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The 10 Greatest Horror Icons in Movie History

30 January 2016 | Features, People Lists | by David Bronstein

theatre-of-blood

Apart from engrossing ourselves in horror movies we also like to pick up on something else within the film and that is the idea of a horror icon. Horror icons are largely born out of the same actor and actress starring in many films in that genre and over a period of time helps too, it kind of validates their reason for us regarding them so highly. Universal Pictures provided us with some of the very first icons in Lon Chaney, Lionel Barrymore, Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi. Hammer pictures gave us Peter Cushing and Christopher Lee to name just two.

Robert Englund is always genuinely proud when he is regarded as a horror icon, you can see it in his face and his icon status isn’t all to do with the fact that he played Freddy Krueger in the Nightmare on Elm Street movies. Approaching his 70s the guy continues to work at a fast pace.

Females too have a strong relationship in horror, although this has only been noticed more in the past sixty years. The Universal horrors and much of the independent thrillers that came out in the 1930’s and 40s reduced women in horror movies to feeble characters who would rely on their heroic love interests whilst always fainting when the going got tough. Thankfully we have moved on since then and women not just in horror but in movies in general are seen as the same important species on celluloid film.

Below then is a top 10 horror icons list. Everyone will have their own choices no doubt and selecting just ten is of course rather difficult given that we could make a list of 100 and still be missing out a few actors and actresses.

 

10. Hazel Court

Hazel Court

English actress Hazel Court started her career in movies with the musical Champagne Charlie (1944) and didn’t enter horror movies until the turn of the 1950’s with Ghost Ship. But it was four years later when she starred in the sci fi/horror Devil Girl from Mars that really brought her to the attention of horror fans.

In 1957 Hammer cast her in their first gothic horror movie The Curse of Frankenstein which lamented her role as a horror icon. She followed this up a few years later with another Hammer movie, The Man Who Could Cheat Death with Christopher Lee and Anton Diffring.

Her television career in the horror /sci fi genre included all the great TV shows of the time; Alfred Hitchcock Presents, Thriller and The Twilight Zone. In the early 1960’s the works of Edgar Allan Poe would inspire her to star in three films based on his stories and poems, The Raven, The Premature Burial and The Masque of the Red Death followed.

Her final film role came in 1981 in an uncredited role but it was fitting that it would be a horror movie and her first for almost two decades, that movie was The Omen III: The Final Conflict. Because of Court’s impressive resume she ended up working with some of the greats of horror including, Peter Cushing, Christopher Lee, Vincent Price and Boris Karloff, and she richly deserving of a place on this list.

 

9. Lon Chaney Jr.

The Wolf Man (1941)

Lon Chaney Jr had the distinct advantage over his father of starring in talkie movies and being a part of a huge shift in Hollywood at the time. Whilst his father was a fantastic natural actor, Lon Chaney Senior didn’t star in many horrors even if the few he was in were some of the most famous for the time. His son actually took some time to dip into the world of horror. He spent the 1930’s starring in everything from comedies to crime capers but the 40s would change that.

His first horror movie was at the time a controversial one in Universal’s Man Made Monster. Here Chaney Jr starred as a guinea pig for a mad scientist played by Lionel Atwill. Man Made Monster did not make Chaney’s horror career though, that title fell to his next horror film, the classic The Wolf Man (1941) which was in fact released in the same year as his horror debut.

If Karloff was going to be Frankenstein’s monster and Lugosi Dracula, then Chaney Jr had nailed it as the werewolf. Indeed out of all of the Universal cannon horror monsters it is Chaney Jr’s performance that draws the most sympathy with the viewer. He spends large portions of the movie devastated at what he has become and is always on the lookout for a cure.

He would go on to play all three iconic horror monsters too- the monster in The Ghost of Frankenstein and the son of the caped one in the seriously underrated Son of Dracula. Other movies included the infamous Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman and he dipped into The Mummy franchise starring in two of the latter sequels.

Chaney Jr kept busy with Universal by signing up for six Inner Sanctum movies these movies whilst having elements of horror would also touch on mystery and suspense and only further heightened his status in the macabre. He played the wolf man for a final time in the classic Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which, was in reality a horror mash up akin to House of Frankenstein and House of Dracula.

Chaney Jr continued making horror movies into the 1960’s though most were low budget forgettable affairs but there was still the odd speed bump. The Haunted Palace was one of them where he starred alongside Vincent Price. His last movie was 1971’s Dracula v Frankenstein and despite the interesting title and a harking back of years gone by the movie was well below the standards of his acting abilities.

 

8. Robert Englund

Nightmare on Elm Street

Robert Englund could have gone onto become a Hollywood A star, saving the planet in Independence Day or being one of Quentin Tarantino’s henchmen in Pulp Fiction. However nothing would have changed the fact that he would always be known as the guy who played Freddy Krueger. Of course Englund didn’t save anyone in Independence Day, he wasn’t even in the movie and Tarantino has never cast him, the fact is is that this versatile actor and generally great man could have pulled it off.

His first horror movie was Tobe Hooper’s Eaten Alive way back in 1977 and Englund hasn’t looked back since. He has been acting in horror movies for five decades now and shows no signs of letting up. One of the most charming aspects of Englund is seeing him in interviews where he is so sharp and inquisitive that he makes most interviewers look inexperienced. Englund knows his stuff and he knows his horror.

