Drew Barrymore, America’s sweetheart. She’s been in our lives for so long and from such an early age that it’s difficult to reconcile that fact that she’s only 44. Her work just in the 21st Century includes excellent, endlessly quotable roles, including Charlie’s Angels, Riding In Cars With Boys, and 50 First Dates. It’s been mostly winsome, mostly wholesome roles in romantic comedies, with Barrymore plying the charm with an almost effortless grace.
It wasn’t always like that, though. Child actor syndrome is a real, pervasive problem among actors who get involved in the industry before puberty. Whatever it is – the inability to handle fame, the lack of impulse control, the inappropriate environment of being around other actors, the willingness of people to exploit anyone, even children, to get ahead – child actors have a rough time of it in Hollywood. Drew Barrymore was no exception. It likely did her no favours that her great-grandparents, grandparents, and parents were actors; her place in the industry was sealed from the start, and those around her wasted no time into putting her on film. Her first work came at the age of eleven months in a commercial; her first film role wasn’t that much later.
Like other child actors before and after, she had a very troubled childhood, filled with drugs, alcohol, and bad behaviour – and all that before the age of 13. She was saved from a spiral into addiction and madness by the intercession of David Crosby, who knows a thing or two about the struggle to beat addictions. While she retained a huge helping of edge through the rest of the Nineties, it could have been much different. Macaulay Culkin and Corey Feldman are living examples of where her life could have gone. That moment of rebirth – going to rehab, finding partners in sobriety, and emancipating herself from her parents – led her down a different path, one where she became an American icon and an actress of note.
It left her with something of a dark streak though, one that has manifested recently in her work on Netflix’s hit horror-comedy The Santa Clarita Diet. That show, where Barrymore plays a California real estate agent trying to come to terms with living her life as a zombie, shows how well Barrymore’s cherubic blonde persona fits into horror work. It isn’t her first kick at it, of course. Some of her first, and some of her best, work has come within the trappings of horror. She has exactly ten films in her filmography that can be considered horror, and each of them deserve at least some consideration for shaping her range, and for displaying the darkness that made that rebirth necessary in the first place.
Altered States (1980)
She’s only in it for a couple of minutes total, but it’s an important film to note in that it marks her acting debut, at the age of five, and also that it’s a body horror film with a science fiction tinge to it. She plays Margaret Jessup, the young daughter of Dr. Eddie Jessup, a character who also marks the debut of William Hurt (The Avengers: Infinity War, Captain America: Civil War). The film itself, adapted from the first novel by Network screenwriter Paddy Chayefsky, is a doozy, delving into the death of God and the origins of humans while featuring some of the niftiest experimental film and tape effects that could be mustered in 1980.
1982’s ET: The Extra-Terrestrial made her a household name, but it was the adaptation of Stephen King’s 1980 novel Firestarter that showed that there was a serious actress under all the winsome childhood charm. The gravity of her performance in the film suits the character perfectly; I can’t think of anyone else who would have pulled off the grim, determined poise demanded by the character of Charlie McGee. That she was able to pull off such a performance even as her life remained chaotic is a testament to her abilities as well. She is 9 in Firestarter, and it was at this age that she was given her first drink; a year later someone in the Eighties L.A. party scene would introduce her to cocaine, and through this all she was a regular at Studio 54. Despite her unorthodox lifestyle, she gives a performance that fully grown actors could envy.
Cat’s Eye (1985)
Another Stephen King adaptation, this time an anthology of two of the horror master’s short stories (Quitters, Inc. and The Ledge) and one written specifically for the film. Barrymore’s presence in the film is most confined to brief appearances (a mannequin, a televised commercial, James Woods’ briefly met daughter) until the third entry, where she plays a little girl that a stray cat and a goblin fight over. As far as King adaptations go, it’s in the top half, and Barrymore managed to snag an award nomination for her performance at the 1986 Young Artist Awards. It’s deserved; even at the age of ten she manages to give a spot-on performance of a young child, and even if she lacks the self-possessed gravity that she brought to Firestarter she brings life and vibrancy to her characters. It’s all the more impressive considering she was just a child whose life was already in the process of spiraling out of control.
Far From Home (1989)
By the time Barrymore filmed Far From Home she had lived more than most people three times her age. Barrymore’s character, 14-year-old would-be writer Joleen Cox, is interesting largely because Barrymore herself was writing a book at the time; it would eventually be published as Little Girl Lost, a memoir of her rough, drug-addled childhood.
The movie itself is fine – a creepy little thriller about a father-and-daughter team from L.A. who end up stranded without gas in a remote Nevada trailer park that is as strange as it is dreary. Naturally, they arrive just as a local serial killer ramps up his activities. The plot is a little predictable but the atmosphere is on point, and Barrymore’s daughter has great chemistry with Matt Frewer (Max Headroom, Orphan Black) as her dad. The only problem is that the film really plays up Barrymore’s character’s sexuality, which is really problematic considering both character and actress were 14. Still, it’s an overlooked thriller that deserves a second consideration, and it points toward where Barrymore’s career would head as she made her way through the remainder of her adolescence.
