- This is not a ranking of the best horror movie actors in terms of acting ability, but rather which actors embodied the work of horror films and have their image dominated by the genre.
- Quality is important, but quantity is a must.
- Our cut-off year for “classic horrors” is 1965.
When counting down this list, I knew the last slot belonged to either Christopher Lee or Peter Cushing of Hammer Horror fame. In the end, I went with Lee mainly because it was he who played the monsters and after all it are the monster figures that largely define the horror genre. Even recently, we all know Michael, Jason, and Freddy more than the other elements of their film series because it was the “monster” that defined the franchise. Lee also has the distinction of updating many of the classic monsters embodied by Boris Karloff and Bela Lugosi, including Frankenstein’s Monster (or “The Creature”), The Mummy, and Fu Manchu. Perhaps Lee is best-known for his renditions of Dracula as he played the count several times. Lee’s monsters were re-imaginings of the classics and were able to put a more modern (and violent) spin on what worked beforehand. He was even in horror movies where he was out of make-up, so while he was known for his monsters he wasn’t like Lon Chaney in that he was always under some form of make-up when aiming for the scares. While I am nowhere near the Hammer Horror aficionado that Bianca is, it is hard not to be aware of Lee’s iconic presence as a horror icon.
Lon Chaney Jr.
I know I’ve mentioned how much of a fan I am of Jr.’s father Lon Chaney, but I’ve decided to leave Sr. as an honorable mention mainly because many of Lon Chaney’s classic films are more melodramas with creepy undertones (more like precursors to the talkie takes on horror movies) with a few exceptions. Meanwhile, Lon Chaney Jr. worked in several different genres but there is only one he remains an icon in, that being horror. Plus, he is just in many examples of both the highs and lows of the genre including more than his famous father. It also helps that he was Universal’s go-to actor for horror movies which is the American equivalent of being a Hammer Horror icon in line with Christopher Lee. Like Lee, Chaney Jr. also played many of the iconic Universal monsters including Frankenstein’s Monster, The Mummy, and Count Dracula. His most famous monster is Larry Talbot aka The Wolf Man. While many Universal monsters were sympathetic to some degree, Larry Talbot’s Wolf Man was the first to be really human who was overcome by the monster tendencies that he could not control. It is the tragic figure of the Wolf Man that will always define the younger Chaney’s persona on-screen and it was touching as well as monstrous like the best horror monsters.
Price is kind of an unusual example as his career is pretty much split into two sections. He started out in more character type of roles ranging from villains to even heroes. His character roles soon grew into examples of the horror genre. One of Price’s first films was The Invisible Man Returns (1940) where he got to play Universal’s Invisible Man (he also played him in a cameo in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948)), but he didn’t really get into horror movies until the 1950’s. He made House of Wax (1953), The Fly (1958), House on Haunted Hill (1959), and The Tingler (1959), but it was in the 1960’s when Price really found his footing in the genre. This was thanks to director Roger Corman which started when Price appeared in House of Usher (1960). Price became Corman’s go-to lead actor for a while in such films as The Pit and the Pendulum (1961), The Raven (1963), and The Masque of Red Death (1964). Price got to be his usual charismatic self, but in a genre that really was able to take advantage of his on-screen presence. He has remained a horror icon ever since the 1950’s, but it was Roger Corman who really knew what Price could do within the genre that would define his career.
We’ve already covered two actors who took on the role of Dracula, but was there ever anyone who could out-Count the original Count? I mean, every Dracula impression is essentially just a Bela Lugosi impression. Still, Lugosi’s horror contributions stem farther and wider than the “King of the Vampires.” Lugosi continued his horror streak after Dracula (1931) with such movies as Murders in the Rue Morgue (1932) and White Zombie (1932). He also hit a particular stride in his pairings with Boris Karloff which included The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), and The Invisible Ray (1936). One of Lugosi’s all-time finest hours came when he played Ygor opposite Karloff’s monster in Son of Frankenstein (1939). In fact, Lugosi downright steals the movie. When his vengeful, physically-altered character inevitably dies, it is hard not to be a little sad not because we feel sorry for him but because we want him around until the movie’s very last second. Sadly, Lugosi’s movies started getting worse when the 1940’s hit. Naturally, there were some home-runs like The Wolf Man (1941) and The Body Snatcher (1945), but his parts were generally small in those classics. Lugosi went out on some real stinkers with Bela Lugosi Meets a Brooklyn Gorilla (1952) and Bride of the Monster (1955) among others. While his earlier exploits in horror made it easy to put him in the Number 2 slot, his streak of bad movies keep him from being higher.
