It’s hard enough being an older actor in the movies. In horror movies, it can be exponentially harder to make an impact, but there is a new and growing trend to feature older performers in horror movies. Is it a change in the movie culture? Is the audience growing older? The truth is probably that Horror films are casting a wider demographic net than ever, and Hollywood may now recognize that audiences who grew up as teens loving their ’70s cult films and ’80s slasher flicks are now in their 50s and 60s… and we still love our horror!
Horror movies are traditionally the vehicle for being pitched at young audiences, and performed by young actors, with young protagonists. However, there have been a few notable films that cast the elderly as the central protagonists in a horror story. And why shouldn’t they? The mortality bell rings more closely for the senior set and the fear of death that much closer. As a now middle-aged man, I get it.
And, it has to be recognized that sometimes the young often fear the elderly. They don’t understand the plights of the elderly. The creepy old dude stereotype. The addled eccentric. It is the perception province of witches, gypsies, and hags (sometimes all three ideas combined together) that has brought to light the prejudices that get foisted on elderly women in particular. If fairy tales are a good indicator, it is safe to say these fears have been around for a great many generations.
What’s more, the elderly have every right to be frightened about the young. The elderly can be overpowered, and become confined to conditions, not of their choosing, sometimes abandoned by those they love. The horror of being neglected and forgotten is powerful. It is also rare that the final survivor of a group to be an elderly person. If you came up with a roster: The jock, the cheerleader, the virgin, the nerd, the black guy, the girl in the wheelchair, and the old dude… who makes it out at the end? We’ve seen this before. But, it’s not always the case.
I was inspired to create this dead list upon Mike’s review of Bingo Hell, but there have been a number of recent horror films that feature older actors in roles typically reserved for the twenty-something set. Now, for the purpose of this dead list, I am considering the age break off to be roughly retirement age… 65 give or take a few years. So whether it’s the actors hitting that ripe old age, or the characters clearly conveying senior maturity, that’s the litmus test for inclusion here.
In a couple of cases, it’s about the theme of age, even if the actors are still young, and have been aged up for the role. The Dead List doesn’t always reflect current thoughts of the aged in horror, but it makes for an interesting timeline in how horror movies integrate the elderly into their stories.
Forget any youthful action heroes. Dr. Abraham Van Helsing (Edward Van Sloan) is the prototype gentleman hero, who uses his wisdom and his wit to defeat the villainous Count Dracula (Bela Lugosi, of course!). No punching, no shotguns or chainsaws, but some holy water, a cross, a wooden stake, and an encyclopedic knowledge of what makes vampires tick was all you needed. In a way, Van Helsing is a very Lovecraftian protagonist. Bookish, educated, and prepared. It was he who defeated Dracula, not the foppish young JohnHarker (David Manners). Van Sloan was in all of the early Universal classics, also having roles in Frankenstein, The Mummy, and Dracula’s Daughter.
Lugosi was no spring chicken either and was 50 at the time that the movie was released in 1932.
In 1958, the Hammer remake Horror of Dracula cast Peter Cushing as Van Helsing. Cushing was only 45 at the time, but he’s one of those actors who had a regalness of aristocracy about him that you always perceived him to be older. The same could be said for Max Von Sydow.
The Picture of Dorian Gray (1945)
The Oscar Wilde novel was brought to life on the silver screen. This is one of the foremost explorations of the pursuit of eternal youth. In fact, when somebody seems to not have aged after many years, the adage that there must be a portrait moldering in the attic somewhere is still a concept that resonates. This Victorian tale of wish fulfillment transfers the aging process of Dorian Gray onto his oil portrait, which ages gruesomely. Not exactly aging gracefully, but then again, it is a curse, so you’d have to expect the results to be rather grotesque.
Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?(1962)
Two of the all-time great actresses, Betty Davis and Jane Crawford, play aging actresses who live together and play out their bitter sibling rivalries with each other. Jane (Davis) was once the star vaudeville actress of the family as a child, while her older sister Blanche was overlooked. When they got older, Blanche became the star of the family as movies made her the star, and Jane fell into depression and alcoholism. Jane now cares for Blanche, crippled by a mysterious car accident for which Jane was blamed, and Jane abuses and neglects her older sister as she prepares to try and reclaim some of her old glory. This movie also famously was a volatile set, with Crawford and Davis feuding through the production.
