Horror flicks get star power

USA Today

NEW YORK: One is an Oscar winner, the other is a nominee. Both are on Hollywood’s A-list. And both are this summer’s unlikely doyennes of darkness, headlining two of the season’s most talked-about chiller thrillers.

‘Dark Water,’ which opens today, showcases Jennifer Connelly as Dahlia, a single mother who is nearly drowning in her haunting memories of a gruesome childhood. Things get worse when she and her daughter move to an apartment that’s plagued by leaks, both real and imagined.

And in the voodoo drama ‘The Skeleton Key,’ which opens August 12, sunny Kate Hudson explores the dark side as Caroline, a caretaker for an elderly stroke victim who must grapple with some grim spirits in the Louisiana bayou. Connelly won a best-supporting-actress Oscar for 2001’s ‘A Beautiful Mind.’ And Hudson earned an Oscar nomination for playing the groupie Penny Lane in 2000’s ‘Almost Famous.’

So how did two marquee names end up doing genre films more associated with blood, guts and crazed killers in hockey masks? Because horror - once a lowbrow crowd-pleaser and studio moneymaker - has grown up. And it’s attracting big-name talent, both behind and in front of the camera. “Horror is a genre that’s back. And because these two actresses get to top-line their movies, their paychecks are good. They get to be the star of their movie,” says Michael Speier, managing editor of Daily Variety trade magazine. “Since ‘The Sixth Sense,’ a lot of horror movies have become smart and unique. They’re not the bastard stepchild of genre films anymore.”

For Hudson, 26, ‘Skeleton Key’ represented a chance to do “a lot of great character work and acting, so it felt more like a real movie than just a genre film,” she says. “There’s something about Caroline which I totally relate to. You want to face your fear instead of running away from it.” Connelly concedes that she’s no fan of gory movies. In fact, she had seen only two - 1980’s ‘Dressed to Kill’ and parts of the 1976 classic ‘The Omen’ - before signing up for acclaimed director Walter Salles’ (‘The Motorcycle Diaries’) American remake of the 2002 Japanese original.

She cried the first time she read the ‘Dark Water’ script and was intrigued “that they built a scary film around this time in a woman’s life when she’s going through a custody battle and a bitter divorce and she’s having to make a life for her daughter,” Connelly says. “I love the fact that it’s the kind of scary film where you don’t see the monster. You don’t even know who the monster is, really.”

To prep for her foray into fear, Connelly, 34, watched horror flicks with her husband, actor Paul Bettany. Her favourites: ‘Rosemary’s Baby ‘(1968) and ‘Don’t Look Now’ (1973). “I couldn’t make a horror film having seen two horror films in my life,” Connelly says. Credit horror’s respectability to Anthony Hopkins, who won an Oscar for his depiction of Chianti-loving Hannibal Lecter in 1991’s ‘The Silence of the Lambs,’ the year’s Oscar winner for best picture. The film, a hit both critically and commercially, made horror - once the province of niche actors such as Ingrid Pitt and genre directors such as Roger Corman, Wes Craven and John Carpenter - not only palatable but downright delicious. “‘Silence’ legitimized horror,” says David Skal, author of ‘The Monster Show: A Cultural History of Horror.’ “Hopkins showed that a major international star could do something so over-the-top and lurid and win an Oscar for it. Nothing succeeds in Hollywood like success, and horror movies make a lot of money, even when they’re B- and C-pictures.”

For the most part, experts say, horror flicks are cheap to make, but they are very profitable both in theaters and on DVD. They appeal to those desirable young viewers. And they can help lesser stars raise their profiles. Case in point is the 2003 version of ‘The Texas Chainsaw Massacre,’ which starred Jessica Biel of TV’s ‘7th Heaven’ and grossed $80.1 million. Now, Biel is co-starring in ‘Stealth’ and ‘Elizabethtown.’

And then there’s ‘The Ring,’ the American version of a Japanese movie, this time about a creepy girl who appears in a deadly video. The 2002 movie transformed Aussie newcomer Naomi Watts from critical darling to a household name and box-office draw. “‘The Ring’ bridged the gap between solid actresses and horror movies,” Speier says. “They used to be guy movies with schlocky actors. But Naomi made a reasonably smart movie and opened the door for more of this stuff.”

Horror is all about primal fear, sure, but not exactly prestige, says Martin Kaplan, a former Disney studio executive and now associate dean of the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Southern California. Though traditional slasher films such as ‘Halloween’ and ‘A Nightmare on Elm Street’ make money, they don’t garner their stars any Oscar nominations. But having Hudson and Connelly fronting two fear flicks gives the movies a patina of class, he says, while potentially raising the asking price of each actress - assuming the movies do well.

“While Alfred Hitchcock proved that horror could be artistic, by and large, horror pictures have been popcorn-programming cash cows,” Kaplan says. “Certainly having these actresses in them makes them worth a look and not seem just run of the mill. It separates the movies from the pack.”

As a result, Kaplan says, “these films have buzz for the actors in them.”

Connelly and Hudson point out that their two films aren’t your standard-issue killing sprees filled with knife-wielding maniacs named Freddy Krueger.

Says Hudson, who says that unlike her cynical character she believes in voodoo, spirits and black magic: “This movie I wouldn’t consider a horror film. You can lose yourself in it without having to think too much. “Hopefully, if you do a good one, it makes you think a little.”