If Number 1 ever seems obvious, that is just because it is impossible to dispute. Karloff appeared in several horror movies and while there were low points there were probably more high points than most people associated with the genre received. Karloff also started trends and was there when the first cinematic horror boom out of Hollywood happened in the 1930’s. Karloff is best-remembered for his heart-breaking yet frightening portrayal of Frankenstein’s Monster in Frankenstein (1931). Karloff also played the Monster in Bride of Frankenstein (1935) and Son of Frankenstein (1939). Honestly, Bride of Frankenstein alone deserved him this top spot. Outside of playing the tragic Monster, Karloff also appeared in such notable films of the genre including The Old Dark House (1932), The Mummy (1932), The Black Cat (1934), and The Walking Dead (1936). The 1940’s had Karloff team-up with producer Val Lewton to appear in some eerie chillers like The Body Snatcher (1945), Isle of the Dead (1945), and Bedlam (1946). Afterwards Karloff appeared in some lesser films as well as some solid diversions from reality, but he wasn’t topping his work from the 1930’s and 1940’s. Since Karloff was also able to be a good supporting actor in a variety of genres, this didn’t really affect his career in the long-run. Even so, the good is just too good and no one more represents “Classic Horror” than Karloff. When you think of “Classic Horror,” you see Karloff’s take on Frankenstein’s Monster, don’t you?
Honorable Mentions: Peter Cushing, Lon Chaney, Lionel Atwill
One actor whose voice alone is resonated with the horror genre is Bela Lugosi. Even though he was typecast as a horror movie villain, he often gave a wide range of performances that could either make a good film great or make an okay film better. Having had the part of Dracula on the stage, he was a natural to play the most famous vampire on the screen in 1931. His Austrian-Hungarian accent is now the accepted voice of Count Dracula, a trope that continues to this day with the Hotel Transylvania movies and The Count on “Sesame Street”. Before you knew who Bela Lugosi was as an actor, you’d likely seen a parody of him without realizing it. While he also enlivened a lot of comedies at the time, his track record for top-notch ‘30s horror continued with Murders in Rue Morgue (1932), White Zombie (1932), Island of Lost Souls (1932), and Mark of the Vampire (1935). Not to mention his excellent teamings with Boris Karloff where he either got to be the good guy or the more gruesome of the two with such films as The Black Cat (1934), The Raven (1935), and The Invisible Ray (1936). There was also his film stealing turn as Ygor, the man who was hung and survived in Son of Frankenstein (1939). His parts got more formulaic in the ‘40s and he often felt wasted, but there were also good ones in the bunch like the Monster in Frankenstein Meets the Wolf Man (1943) and his reprisal of Dracula in Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein (1948). Overall, his contribution to the horror genre hasn’t lessened, despite several parodies and spoofs.
One of the biggest staples of horror icon Hammer Studios was Peter Cushing. He has played such horror favorites as Frankenstein and Van Helsing in Hammer’s interpretations of the classic stories and the subsequent sequels that followed. Cushing starred in a lot of Hammer’s bests and made superior horror films at other studios. After being designated to supporting roles in both American and British productions, Cushing proved himself an above-the-title star when he played Victor Frankenstein as a delusional, deranged man who is the real monster in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). Rather than focus on the exploits of his monster in the sequels, the films always looked at ways Frankenstein kept trying to play God and how he always failed. He also got to be in several of their vampire films, first starting out as Van Helsing in two of the bests from the studio, Horror of Dracula (1957) and The Brides of Dracula (1960). He could also be a man of science in The Mummy (1959), a man with too much interest in a suspicious woman in The Gorgon (1964), a man who decides passengers fate with cards in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965), and a man who becomes fascinated with a demonic skull in The Skull (1965). One was never sure if Cushing represented good or evil when he came on the screen, and it always provided interesting viewing.