In 1981 Englund starred in Galaxy of Terror which was produced by Roger Corman and has gone on to cult status with fans. Soon after came the Nightmare on Elm Street films where between 1984-2002 he portrayed Freddy Krueger 8 times including a Freddy v Jason crossover movie. He also starred in his own television show as Freddy in Freddy’s Nightmares, which despite the low budget still ran for over two years covering 44 episodes in its wake.

In 1988 he made his directorial debut with the eerie 976 EVIL and starred as the phantom in a retelling of The Phantom of the Opera a year later. In 1992 Nightmare on Elm Street creator Wes Craven teamed up with Englund again to make the TV show, Nightmare Café, and although the show garnered some positive reviews from critics it was canceled after just 6 episodes.

Though Englund starred in some more horrors in the 90s notably Wishmaster and Urban Legend it wasn’t until the 2000’s where Englund really dived into the genre. By this time younger film makers regarded Englund as the grand daddy of the horror franchise but it was all done with respect and he was called upon to be in many horror movies.

2001 Maniacs reunited him and Lin Shaye together from the Elm Street movies, Python was classic B movie stuff and then Adam Green came knocking for the gory Hatchet. Englund played more of a cameo role but with performances from him, Kane Hodder who played Jason Voorhees and Tony Todd known as Candyman, Hatchet was something of a horror fans wet dream.

Englund also starred in the Masters of Horror episode Dance of the Dead as a sleazy host in a nightclub and gave a terrific performance. Currently Englund is making two horror movies per year and has been doing so for the last decade. You get it by now, he just loves the genre.

 

7. Jamie Lee Curtis

halloween laurie

Not many actors or actresses can say that their film debut was in one of the most hailed horror movies of all time, but JLC or as she is sometimes known now, Lady Haden-Guest can. Jamie Lee Curtis will always be known as Laurie Strode to most horror fans and the woman who had to fight off Michael Myers in John Carpenter’s 1978 classic. She gave a great performance as the bookworm babysitter especially given and later accounted by Carpenter that her real life character at the time was completely the opposite to the one she had to play.

Her next five movies gave her the title of Scream Queen, bestowed to only a handful of female actors I should add. It helped that the movies that Curtis starred in were very good and included working with Carpenter again on The Fog and then she starred in Terror Train, Prom Night and Roadgames. She also appeared in Halloween II. Indeed it was a busy time for Curtis in the horror genre as those movies all came out within a year of each other.

After her horror start in movies she moved away from the genre and starred in memorable films such as Trading Places, A Fish Called Wanda and True Lies. However she returned to the genre in 1998 with H20 which was in theory Halloween 7.

However this movie wiped out parts 3-6 and followed on though years later from Halloween II. She gave a memorable performance and like The Fog her mother Janet Leigh starred alongside her as Curtis again took on her maniac brother Michael. She didn’t stop there either and even returned for another Halloween movie in Halloween Resurrection. However whilst H20 was praised this movie was generally panned.

After that adventure Curtis gave the horror genre a wide berth however in 2015 she returned starring in a TV Series aptly named Scream Queens and with that she came full circle. To end there is one cool fact that not many of you will know. She in theory did star in Halloween III- the movie of course remembered for no Michael Myers and Laurie Strode. She is the voice if you’re wondering of the telephone operator.

 

6. Barbara Steele

Black Sunday (1960)

Thought Barbara Steele is English her breakthrough in horror movies came in Italian cinema. She will always be remembered for her pivotal role in Mario Bava’s 1960 classic Black Sunday, also known as The Mask of Death in its uncut form. A year later she starred alongside Vincent Price in Roger Corman’s ongoing love letter to Edgar Allan Poe in The Pit and the Pendulum.

The Italian horror The Horrible Dr Hitchcock followed but it was from 1963 that Steele would star in a succession of great horror movies. The Ghost and The Long Hair of Death are deemed as horror classics and Steele gives great performances in them. Sandwiched in between was a non horror movie ironically directed by one of the great Italian horror maestros Lucio Fulci.

In 1964 came another terrific memorable role in the sublime and very creepy Castle of Blood, where she played a ghost. Movies such as Nightmare Castle and An Angel for Satan only underlined her horror status. By the late 60s she had secured a role in the very entertaining horror Curse of the Crimson Altar alongside Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee.

In the 1970’s her horror career ultimately slowed down but she still starred in two strong pictures. The first was David Cronenberg’s Shivers and then in 1978 she starred in Piranha. In 1980 she marked three different decades in the genre with the American horror film Silent Scream. She announced her retirement in 1991. However to everyone’s delight 19 years later she came back to star in the underrated horror movie The Butterfly Room.

 

 

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  • Chandradeep

    it’s Allan not Allen :/

  • Still D.R.E.

    70 years later and Bela is still regretting turning down Frankenstein

  • Abhishek

    I was scrolling down that why the heck you guys did not include Boris….and then there it is at the top 🙂

  • Klaus Dannick

    I’m not convinced of the inclusions of Hazel Court and Jamie Lee Curtis over Ingrid Pitt and John Carradine. And Christopher Lee himself would have placed Michael Ripper on such a list.

  • john in denver

    Huh, no Lon Chaney.

  • Veronica Clarke

    Marvellous list – there are many of my favourites on here.