Rosemary’s Baby (1969)
Minnie and Roman Castevet looked so benign at first. Rosemary and Guy Woodhouse’s nosy neighbors were just that, at first glance. But behind the scenes, these two were Satanic Cultists scheming to bring the Antichrist into being, and they have targeted Rosemary to be the vessel for change. Rosemary, being an emotionally fragile person to begin with, begins to distrust the Castavets, but they prove to be master manipulators. They have arranged all the people around Rosemary and planned this whole ritual out, determined to see it through. This movie uses the perception of the elderly as largely harmless to its advantage, making Minnie and Roman some of the cleverest movie villains of all time.
The Brotherhood of Satan (1971)
Satanic cults became quite the rage in the early ’70s, and films like The Exorcist, The Asphyx, Messiah of Evil, The Sentinel, The Devil’s Rain, and The Omen all cashed in on the horror trope of the era. The Brotherhood of Satan took more direct cues from Rosemary’s Baby than any of the other aforementioned Satanic Cult films. Rather than just a single elderly couple though, it utilized an entire community of senior citizens who are turning the children of a small California desert town into Satan worshipers. It’s like the lower-budget flip side to the Children of the Corn. Though this film didn’t make much of a dent at the box office, it is still appreciated by fans of cult (literally) films.
Pensioner’s revenge! A community of senior citizens who are subjected to the prospect of losing their homes in the name of progress, decide to take matters into their own hands. But rather than taking the political path, they have decided to murder the developers and construction workers who threaten their neighborhood. A dark horror comedy that has been largely forgotten, it taps into the fear of losing your own community, and the powerlessness that pervades many elderly communities. This movie can be watched side by side with the more conventional comedy Going in Style, a bank heist movie that had the bigger studio backing but stirred up similar feelings. It can be a rather melancholy affair, but this film is still loved in some small circles. It’s also a PG movie, so the horror elements, despite the violent intentions are pretty mild… but it does get creepy and under your skin a little.
The Amusement Park (1975: 2021)
A lost work of zombie auteur George Romero, recently recovered by AMC’s Shudder, The Amusement Park is far different than Romero’s familiar zombie fare, but it still uncovers some uncomfortable horrible truths about how the elderly were cared for in the 1970s. In Mike Campbell’s review of the film he stated:
Everyone gets old. It’s no more complicated than this little horrifying truism. The world of horror is filled with ghosts, homicidal nutcases, Pazzuzu, creepies, crawlies, and robot-monsters. But, nothing, repeat, nothing, is more frightening than the prospect of losing your mental and physical faculties and facing the sad and potential finite end of life.
Unearthed after many years, George Romero’s the Amusement Park, comes back to life and discusses the very real and melancholy impacts of age. Romero hailing from a commercial and corporate film production world, was hired by Lutheran Services to develop a film that looked at the darker and often underreported nature of senior citizen discrimination. What Romero handed in was a far more dark treatment, of this already dark subject, that no one was ready to contemplate. And it was subsequently parked in neutral for nearly 50 years.
Mike Campbell, The Scariest Things
This, my friends, is as real as it gets.
Ghost Story (1981)
The last hurrah for silver screen legends Douglas Fairbanks Jr (Edward Wanderley), Fred Astaire (Rickey Hawthorne), and Melvyn Douglas (Dr. John Jaffrey), plus the inclusion of noted British thespian John Housman (Sears James) provided real gravitas to this adaptation of the best selling novel by Peter Straub. The four successful elderly gentlemen have formed a secret society club and harbor a dark secret from 50 years ago. When one of Edward’s sons dies leaping out a window from a perceived demon, and then Edward himself dies falling off a bridge, the surviving men realize that their past has come to catch up with them in the form of a vengeful ghost. This is an example of using aging as a time to reflect upon your past actions, and how they can stay with you for your whole life.