Poison Ivy (1992)
It’s difficult to imagine, but there was a time, between 1989 and 1991, where Drew Barrymore was persona non grata in Hollywood. Her reputation preceded her, and jobs were few and far between. When she did snag a role it dropped below the waves without notice, like the fate of Far From Home. A role in a edgy new teen thriller, though, got her back on the radars of bigger producers, and also gave her the chance to reinvent herself as the total bad girl, willing to use any kind of manipulation to get ahead. Given her modern status as the undisputed Queen of the Rom Com, it’s honestly pretty hilarious to remember that this phase existed.
Here she makes best friends with Sara Gilbert (Roseanne, The View), moves into her house, kills her mom, and bangs her dad. It was a disappointment at the box office but it’s enduring success on VHS and late-night cable is due in large part to Barrymore, who plays her character not as evil but as lonely and desperate. It’s a convincing look, and one that suits the tension between artist and character at the time. Be on the lookout for Leonardo DiCaprio, who shows up fleetingly and is credited only as “Guy”.
Waxwork II: Lost In Time (1992)
It’s only a cameo, but it’s worth mentioning because it is quite a film. A horror film, at least sort of. Its predecessor, 1988’s Waxwork, was a much more conventional horror film, being what amounts to an Eighties ancestor of House Of Wax. This one picks up where the first one leaves off, with a disembodied zombie hand escaping a burning wax museum and tracking down the protagonists of the first film. After the hand frames one of them for murder, the protagonists have to go back in time, and also hop through the manifested realities of various literary classics, Alien, and Dawn Of The Dead.
There are vampires, and zombies, and two different categories of angels, and framework where every reality is a contest between God and Satan playing a ‘video game’ for control. It’s direct-to-video bona fides are bolstered by the cast, which includes Zach Gilligan (Gremlins, Hatchet 3), Monkia Schnarre (BeastMaster), Spandau Ballet bassist Martin Kemp, Bruce friggin’ Campbell, and D-list legend David Carradine. Drew Barrymore plays a victim of one of the vampires, in the film for two minutes, but a great two minutes in the end.
In fact, Drew’s entire 1992 was kind of an intense stretch of horrors and thrillers. The year’s final entry, Guncrazy, is an indie thriller with a plot somewhat vaguely similar to what Natural Born Killers would splatter all over the silver screen two years later. Basically it’s like that old joke TV Guide description of The Wizard Of Oz: after killing someone, a young girl teams up with another to kill again.
Just like Natural Born Killers, Drew Barrymore’s Anita kills her sexually abusive stepfather, and teams up with a convict she meets through correspondence. After she gets up the courage to show him her dead stepfather’s remains, more murders ensue. In a contemporary interview with The New York Times Barrymore downplayed her skills, saying “I’m not a good actress. But I have an ability for adapting characters and turning into other people.” Whether or not the first part was right, critics noted the veracity of the second claim, and you can see it in her portrayal of Anita here. Like Poison Ivy, the character is played with nuance, teasing out the emotional desperation from the on-screen shock.
Furthering her career as a conflicted potential femme fatale, Doppelganger is Drew Barrymore vs. Drew Barrymore, as sweet, winsome Drew faces off against her evil twin. Or is it? Something is clearly wrong, and I think that might extend to the plot, but the main takeaway is that this is the movie in which you can watch Drew Barrymore knee Danny Trejo in the junk. It’s a cinematic moment to be treasured. The rest of the film is overacted gleefully, convoluted, and blissfully weird, an Eighties holdover trying to go toe to toe with the grunge era. Also, WTF is that ending? Honestly.
Another cameo, to be sure, but that cameo is the only reason Scream got Wes Craven on board in the first place. The horror master had been asked several times if he wanted the director’s chair for the film and he said no every time, busy as he was with The Haunting. Once his deal with The Haunting fell through, he discovered that Drew Barrymore was attached to the Scream project. Finally intrigued, he signed on.
Barrymore was, famously, the first of many murders in the movie; originally, she’d signed on to play the lead role of Sidney Prescott, and that had proven to be instrumental in getting other big names on board with it. What she really wanted to do, though, was to play Casey Becker, the girl killed off in the first ten minutes of the film. It was a big move, especially for writer Kevin Williamson’s first outing: kill your star off in the intro to the movie. In retrospect it’s the right move, though; Neve Campbell is iconic as Sidney and Drew sells the whole concept of the movie instantly. Her performance is equal parts real fear and tongue-in-cheek hilarity, and it plays a big part in how Scream kickstarted horror again after a half-decade or more in the doldrums.
Donnie Darko (2001)
Shortly after Scream, Drew Barrymore did The Wedding Singer, and thus the ‘edgy scream queen’ Drew was replaced by Drew Barrymore, Rom Com A-lister (and, I guess, action movie comedienne). The lone deviation from this was a weird little indie about the late 1980s, death, and strange visions of the apocalypse. It was a box office flop, but a cult classic; the poor showing probably has something to do with the fact that it was a film involving a plane crash released barely a month after 9/11. Drew plays the English teacher who assigns the class Graham Greene’s The Destructors, which sets up the film’s tension between creation and destruction. She also informs us that the most beautiful phrase in the English language is “cellar door” and hey, she might be right.
Which of these Drew Barrymore flicks is your fave? Let us know over on Twitter, the Official Subreddit, or the Horror Fiend Club Facebook Group and check out Santa Clarita Diet Season 3 on Netflix, March 29th!