While it was Cushing who played the normal looking but flawed men in Hammer’s horrors, it was Christopher Lee who often played their monsters. After popping up in British pictures in supporting roles and always leaving the audience wanting more, Lee finally became a star of horrors when he played the voiceless Creature in The Curse of Frankenstein (1957). After that, better roles fell into his lap and he proved himself once again with his interpretation of Count Dracula in Horror of Dracula (1958). His version differed from the one done in America since his vampire was menacing and bloody, but also surprisingly sexy and alluring when given opportunity. While he wouldn’t play the famed vampire until later in the ‘60s due to not wanting to be typecast as the Count, he lent his talent to many other great monsters and characters in horror. He was wonderful as the scarred face of Resurrection Joe in Corridors of Blood (1958), towering and quietly menacing as the title The Mummy (1959), suspiciously charming in Scream of Fear (1961) (one of Hammer’s bests), both devilishly handsome and aggravating in The Whip and the Body (1963), disguised to look older as a humorous bookish professor in The Gorgon (1964), and who can forget him running over Michael Gough’s hand without mercy in Dr. Terror’s House of Horrors (1965)? Even after the classic period, Lee continued to make classy and prestigious horrors, most memorably one of his favorites, The Devil Rides Out (1968) as the hero and The Wicker Man (1973) as the cult leader. Lee has definitely earned his place as a master of horror.
While Vincent Price is a horror legend, it took him a while to become an actor associated with the genre. His first horror role was taking over where Claude Rains left off in The Invisible Man Returns (1940) where he’s sympathetic and likeable as a man who becomes invisible to prove his innocence of murder. There were gothic tales to follow, but not what could confidently be called horror films. He was mostly regulated to strong supporting roles in great films, more often than not stealing the whole show from all involved. Price’s transfer to his signature genre officially occurred when he was the lead in the hit House of Wax (1953) where he gave distinction and class to what could have easily just been a crazy character if handled by a lesser actor. By the late ‘50s, Price was headlining some of the finest achievements in horror at the time. He was a host of a weekend gathering that has a lot of suspicions in House on Haunted Hill (1959), he was a doctor who becomes obsessed with finding the titular creature in The Tingler (1959), and he was the heroic and understanding man in the first two The Fly films. Price’s association with Roger Corman proved to offer the best horrors both of them made with their Poe series that included such stalwart and illustrious entries as House of Usher (1960), Pit and the Pendulum (1961), Tales of Terror (1962), and The Masque of the Red Death (1964), all some of the best of the whole genre. Price continued to act in horror films throughout his career, the most praised of his later horrors easily being The Abominable Dr. Phibes (1971). Price was always a lot of fun to watch whether in horrors or not, but it was in the genre that we often saw the best of what he had to offer and he was right in the center of everything where he belonged.
Classic horror films are mistakenly often thought of as being low-grade material since a lot of the famous bad movies of the classic era happen to be either horror or sci-fi films, but in reality they were incredibly artistic and character driven. Never was artistry and distinction more evident in horrors than when Boris Karloff starred in them. He was in the cream of the crop and recognized as the go-to horror actor of the classic film era. He never was hammy or over-the-top, he gave his performances the class and elocution that they deserved and he delivered as if it were Shakespeare. The rise of the horror genre really began with the screen presence of Karloff. After appearing in supporting roles for over a decade in films with few parts that stood out, Boris Karloff suddenly was whisked away from oblivion and achieved stardom when he played the sympathetic and emotionally impaired The Monster in Frankenstein (1931) where he was billed as “?”, already bringing intrigue and mystery to the audience. His performance as the Monster was one of the finest displays of acting through heavy make-up since Conrad Veidt in The Man Who Laughs (1928) and he managed to outdo himself with the sequel Bride of Frankenstein (1935) where his monster’s loneliness and seclusion is studied even further. Other wonderful films and performances provided by Karloff included the silent servant in The Old Dark House (1932), the title character full of vengeance in The Mask of Fu Manchu (1932), the title creature seeking the woman he lost in The Mummy (1932), a man with a strange assortment of characters in his house in The Black Cat (1934), a disfigured man who wants a normal face in The Raven (1935), and brothers with contradicting personalities in The Black Room (1935), just to name a few! Karloff was often in the best that the genre had to offer and he continued that streak throughout his career, always giving stellar performances.
Honorable Mentions: Lon Chaney, Jr., Basil Rathbone, and Peter Lorre