Regrets? I’ve had a few…
House of the Long Shadows (1983)
Just take one look at that picture. That is a hall of fame portrait of horror. Between Christopher Lee (282 acting credits), John Carradine (355), Peter Cushing (131), and Vincent Price (210) they had amassed nearly 1000 screen credits, many of which combined to define horror movies from the 1950s to the 1980s. It also marks the 24th and final collaboration between Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing who first worked together in the legendary Hammer production The Horror of Dracula in 1958. House of Long Shadows was a swan song opportunity for all these gentlemen to act together in a light comedic horror showcase.
The story is about an author, Kenneth Magee (Desi Arnaz Jr.) who is challenged with writing the next Gothic novel like “Wuthering Heights” within a 24-hour span. He travels to a remote manor in Wales, the perfect setting for such a challenge, wherein he meets the eccentric Grisbane family who seems destined to kill each other off during the fateful night. Scheming, lying, and plot twists abound, as the characters position themselves to finish each other off. Prime material for a Gothic novel, wouldn’t you think?
The Hunger (1983)
It’s the sexiest horror movie of all time. Catherine Deneuve, David Bowie, and Susan Sarandon in their primes. This is perhaps the best execution of the vampiric desire for and eternal youth and immortality. Catherine Deneuve’s alpha vampire Miriam has decided that she no longer desires John (David Bowie) her lover for the past several decades, both of them graced with the permanent beauty that vampirism has gifted them. But she has grown tired of John, and he is doomed to rapidly age out, so he seeks the help of Sarah Roberts (Susan Sarandon) who watches him age rapidly in the course of just a few hours. Miriam turns her affection to Sarah and offers her the same gift that she had given John, but at a huge cost. This is a haunting depiction of aging and vanity. Is it worth it?
The Exorcist III (1990)
The inimitable George C. Scott is an actor who hit his peak relative late into his career, winning the Oscar for Best Actor in 1970 for Patton at the age of 43. Many of his great roles would follow that breakthrough, including work on the great horror films The Changeling (1980) and The Exorcist III (1990). He always brought intensity, power, and toughness to every role, and as an older actor still commanded the screen as few others could. In Exorcist III, he plays a veteran detective Kinderman, and his investigations take him to a psychiatric ward that houses many troubled elderly patients where clues to a potential serial killer are. The serial killer is actually the actions of the demon Pazzuzu who has been possessing the senile minds of the frail and elderly patients in the ward and uses them to execute his murderous spree. A worthy sequel to the original Exorcist, and one of the great underrated horror movies of all time.
Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
Don Coscarelli likes to do really odd quirky movies, and Bubba Ho-Tep may be his strangest concoction ever. Bruce Campbell plays Elvis Presley or at least a man who believes he is Elvis Presley. Elvis teams up with his best friend John F. Kennedy played by Ossie Davis, who live together in an old-folks home, slowly decaying and getting bored with their existence, but get reinvigorated by the arrival of a cowboy mummy at the retirement home who is sucking the life from the declining population at the rest home… easy pickings for a mummy who doesn’t want to draw attention to itself. Bruce Campbell is having an absolute blast playing old Elvis here, and he and Ossie Davis had great chemistry slowly battling the forces of an ancient evil.
Skeleton Key (2005)
Skeleton Key reviews elder abuse through Voodoo witchcraft, which is a stand-in for the conventional abuse that people use to turn on their ailing family members. Kate Hudson plays Nurse Caroline who has been brought to an old bayou home to take care of Ben Devereaux (John Hurt) who has been rendered mute by a stroke. Caroline finds ritualistic objects in the attic of Devereaux’s home, and she suspects his wife Violet (Gene Rowlands) of cursing him. This is a slow burner, with some fine performances by great actors, but it is burdened a bit by the PG-13 requisite jump scares, and it leans a bit too hard on Cajun stereotypes. (I wonder if Joh Hurt, a Brit, could muster a Cajun accent, always a cringey possibility.) It’s a pretty good mystery and a proper studio thriller.
