As Michael Peterson, the director of Knuckleball, once explained to me, horror and comedy aren’t as far apart as people think; screaming and laughing are both visceral reactions to whatever situation is presented before us. Building tension in a movie is similar to working towards the punchline of a joke, and that’s why horror and comedy work so well together.
Many actors are perfectly fine with being typecast, as long as it guarantees a regular paycheck. But there are other actors who want to broaden their horizons, who are tired of being laughed at and instead want to give their audience a scare for a change, as either a victim or a villain. In this list, I’ll be highlighting ten established comedic actors who decided to dip their toe into horror.
Excluded from this list are actors who starred in horror movies before their breakout comedy role, like Jennifer Aniston (Leprechaun), Katherine Heigl (Bride of Chucky) and Paul Rudd (Halloween: the Curse of Michael Myers). That’s a list for another day. I also won’t be including comedic actors who then went on to become horror directors and writers, like Jordan Peele and John Krasinski. Below, I have chosen movies that aren’t necessarily played for laughs; they are supposed to be dark and disturbing, yet their inclusion of a comedic actor might break the serious mood.
10. Jim Carrey
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Jim Carrey can make you laugh with no more than the frantic flailing of his limbs. But in the early 2000s, he proved he was capable of tackling dramatic roles, as seen in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind and The Majestic. But nothing could have prepared us for The Number 23, where Carrey starts off as a happy-go-lucky average Joe who falls down a rabbit hole of obsession and paranoia simply over a number.
Known as The King of Queens or Paul Blart: Mall Cop or the various other goofy characters in countless comedies produced by Adam Sandler, Kevin James shocked the world last year playing an escaped white supremacist convict who holds an unsuspecting family hostage in Becky. Whether he was actually convincing in this deadly serious role depends on who you ask, but it marked a major departure from his usual style. It remains to be seen whether he’ll continue down this dark path.
8. Kristen Wiig
As seen in Wonder Woman 1984, Kristen Wiig has been trying to shed her comedic persona by expanding to action and horror. Seeing the former Saturday Night Live cast member in the role of a villain might have perplexed some viewers, but it made sense to those of us who saw her in Darren Aronofsky’s anxiety-inducing allegory Mother! Although her appearance is brief, Wiig leaves an impression as an intrusive publicist who ends up casually executing party guests.
7. Tim Heidecker
Tim Heidecker of Tim and Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! definitely has a weird sense of humor, and as demonstrated in the offshoot Tim and Eric’s Bedtime Stories, that sense of humor can be interpreted into some very nightmarish imagery. Heidecker showed off his dark humor in Flying Lotus’ surreal body horror Kuso. But in Jordan Peele’s Us, Heidecker got to play both funny and full evil as the one of the tethered.
6. Gillian Jacobs
Some of the Community alumni have dabbled in horror like Alison Brie (The Rental) and Joel McHale (Assassination Nation, Becky). Yet none of their performances come close to Gillian Jacobs’ in Come Play, as she conveyed the stresses of being a mother to an autistic son without the support of her oft-absent partner, while also having to deal with an invisible monster that wants to take her son.
5. Danny McBride
It’s not hard to believe that Danny McBride has a love for horror. He co-wrote the script of 2018’s Halloween after all. He often plays these aggressively self-important characters, like Red in Pineapple Express or Kenny Powers in Eastbound & Down. His characters are two steps away from becoming serial killers, like in Arizona or when he played himself in This Is The End. In Alien: Covenant, McBride played against type as Tennessee, the spaceship’s pilot, outliving most of his castmates.
4. Elizabeth Banks
Elizabeth Banks has thus far had a pretty versatile career, though most people know her for her comedic roles in Wet Hot AmericanSummer, the 40-Year Old Virgin and Zack and Miri Make a Porno. But she has delved into horror on numerous occasions, as the wife to a man-turned-alien in James Gunn’s Slither, a potentially homicidal girlfriend in The Uninvited, and mother to a supervillain in-the-making in Brightburn. With any luck, she’ll go for a horror angle on her next directorial project, Cocaine Bear.
3. Robin Williams
I always get a bit teary-eyed whenever I’m reminded of Robin Williams. He always brought so much heart to his roles, even in the thriller One Hour Photo, where he played a mentally unstable photo developer who stalks one of his regular customers. The violence and terror he inflicts on her family is done purely out of a sense of loneliness. It’s a shame Williams didn’t attempt to do more of these kinds of movies, because he could go really dark when he wanted to.
2. Aubrey Plaza
Aubrey Plaza has a reputation of playing these sarcastic characters similar to her role as April Ludgate in Parks and Recreation. In 2014, she tried something different, portraying a sweet girlfriend slowly turning into a flesh-eating zombie in the horror comedy Life After Beth. Five years later, she completely dropped the comedic act to play the struggling working-class mother Karen who inadvertently puts her son’s life in danger when she purchases a doll that turns out to be a killer in the 2019 Child’s Play remake.
1. Bill Hader
Yet another person to graduate from SNL, Bill Hader became a familiar face in many projects produced by Judd Apatow, though he also showed he could play a compelling lead in the HBO show Barry. So who better to play the grown-up version of Richie in It Chapter Two? Over the course of the movie, Hader makes the perfect transition from a funny guy to a scared child trapped in an adult’s body.
Honorable Mention: Chris Rock
As of this writing, the world has yet to see Chris Rock’s horror movie debut in Spiral: From the Book of Saw, unfortunately delayed because of the pandemic. But if his performance in Season Four of the Fargo TV series is any indication, we should be in for a treat.