Nearly every major actress in Hollywood has an embarrassing film on her résumé. Most of these credits are two-bit horror sequels: Renée Zellweger played a prom goer in “The Return of the Texas Chainsaw Massacre.” Eva Mendes starred in “Children of the Corn V: Fields of Terror” as well as “Urban Legends: Final Cut.” In between “Selena” and “Out of Sight,” Jennifer Lopez was a documentary filmmaker fighting off snakes in “Anaconda.” After all, a girl has to start somewhere.

Embarrassing or not — “Anaconda” made a respectable $65 million domestically — horror films have long been a breeding ground for new talent. Jamie Lee Curtis made her film debut in the movie “Halloween” in 1978, and 27 years later, she’s still able to ignite the box office, as she did last year in “Christmas With the Kranks.”

Still, horror films have always carried a stigma. Not only did the doomed actresses show their breasts (if not more), but the frequently low-budget films often went straight to video — not great for career posterity.

But since success is measured at the box office, the genre has taken something of a turn. Horror films are hot again, especially on their opening weekend, when grosses matter most. “Hide and Seek” made $25 million the weekend of Jan. 21. A week later, “Boogeyman,” panned by the critics, came in at number one with $19 million.

“I think horror films are more mainstream now than they were 10 years ago,” says “Boogeyman” director Stephen T. Kay. “Back then, you did a horror film because you couldn’t get a job. Now, young actresses are being told by everyone to make them because, if it’s a success, it may change a career.”

“The horror movie serves as a stepping stone,” seconds Kevin Williamson. He reinvigorated the genre in 1996 with his script for Wes Craven’s “Scream” and reteams with Craven this month for “Cursed,” a werewolf thriller starring Christina Ricci. “It’s a way in and a way to wow everyone.”

This is not just true for actresses but for untested directors, who, on a tight budget, can take chances and stylistic risks. Renny Harlin, Joe Dante, James Cameron and Katherine Bigelow all got their start in the genre. The latest posse includes music video directors such as Zack Snyder, whose “Dawn of the Dead” remake last year grossed $60 million and has given him the opportunity to direct more ambitious films, including the war drama “300.”

This story first appeared in the February 22, 2005 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.

“The horror film sells itself. It doesn’t require big stars,” notes Andrew Douglas, whose remake of “The Amityville Horror,” produced by Michael Bay, will be released by MGM this spring. “It’s not a huge risk financially to try a new director or an actor.”

Still, Douglas realizes what a huge opportunity for him “Amityville” could turn out to be. Though he’s not keen to make another horror flick immediately for fear of being pigeonholed, he’s been fielding plenty of offers.  

“Because horror movies are made on a budget, you don’t need a marquee name to drive the weekend,” says Joseph Middleton, who cast Sarah Polley as the lead in “Dawn of the Dead.” She had previously worked mostly with indie directors such as Hal Hartley, Michael Winterbottom and David Cronenberg. Now Middleton says, “I think it’s easier to sell Sarah Polley to a studio as not just ‘the independent actress girl.’”

As for bringing continued success, Middleton insists there are no hard and fast rules. “How many Jamie Lee Curtises, really, have there been?” he wonders.

Sarah Michelle Gellar, for instance, made a big splash in “I Know What You Did Last Summer” in 1997 and then spoofed that splash in “Scream 2.” Following that success, when “Buffy the Vampire Slayer” ended its run on television, the actress languished in films such as “Simply Irresistible” and the “Scooby-Doo” movies. But last fall, her career took an upswing again when she returned to horror with “The Grudge.” That film, a remake of a Japanese movie, grossed an astonishing $110 million domestically.

“It was an opportunity to reconnect with an audience that she had not been in front of since [Buffy],” says Middleton. “How she parlays that success is a whole other question.”

The jury’s out on whether there is life after horror for actresses such as Gellar and newcomer Melissa George, who stars in “Amityville.” But it sure looks good for George, an “Alias” alum who went on to London to star opposite Jennifer Aniston and Clive Owen in “Derailed” after shooting “Amityville.”

Williamson says horror films have such a good track record for breaking new talent because their plots leave a lot of room for character development, which gives performers plenty of room to prove their acting chops.

“You go out of your way to find an actress whose face conveys vulnerability, intelligence and terror,” says Williamson. “You want to cast someone who takes you beyond what’s already in the script,” he explains. “The person you cast is probably going to have a career because they came to the party with talent already.”

Moreover, these actresses “can never be the prettiest,” adds Williamson, who, like his characters in the “Scream” trilogy, enjoys theorizing about the genre. “They have to come off as everyday beautiful and smart as a whip because it’s always the sexy, beautiful ones that get killed.”

Casting Polley, Middleton wanted to find “the girl that lives next door, the one you bowl with on Friday night.” After all, “it’s always the really hot girl that gets killed off. The bigger the breasts, the faster they die.”

Kay, the “Boogeyman” director, finds that actors are not only unashamed to make horror films, but they actually want to play these kinds of parts. “They’re just really good roles,” he says.

In fact, that’s what Drew Barrymore, the biggest star in the first “Scream” film, likes about the genre. She sent up that big-breasted girl who gets killed off in the first frame. “A horror film is just really fun to do as an actor,” Barrymore says. “All that screaming, crying and heavy breathing? What could be better?”