House of the Devil (2009)
Tai West’s House of the Devil in many ways is an homage to Rosemary’s Baby. That includes the use of an eccentric elderly couple, the Ulmans, played by Tom Noonan and Mary Woronov, who like the Castavets just happen to be Satanists. They come off as a strange and slightly eccentric couple, and Noonan plays Mr. Noonan with a gentle, soft voice. They don’t exactly give off evil vibes. But they are evil, through and through, luring Samantha (Joceline Donahue) into “babysitting” but actually have set a trap for her to be the ritualistic vessel for a sinister ritual. Their performances hit just the right notes. Odd enough to suggest something isn’t quite right, but nothing that sends immediate red-flag warnings to Samantha.
Drag Me to Hell (2009)
Don’t mess with an old Gypsy woman! Alison Loman plays Christine, an ambitious young bank loan officer who in an attempt to earn the favor of her demanding boss picks the absolute worst person to try and prove her tough business bona-fides with… a worn down elderly woman named Mrs. Ganush, (Lorna Raver)who in retribution for being foreclosed upon, curses Christine with all sorts of awful maladies. Yes, the portrayal of Mrs. Ganush is fairly problematic, with her rotten teeth, warts, and glassy eye, she represents the ugly side of aging. At the same time, what for Christine seemed to be an easy mark to try and get tough with, an worn down old woman proved to be far more formidable than she could have ever expected.
You know I had to include Lin Shaye, right? She is one of the unique stories in Hollywood, of an actress peaking in her later years. A character actor who wasn’t your typical glamorous actress archetype got her huge break thanks to James Wan and Leigh Whannel, where she absolutely owns the screen as the medium Elise Rainier. So convincing was she, that not even the death of her character could stop her coming back for prequels and flashbacks. Shaye has since become a cult favorite actress and headlines her own horror features such as The Final Wish, The Call, and Room for Rent.
Late Phases (Night of the Wolf) (2014)
Werewolves are loose in the retirement community where a blind army vet Ambrose (Nic D’amici) has reluctantly taken up residence. Ambrose’s son grew tired of caring for him and found a condo in a purportedly safe gated elderly community. Ambrose firmly believes himself to be vital enough not to need the old-folks home lifestyle, but the violent death of his neighbor and his trusted german shepherd invigorates his protective instincts.
D’Aamici is a fabulous tough-guy actor, and truthfully seems to be a little young to be residing here, but he is the right man for this role. There’s still a little action hero in him, but his blindness, more than his age, will be his biggest challenge as he tries to sniff out the werewolves he believes are preying on his neighbors. Anyone who has gone through relocating their parents against their will into a retirement community will empathize with these characters who struggle with the arrangement.
The Taking of Deborah Logan(2014)
This movie, if you are not ready for it, will hit you like a frying pan to the side of the head. The Taking of Deborah Logan takes a sympathetic look at a woman who is suffering from Alzheimer’s… or is she? As a documentary crew follows the plight of Deborah Logan’s struggles with a descent into mental decay, it turns out that something much more menacing and monstrous is taking place. The movie feels like it was made by someone who really struggled with being a caretaker and the all-consuming frustration of the effort, and the horrific turn of Deborah Logan is the culmination of the demons we suspect are at the root of mental collapse. Some of the scariest imagery you will ever encounter in a horror movie… you have been warned!
After several years away to be Governor of California, Arnold Schwarzenegger returned back to Hollywood a definitively older man of 68 years of age. Remember, like many of the hulking action heroes, he got a relatively late start in Hollywood, not really leaving bodybuilding for the movies until he was 35 and playing Conan the Barbarian in 1982. Still a large man, but no longer built for action-movie-hero roles, he took on a sympathetic role as Wade Vogel, the father of Maggie (Abigail Breslin) who is succumbing to a zombie pandemic virus, and they struggle to find the best way for her doomed final days. Arnold loved the script so much that he did it for free. Maggie allowed him to portray a nurturing character, while at the same time being her protector. It’s probably the best movie he’s done since his return from governing and shows him graduating to a more mature acting form.
