1. Jessica Lange, American Horror Story<
With the third season of American Horror Story off to a gruesome start (though there’s now an explanation for those hyper-sexual snakejob ads), Jessica Lange is still the clear star among a cast of notable talent. Nominated for a total of six Oscars and winning two throughout her long career, Lange has used her acting chops to portray the monstrous matriarch Constance Langdon in season one, sinister Sister Jude Martin in season three, and now witch supreme Fiona Goode in Brad Falchuk and Ryan Murphy’s horror anthology. From a mother driven to madness by the unfortunate outcome of her offspring to a witch on the quest for everlasting youth, Lange is at her finest when allowed to snub her northern Midwestern upbringing in favor of a Southern accent and aura, acting right down to her fingertips with her signature handwringing, waving, and clasping. But she’s not the first highly rated actor to grace a television horror anthology with their presence. In fact, name a horror anthology, and it’s probably populated with at least one Oscar-nominated actor.
2. Angela Bassett, Nightmare Cafe
Wes Craven’s short-lived TV series Nightmare Cafe is about a sentient diner that materializes wherever there’s someone who needs help or has to be taught a lesson by the café’s proprietor, Robert Englund, and his helpmates, Lindsay Frost and Jack Colman. In 1992’s “Sanctuary For A Child,” the café relocates to Colman’s hometown, where a little boy—whose spirit is caught between worlds while his body is in a coma—needs assistance making it into the light. As in many a dying-child story, the tone is mostly maudlin, with the horror largely restricted to the sound of Mike And The Mechanics on the soundtrack. In the thankless role of the boy’s mother, Angela Bassett—also of American Horror Story as of this season—has nothing to do but stand in the doorway looking distraught, whether she’s gazing at her son or listening to white people whine to her about their problems. Just a year later, Bassett was Oscar-nominated for playing Tina Turner in What’s Love Got To Do With It, and was able to get her own career off life support.
3. Anna Kendrick, Fear Itself
2008 seems like recent history, but in terms of Anna Kendrick’s career, it was a lifetime ago. In the past five years, the Pitch Perfect star has recorded a hit single, “Cups,” and landed both a starring role in Into The Woods and an Oscar nomination for Up In The Air. But in 2008, Kendrick was just a former Broadway actress turned minor Twilight star looking for work. That’s how she ended up in “The Spirit Box,” an episode of the NBC summer series Fear Itself. Kendrick plays Shelby, one of two teenage friends who use a faux-Ouija board to try to solve the murder of their dead friend, Emily. Things go awry, as one might expect, with Shelby eventually discovering it’s the other friend, Becca, who was actually responsible for Emily’s early demise. Still, Kendrick turns in an admirably legit performance, especially considering the hokey “teen” dialogue and drama in the script.
4. Ryan Gosling, Are You Afraid Of The Dark? and Goosebumps
Before the young goose was the effortlessly cool stuntman in Driver, the lothario mentor in Crazy Stupid Love, and the drug-addict teacher in Half Nelson (which earned him an Oscar nomination), Ryan Gosling was just another Mickey Mouse Club alum looking to stay in the game. After the Disney show ended in 1995, Gosling returned home and auditioned for a family series filming in Canada. That led to roles on the two kid-centric anthology shows in the ’90s: Are You Afraid Of The Dark? and R.L. Stine’s Goosebumps. Gosling appeared on the former in 1995’s “The Tale Of Station 109.1” as a kid who locks his death-fixated younger brother—with a horrific earring—inside an old hearse in an attempt to snap him out of his obsession, leading to the discovery of the titular radio station for the dead, manned by Gilbert Gottfried. A year later, in Goosebumps, Gosling, plays the young protagonist of “Say Cheese And Die” who steals a camera from an abandoned house that ends up portending bad things for the subjects of the pictures. Few actors who got a double dose of Canadian horror anthology appearances went on to such fame.
5. Robert Forster, Tales From The Darkside
Robert Forster spent most of the 30-odd years between his early high-profile roles in Reflections In A Golden Eye and Medium Cool, and his Oscar-nominated comeback role in Quentin Tarantino’s Jackie Brown, mired in short-lived TV series and low-budget grindhouse movies. Tarantino understood that Forster’s own hard-luck career would provide fuel for his performance as the everyman bail bondsman Max Cherry in 1987’s “The Milkman Cometh.” He plays a frustrated novelist stuck on a dead-end career track who’s on the verge of losing his house. That all changes when his neighborhood buddy tells him about their mysterious unseen milkman, who will grant any wish that the people on his route stuff into their milk bottles. (The buddy is played by Seymour Cassel, at a point in his career between his own Oscar nomination for John Cassavetes’ 1968 Faces and his rediscovery by such directors as Alexandre Rockwell and Wes Anderson.) Forster asks the milkman for money, creative inspiration, and a new baby, though clearly what he really needs is a copy of “The Monkey’s Paw.”
