead not even halfway through the movie. But it paid off by helping the movie turn into a hit and a classic in so many ways to redefine the horror genre forever.