Playing off the trope that old people are inherently odd and spooky, and if you ever have been left at your grandparent’s house, and found it full of curious mysteries and had a difficult time connecting with people two generations older than you, then this is a light-horror film you could identify with. Becca (Olivia DJonge) and Tyler (Ed Oxenbould) are to meet their estranged grandparents for the first time. It is, to be certain, very awkward. It starts out well, with the grandparents welcoming the kids with open arms. The good times lead to concerns, once Nana and Pop-Pop behave erratically, particularly once it is disclosed that Nana has “sundowners” syndrome which is an Alzheimer’s condition that elicits manic behavior after nightfall. This odd behavior and their cryptic sayings get dismissed as being part of the eccentricity of getting older. Perhaps nothing clarifies this idea more than the following chunk of dialogue:
Becca: There’s something wrong with Nana and Pop Pop. Mom: They’re just “old”.
The Visit (2015)
The Visit also offers up the classic Shyamalan twist in a way that works fantastically, and the best he’s done this side of The Sixth Sense. Combining a full-spectrum collection of aging tropes with some truly jump-worthy scares, this marked the return of form to M. Night’s writing and directing prowess.
Three young burglars break into the home of a man who they suspect is an easy mark. He’s an elderly blind man, who has a military pension pile of cash in a safe somewhere in his dilapidated Detroit House. The youngsters completely underestimated their mark, as the blind man (Stephen Lang) is a vicious powerhouse and more powerful than any of them could have imagined. When the burglars find that they have locked themselves into the man’s house, breaking out just became much harder than breaking in. Lang is an intimidating presence here, and for a good portion of the movie, you feel that he is justified in taking these kids out for trying to steal his stuff. But one fateful turkey baster will change your mind on who the rooting interest in this movie is… and it’s not him.
Proof positive that Jamie Lee Curtis is still a box office draw at 63 years of age, the wise people at Blumhouse recognized that the best way to do a relaunch of the struggling franchise was to bring it back to its roots. Don’t do a remake of the movie, but a true sequel using the same characters from the original (save for the late Donald Pleasence, R.I.P.). Laurie Strode is the heart and soul of the franchise, and when she did not play a prominent role in some of the sequels, the franchise suffered.
Back as a wonderfully ornery and suspicious Lauri, Jamie Lee eschewed any sense of glamour, even though she has taken care of herself extraordinarily well, in favor of being a grizzled and paranoid action hero. And it WORKED. Wiser and meaner than her incarnation of 1978, you now get the feeling that even as an old woman, she is a good match for Michael Myers… who, lest we forget, has to be in his 70s. And to his credit, Nick Castle, the original shape, does get the opportunity to put on the mask for some of the scenes.
Though I am not a huge fan of Halloween Kills, as my brain cannot perceive a scenario where a 75-year-old man can move that quick and be that unstoppable, you have to appreciate the gumption of the notion that the old fella is now a free and very dangerous bird.
Stephen Lang again! Back to back! This time, Lang is on the good guy’s side. The same grizzled tough guy now is a bartender at the local VFW that just becomes under siege by a group of drug-addled lunatics out for revenge against a young woman, Sierra McCormack, who has taken shelter in the VFW. This movie has a B-movie all-star squad of aging character actors including William Sadler, Fred Williamson, Marin Kove, David Patrick Kelly, and George Wendt. It very much has the vibe of “the old guys still have it in them” and there are plenty of last hurrah moments of old warriors in their last battle.
Gretel and Hansel(2020)
Alice Krige does a fascinating job as a character we all thought we knew. The old witch in the forest. We’ve all known the story since we were little kids, but Krige adds an air of malice, mystery, and elegance to the role. She infuses a strangeness to the witch that makes her both compelling and repulsive at the same time. The witch is clearly the authority here, and Gretel and Hansel, homeless and on the run, are lured into her home with its permanent feast on display. (No gingerbread house here) This is the proper way to retell a classic Grimm Faerie Tale as a horror movie, and Krige is central to this artistic vision.