6. Brad Pitt, Freddy’s Nightmares and Tales From The Crypt
It would be more than fair to describe Brad Pitt a young, struggling actor in the late ’80s. His credits included a few Dallas episodes here, a couple of Growing Pains episodes there, and not much else. As such, he was hardly in a position to complain about scoring a lead role in an episode of Freddy’s Nightmares, a syndicated horror anthology spun off from the Nightmare On Elm Street film franchise. In 1989’s “Black Tickets,” Pitt and Kerry Wall play teenage couple Rick and Miranda, who are trying to escape from their parents’ but end up dealing with one nightmarish situation after another. The episode is split fairly evenly between the two characters, with Pitt spotlighting the first half and suffering through being beaten, shot, arrested, and even being hit by a car. Two years later, Pitt’s process of becoming a proper movie star—who now has four Oscar nominations under his belt—had already begun with Thelma & Louise. That progression was virtually complete by the time Pitt turned up on 1992’s Tales From The Crypt episode “King Of The Road” playing a fast living, hot-rod-driving hooligan who challenges a small-town sheriff to a race to save his daughter’s life, with a grand conclusion set to Warren Zevon’s “Roll With The Punches.” Although Pitt seemed to be having fun, the episode was his last TV acting gig until Jennifer Aniston tempted him into an uncredited appearance on Friends almost a decade later.
7. Elliott Gould, Masters Of Horror
Elliott Gould’s lengthy resume includes everything from Trapper John in MASH to Ross and Monica’s father on Friends, but his only Academy Award nomination was for his portrayal of Ted in 1969’s “swingers-with-hearts-of-gold” comedy Bob & Carol & Ted & Alice. His appearance in Joe Dante’s “The Screwfly Solution” for Showtime’s Masters Of Horror anthology in 2006 didn’t net Gould any awards, but it’s still a fun turn in a perfectly serviceable hour of end-of-the-world hokum. Dante does a fine job suggesting a planet-wide epidemic—something is crossing the sex and violence wires in the brains of men, leading to mass femicide—on a direct-to-cable budget, and Gould acquits himself nicely (along with Jason Priestley, of all people) as a scientist searching for the cause of the plague. Not many actors can convincingly rattle off lines like “Number six gets a little trouser twinge every time the body builders come on. Better keep an eye on that one!” but Gould is more than up to the job.
8. Jack Palance, Night Visions
Introducing “Bitter Harvest,” a tale of occult revenge, Night Visions host Henry Rollins announces, “People say Old Man Jennings is a murderer, that his mother was a witch,” before assuring us that “…the truth is far more terrifying.” Inevitably, Jack Palance must play Old Man Jennings, because Charles Manson and Galactus don’t do anthology television. The 6-foot 4-inch Palance always had a hyperbolic, frightening aura to go with his oversized physical presence. (Nominated twice for Best Supporting Actor for roles as sinister heavies in Sudden Fear and Shane, he won for playing his intrinsic scariness for laughs in City Slickers.) Here, in one of his final performances, he looks almost cadaverous from some angles, but could still probably kick ass, even though the story begins with him losing both arms. And since the 2001 “Bitter Harvest” is slackly made—the director twiddles his thumbs and hopes that suspense will just build up by itself during the wait for the sicko punchline—it definitely benefits from the performance of someone who can make a line like “Rain gutters need cleaning” sound as if he’s reading from the Necronomicon.
9. Steve McQueen, Alfred Hitchcock Presents
In the early days of television, Steve McQueen was one of the first stars to leverage success on the small screen into a career as a legitimate matinee idol. Nine years after his first turn as bounty hunter Josh Randall on the Western Wanted: Dead Or Alive, McQueen’s work in the military epic The Sand Pebbles earned him an Oscar nomination for Best Actor—the only such nod he’d receive in 22 years on the big screen. During his Wanted tenure, McQueen worked twice with a cinematic figure for whom the Academy showed similarly fleeting affection: Five-time Best Director nominee (and zero-time Best Director winner) Alfred Hitchcock, whose anthology series featured McQueen as a skeptical reporter in 1959’s “Human Interest Story” and, one year later, as a terse gambling man in “Man From The South.” The King Of Cool made an apt tough-guy straight man for The Master Of Suspense—especially when that steely façade drops during the sci-fi double cross that concludes “Human Interest Story.” But it’s the Roald Dahl adaptation “Man From The South” that made for McQueen’s most enduring contribution to the anthology canon, facing off with Peter Lorre (and a lighter) for kicks, pride, a car, and the freedom to walk away with his left pinky. McQueen’s screen persona often acknowledged the cheapness of human life—in “Man From The South,” he manages to do so without the use of an automobile.
