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A Trip To The Dark Side: 10 Golden Age Movie Stars Who Gave Horror Films a Try

I thought it would be fun to list actors and actresses from the Golden Age of Hollywood who are famous for dramas, comedies, or romances – but who also managed one or two horror films along the way.

Most of these films are relatively minor, but many of them gave these Golden Age stars opportunities to give unusual performances, extending their range. Accordingly, since these films are unusual for their stars, they are often underrated.

So, proceeding alphabetically, let’s list 10 Golden Age players who made the crossover into horror at least once in their careers:


Though not a huge star, Alabama-born Tallulah Bankhead was top billed in Hitchcock’s drama Lifeboat (1944) and Otto Preminger’s comedy A Royal Scandal (1945). Earlier, in Devil and the Deep (1932), she was even billed above Gary Cooper.

Her career went into eclipse in the 1950s, but she reappeared in 1965 in the British horror-thriller Fanatic (“Die! Die! My Darling!” in the US).

Though Fanatic is a poor imitation of What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, the gravelly-voiced Bankhead is duly frightening as the religious fanatic who imprisons her son’s fiancée and tries to control her – at any cost.

Today, Bankhead is most famous for her lifestyle: drunkenness, nudism, and flamboyant bisexuality.


You can’t watch many Busby Berkeley or James Cagney classics without running into gorgeous multi-talented Joan Blondell.

She could make you laugh, make you cry, or stir your heart with her singing. She played Lady Fingers the card shark from the amazing Cincinnati Kid (1965). She played dozens of television roles. She even played Vi the waitress from Grease!

But in her steady 50-year career she made only one horror film: The Dead Don’t Die, which aired on NBC TV in 1975.

Playing tribute to Blondell and a few other classic stars alongside her (Ray Milland most famous among them), the film sets itself in the 1930s. Blondell’s role is small, but the picture is an effective atmospheric horror depicting voodoo zombified slaves in Depression-era Chicago.


Did you know Bogie made a horror film?

Yes, just one. It was a couple of years before The Maltese Falcon and Casablanca made him a star.

The film was The Return of Doctor X (1939), and Bogie plays an evil doctor with artificial blood and plastic-looking skin. He’s a sort of scientific vampire who needs to transfuse blood from living victims in order to survive.

Bogie didn’t like it, and neither did most viewers, but it’s no worse than other films of the era for small-time creepy horror.


Crawford is most famous for melodramas and noirs such as Mildred Pierce (1945), Possessed (1947), or Sudden Fear (1952), so horror films aren’t a huge leap for her.

But it’s worth reminding ourselves that one of her most important early silents was The Unknown (1927), a grotesque horror film directed by Tod Browning, the man later behind Dracula and Freaks.

Young Crawford’s co-star in The Unknown was the legendary Lon Chaney, and Crawford later credited Chaney with showing her how to act rather than simply “stand in front of a camera.”

Crawford later made horror-thrillers like What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (see below, 1962), Straight-Jacket (1964), and I Saw What You Did (1965).


Of all the stars on this list, Bette Davis seems most at home in horror, especially the hardcore supernatural kind.

She has the widest range of all the actresses on our list. Her most famous films are dramas and romances such as Dark Victory (1939), Now Voyager (1942), and All About Eve (1950).

But her later career could almost be defined by her horror pictures. The most famous of these remains What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (with Joan Crawford, 1962), a horror-thriller that veers into exploitation.

Davis plays an aging forgotten actress who imprisons and torments her helpless crippled sister. You’re never sure whether to laugh, cry, or cringe watching Davis – with hideous makeup and exaggerated expressions – serve a surprise dinner to her sister that reveals itself to be a roasted rat.

Davis later had a small role in the haunted house film Burnt Offerings (1976), a prominent role in the TV horror film The Dark Secret of Harvest Home (1978), and – best of all – a starring role in the very strange Disney horror film The Watcher in the Woods (1980).


Grahame is most famous as Bogie’s co-star from In a Lonely Place (1950). She also played saucy temptresses like Violet from It’s a Wonderful Life (1946), Rosemary from The Bad and the Beautiful, or Debby from The Big Heat (1953).

But, like several other actresses on our list, she tried to reignite her career late in life by making horror films.

The first of these was the campy Blood and Lace (1970), where Grahame plays the matron of an orphanage who teams up with her handyman (Len Lesser who played Uncle Leo from Seinfeld) to exploit and brutalize any children unlucky enough to land in their care. The opening killer’s-eye-view sequence is a direct influence on the opening of Halloween.

She later had small roles in Mansion of the Doomed (1976) and The Nesting (1981). The Nesting proved to be Grahame’s final film.


Perhaps the most beautiful of all the actresses on our list, lithe blonde Veronica Lake is best known for the comedic romance Sullivan’s Travels (1941), the fantasy-romance I Married a Witch (1942), and the noir drama This Gun for Hire (1942).

But she made one bonafide horror film even if her fans might want to forget it.

Late in life, decades past her prime, Lake financed and co-produced a horror-exploitation film for herself to star in, the type of film popular at drive-in theaters at the time.

The film, Flesh Feast (1970), was very silly and boring, though Lake herself isn’t bad. Lake plays a doctor who pretends to help a Nazi cult reanimate Hitler while actually cultivating maggots to feast upon the Fuhrer’s flesh.

No Oscar nominations for this one. But it had one good gore effect and a good title.


The feisty Lombard will always be most famous for marrying Clark Gable… and for the tragic plane crash that claimed her life at age 33 in 1942.

By far her most famous films are fast-paced comedies like Twentieth Century (1934), My Man Godfrey (1936), and To Be or Not to Be (1942).

But before her marriage and her fame, she made a single horror film, Supernatural (1933), produced and directed by the Halperin Brothers hot off their success with Bela Lugosi in White Zombie.

The film is clearly low-budget, but Lombard is fine in her role as an heiress who gets possessed by the spirit of an executed mass murderer.


Brooklyn-born Queen of Noir Barbara Stanwyck (Double Indemnity, 1944) also made standout comedic romances (The Lady Eve, 1941) and Westerns (Union Pacific, 1939, and The Big Valley, 1965-1969).

She had a small role in the spooky fantasy Flesh and Fantasy (1943), but not until her final feature film, The Night Walker (1964), did she make an actual horror picture.

Directed by William Castle, The Night Walker features Stanwyck in two extended surreal dream sequences where we wonder if she is insane. The role doesn’t play to her strengths and she overdoes some screaming. But it’s still a fine film even if it’s nobody’s best. Robert Bloch (Psycho) wrote the story.

In 1970, Stanwyck co-starred in a decent made-for-TV haunted house picture, The House That Would Not Die (1970).


The Austrian von Stroheim first gained fame as the director of the very long but very good Greed (1924) and later for intense acting in Grand Illusion (1937) and Sunset Boulevard (1950).

He co-scripted Tod Browning’s fantastical Devil-Doll (1936) but his single genuine horror film is The Lady and the Monster (1944), the first adaptation of Curt Siodmak’s novel Donovan’s Brain.

Later adaptations play up the science fiction elements, but The Lady and the Monster plays up the horror, setting the brain-transplant lab in a Gothic castle and making the mad scientist – played by von Stroheim – a raving control-freak. “Sterilize de instruments!” he cries.

The film is no masterpiece, but von Stroheim is so fun that we can only wish he made the trip to the dark side more than just once.



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