Krige comes full circle in this list, having been the beautiful victim of foul play in Ghost Story, who becomes the haunt of the elderly men who killed her. She is an elegant actress, and that South African accent is just exotic enough to give off a sense of “otherness” that works exceptionally well as the wicked witch.
Anything for Jackson (2020)
You should never have to outlive your children. And you most definitely should not have to outlive a grandchild. Henry (Julian Richings) and Audrey (Shela McCarthy) have lost their only grandson, Jackson, to a car accident. They are “normal” grief-stricken people who make the awful decision to kidnap a pregnant young woman and perform a reverse-exorcism to bring Jackson back. Needless to say, they are not prepared for what they have wrought, as they have conjured up a host of malevolent ghosts in the process. The movie is darkly bittersweet, and occasionally comic, as the couple fumble through the morality of what they are doing, but are so aggrieved that they forge on despite the awful foolishness of it all.
Memory and failing mental faculties are the core of fear of aging is a pervasive haunt of modern families the world over. In the past, it was deemed to be senility, and now Dementia and Alzheimer’s are conditions that are all too common and sensitive subjects for anyone going through the condition or having to care for someone who is receding mentally. I can speak from experience, it is a sad creeping doom.
Relic is an Australian feature that tells the story of three generations of women confronting the disappearance of the matriarch of the family, Edna (Robyn Nevin). When Edna’s house is searched for clues, it is overrun with a dark foul mold-like substance and post-it notes from Edna everywhere. When Daughter Kate (Emily Mortimer) and Granddaughter Sam(Bella Heathcoate) finally find Edna, she has no memory of her absence and bears a strange bruise that seems to have some sort of connection to the decaying house. The house is a metaphorical mirror of the decay of Edna, and the family has to come to terms with some hard and awful truths as Edna slips into madness and rot.
Nocturna: Side A – The Great Old Man’s Night(2021)
The Scariest Thing’s Joseph Perry’s Capsule Review says it all. This was one of his top 10 horror films of 2021:
If you think a film in the supernatural horror genre can’t move you to tears, the Argentinian feature Nocturna: Side A — The Great Old Man’s Night (2021) will have you strongly reconsidering your position,” I wrote in my review. Writer/director Gonzalo Calzada “puts viewers through an emotional wringer as it unfolds the story of Ulises (Pepe Soriano), a man in his nineties who may fail to remember what he is doing at a given moment, but who can’t forget some of his decades-long regrets.
Joseph Perry, The Scariest Things
Bingo Hell (2021)
This is as much about community deterioration as it is about aging. Bingo Hell puts a spotlight on the exploitation of poor and aging communities on their economic worries and dreams. Lupita (Adrianna Barraza) is the glue that holds the community of Oak Springs together. She runs the local community bingo night, which many of the neighborhood residents rely upon for social bonding. When a devilish huckster, Mr. Big (Richard Brake) arrives in town to provide a too-good-to-be-true fancy bingo parlor that delivers outlandish prizes, Lupita knows something is wrong. When her friends start mysteriously dying, she commits herself to bring down Mr. Big’s Bingo Casino that has blighted her once tight-knit social circle. This is one of the more light-hearted movies on this list.
Jakob’s Wife (2021)
Barbara Crampton’s best acting of her career is brought to the screen in the semi-autobiographical story of Crampton’s career. If anyone has mastered the art of aging gracefully in Cinema it’s her. Barbara was introduced to the horror world in the fun exploitation films of Stuart Gordon as a young beauty, but in her 30’s and 40’s, she hit the aging actress syndrome so common in Hollywood. She has returned like a Phoenix in the last decade and managed to become an in-demand actress once again in her 50’s and 60’s. Jakob’s wife uses vampirism as a life-stage transition story. So often horror movies use women in the transformation graduation of the final girl trope, a coming of age of defeating your youthful demons. In this case, it is the menopausal middle-age transition that gets explored, and the decision as to whether to embrace the change or not. Larry Fessenden is also in great form as her titular husband, Jakob, who faces his own mid-life crisis about a pastor whose flock has stagnated, and he has to come to grips with his failing influence. Great storytelling, bolstered by some fun gory vampire carnage.