10. Joan Crawford, Night Gallery
When Rod Serling returned to television five years after the end of The Twilight Zone, he did so with Night Gallery, a horror anthology revolving around paintings that depicted “the frozen moment of a nightmare.” He left an impression right away with one of his earliest nightmares, “Eyes,” featuring Joan Crawford as a blind New York socialite willing to pay any price for even a chance at a half-day of sight. Crawford clearly relishes the chance to play a character that Serling’s intro describes as “an imperious, predatory dowager,” using decades of experience as Hollywood royalty—she had already been nominated for three Oscars at the time—to make Miss Menlo the worst woman in the world. It’s a testament to her skill that while she barely moves her head, reflecting her lack of vision, there’s a steeliness and resolve to her voice and bearing that keeps her from seeming disabled. And she adds notable layers to the role, first in the panic when a blackout steals the majority of the experience, and then in alternating grief and rage as her first glimpse of the sun is taken from her. (“Eyes” is also notable for being the first professional directing job for a young Steven Spielberg, who’d go on to his own share of Academy Award success.)
11. Patty Duke, Night Gallery
Although Night Gallery never enjoyed the success of The Twilight Zone, it delivered its fair share of horrifying imagery over its three-year run. One of its more arresting moments comes from the 1971’s “The Diary,” after Patty Duke’s acidic gossip columnist Holly Schaeffer has slowly been driven mad by a diary that fills itself in before the day’s events happen. Duke spends the episode building Holly up as a horrible person (insulting an aged actress as “the Wicked Witch Of The West in hot pants,” for example), and gradually transforms scorn into self-loathing as phones break and boyfriends die right on schedule. By the end, she’s desperate enough to have herself committed to prove the diary wrong. The sight of her screaming an explanation through the narrow window in her cell is utterly devastating for its panic and craven certainty, a verbal expression of the intensity Duke previously conveyed physically as Helen Keller in The Miracle Worker, which she won an Oscar for. And it’s also a performance whose mania holds uncomfortable shades of life imitating art: Duke suffered from bipolar disorder, which wouldn’t be diagnosed until more than a decade later.
12. Whoopi Goldberg, Tales From The Crypt
Throughout its seven seasons, HBO’s Tales From The Crypt had a way of landing guests better than most other horror anthologies. In season three it assembled a talent-packed cast for 1991’s “Dead Wait,” an episode directed by Tobe Hooper and featuring both Whoopi Goldberg and John Rhys-Darby on screen. Goldberg, who has won an Oscar, an Emmy, a Grammy, and a Tony, is one of the most versatile names to have followed the Crypt Keeper’s introduction; “Dead Wait” plays to her strengths, dealing in unsettling supernatural elements with subtlety. Though the episode owes much of its success to Hooper’s graceful guidance, Goldberg—who was hot off her Ghost Oscar win a year earlier—never overstates the episode’s eeriness, making it about as a realistic as Tales can get.
13. Helen Hunt, Darkroom
In 1981, Helen Hunt was still 17 years away from taking home her Academy Award for As Good As It Gets, but she’d already been a familiar face on the small screen for the better part of a decade when she appeared in the short-lived ABC horror anthology Darkroom, hosted by James Coburn. In “The Bogeyman Will Get You,” Hunt played Nancy Lawrence, a teenager whose sister (Quinn Cummings) slowly but surely begins to convince her that a creepy acquaintance of her father is actually a vampire, only for him to eventually reveal a slightly different truth to Hunt just as everything fades to black.
14. Linda Blair, Monsters
Sometimes, even the presence of an iconic actress isn’t enough to save a doomed story. As the possessed child Regan MacNeil in The Exorcist, Linda Blair created one of cinema’s most horrific and iconic images of evil earning her an Oscar nod, but there’s precious little she’s able to do in the first-season finale of Sci-Fi Channel’s Monsters. As Lia, the owner of a dressmaking shop who may or may not also be the witch La Strega—which the 1989 episode is named for—Blair’s trapped in a story that doesn’t give her character any definition or motivation save a limp fatal attraction to wannabe tough guy Vito (Northern Exposure’s Rob Morrow). Blair does her best with what she’s given, and there’s some amusement in her voice the one instance she uses her powers—switching from witch to mannequin to Vito’s dead mother when the last tries to stab her, wryly commenting that she’ll decide his fate once she does the dishes—but there’s no chemistry between the two and no intrigue as to what she really is. By the end of the finale, the only thing the viewer knows for certain is that she’s too good for this material.
15. Julie Harris, The Evil Touch
Nominated for an Oscar for 1952’s The Member Of The Wedding, Julie Harris stuck to mostly television roles, landing her in the horror anthology The Evil Touch in 1973. Though the Australian series only lasted a year, Harris was in two of the 26 episodes—“The Upper Hand” and “Happy New Year, Aunt Carrie.” In the former, she plays a maid in a murder-driven blackmail plot, in which she’ll stop at nothing to gain the upper hand; in the latter, she more convincingly portrays a fast-thinking, wheelchair-bound woman who will be no man’s victim, but doesn’t have a problem victimizing a man.