‘Nightmare’ Stars Wonder: Can Horror Films Still Launch Careers?

Reboot's rookie stars weigh in on how the genre that gave us Johnny Depp and Kevin Bacon has changed.

BEVERLY HILLS, California — Back in the 1980s, horror movies were to film what soap operas were to TV: an aspiring actor’s proving ground. It wasn’t unreasonable to think that if you were lucky enough to land a part in a slasher flick, you could be the next Jamie Lee Curtis (“Halloween”), Kevin Bacon (“Friday the 13th”) or Johnny Depp (“A Nightmare on Elm Street”). Young actors lined up for the chance to be hunted, slashed and drenched in Karo syrup.

But those were the ’80s. These days, the genre is being remade. Cheapie exploitation flicks have morphed into high-profile movies, produced by the likes of Michael Bay and featuring iconic onscreen killers guaranteed to generate a $15 million to $20 million opening weekend. So, we wondered, can Hollywood horror films still launch a Depp-like career?

“I would say it has changed,” said Rooney Mara, who plays Nancy in the “A Nightmare on Elm Street” reboot, which opened Friday (April 30). Mara takes over the role originated by moderately successful actress Heather Langenkamp (she starred in two “Nightmare” movies and the sitcom “Just the Ten of Us”). “I would say actually, nowadays, horror movies aren’t really taken as seriously.”

Still, her co-star Kyle Gallner saw the 2010 “Nightmare,” like the recent “Jennifer’s Body,” as a chance to take his career to the next level. The 23-year-old had previously appeared on various TV shows, including “The Shield” and “Law & Order.” “I think they are a good opportunity for a young actor to do a studio film and get some on-set experience,” he said. “But a horror movie won’t necessarily pop you now, like it used to back then.”

In the ’70s and ’80s, actresses like Curtis and Patricia Arquette — her first film was 1987′s “A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors” — became overnight sensations as scream queens. In recent years, though, better actors are landing the roles but getting less attention from them.

“I think the difference is that, back in the day, horror films were less respected,” said “Nightmare” star Thomas Dekker. “And so, if someone did a good performance in a supposedly not-gonna-be-very-good movie, and especially if the movie turned out to be good, suddenly they would be given double the respect.” A 22-year-old horror junkie, Dekker’s biggest role to date was a part on the now-canceled TV series “Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles.”

“Now, horror films are highly regarded and highly respected, especially one of this size,” Dekker said. “They expect automatically good actors to be in it. Friday’s “Nightmare” is the latest remake from producer Bay’s Platinum Dunes, the company behind remakes of “The Amityville Horror,” “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” and “Friday the 13th.”

Sure enough, recent reboots have featured recognizable Hollywood faces: Jordana Brewster in “Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Beginning,” Ryan Reynolds in “Amityville” and Sophia Bush in “The Hitcher.” But it could be argued that none of the three already-rising stars was helped — and some might have even been hindered — by their appearances in those films. Meanwhile, lesser-known remake stars like Zachary Knighton (“Hitcher”), Jonathan Tucker (“Texas Chainsaw Massacre”) and Melissa George (“Amityville”) weren’t exactly launched to above-the-title stardom.

“I don’t think it’s going to open every door for us,” Dekker said. “But I certainly think we’ll all be proud of what we did.”

Still, the fact remains that a modern-day horror newbie like Mara is now assured one advantage that folks like Curtis, Depp and Bacon were not: Good or bad, the presence of Freddy, Jason, Michael Myers or Leatherface guarantees a huge audience will see their performance. Beyond that, it’s up to them to deliver the goods.

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