Blood & Brawn: When 80’s Action Heroes Go Horror

Ah, the 1980’s was a simpler time. You could watch episodes of your favourite television show in any order. Continuity wasn’t an issue. And our action heroes weren’t bogged down with angst And introspection. Less cerebral, more brawn, it was shoot first, then shoot again. It was the era of the Arnold Schwarzenegger’s and Sylvester Stallone’s. Most 80’s action heroes weren’t defined by the range of their roles. But everyone once in a while, these larger-than-life icons ventured outside their comfort zones and into the horror genre. Below are a few examples of some the 1980’s biggest action heroes trading in car chases for chills.

Steven Seagal – Against the Dark (2009)

Like his action hero brethren, Seagal’s post-80’s film career saw a sharp plummet into straight-to-video hell. And contrary to what some might suggest, Seagal never enjoyed the A-list status of a Stallone and Schwarzenegger. He also lacked their big-screen charisma – he’s arguably among the more wooden of the 80’s action heroes. Odds are you have heard of Seagal’s post-apocalyptic vampire movie, Against the Dark. Don’t feel bad – it landed in straight-to-video purgatory for a reason. Aside from a few good fight scenes, Against the Dark is derivative and shows little understanding of how horror works. Seagal had a few good movies – Under Siege and Above the Law, for instance – but this isn’t one of them.

Sylvester Stallone – Eye See You (2002)

By the turn of the century, Sylvester Stallone’s career was in decline. Box office failures, like his Get Carter remake, beget straight-to-video thrillers like Eye See You. Also known as D-Tox, this wasn’t technically Stallone first venture into what might be considered horror. Early 80’s vehicle, Cobra, has some horror elements. But Eye See You downplays traditional Stallone action for a more slasher-oriented formula. Yet in spite of its isolated winter setting and impressive cast, Eye See You is dull, unimaginative, and absent the scares and gore horror fans anticipate. Director Jim Gillespie can’t even drum up the guilty pleasure scares he managed in I Know What You Did Last Summer. Fortunately, Stallone would get his groove back with another Rocky movie and The Expendables franchise.

Arnold Schwarzenegger- End of Days (1999)

Yes, Predator could be considered a horror movie. But I’m going to classify it as an action-sci/fi thriller, thereby making End of Days Arnie’s first real horror movie. Peter Hyams directed the ‘Austrian Oak’ in this Y2K-themed thriller pitting Schwarzenegger against The Devil himself. Think of End of Days as Rosemary’s Baby meets … just about any Schwarzenegger action vehicle. And this is where the problems arise when action stars try horror. Ends of Days tries to cram traditional horror with very conventional 80’s action. Schwarzenegger is clearly more in his element when he’s fighting assassins from a religious section. But he looks completely lost otherwise. A good cast that includes Gabriel Byrne, Kevin Pollak, and Robin Tunney, have to keep straight faces while playing characters named ‘Bobby Chicago’. A finale hamstrung by poor CGI pulls the rug out from what could have been an effective ending.

Harrison Ford – What Lies Beneath (2000)

Horror isn’t just for up-and-coming young stars. Occasionally, the genre attracts big-name, established talent, as was the case with 2000’s What Lies Beneath. Robert Zemeckis, Harrison Ford, and Michelle Pfeiffer – how’s that for creative talent. It’s really impressive when you consider that, beneath all of Zemeckis’ film-making talent, What Lies Beneath is a pretty run-of-the-mill ‘haunting’ thriller. Despite its generic story, What Lies Beneath certainly benefits from high production values and Zemeckis behind the camera. And Ford is about as far removed from Indiana Jones and Han Solo as you can imagine. Consider this safe horror for non-horror fans.

Wesley Snipes – Blade (1998)

This is how you mix action and horror with a big-name action movie star. Wesley Snipes was born to play the Marvel human-vampire antihero, Blade. Long before there was a cinematic universe, Blade was free from expectations and the pressures of having to connect to a bigger world. Instead, director Stephen Norrington could focus on this self-contained story that effectively blended updated vampire lore with gritty action violence. Though the CGI effects-laden climax hasn’t aged well, Blade is still a decent movie and stand-out precursor to what was yet come for Marvel.

Sigourney Weaver – The Alien Franchise

Yes, Sigourney Weaver is an 80’s action hero. Simply put, Ellen Ripley is an iconic character. It’s not an Alien movie – at least not a good one – without Sigourney Weaver. Ridley Scott’s Alien remains the most pure horror movie in the franchise, but James Cameron’s Aliens effectively blends action and horror. Regardless of style and tone, it’s Ellen Ripley’s character arc that defines the franchise. Equal parts tough and vulnerable, Weaver’s performance arguably paved the way for an evolution of the action hero stereotype in subsequent decades.

Bruce Willis – The Sixth Sense (1999)

Though Bruce Willis has never gone full ‘Nicolas Cage’, he’s proven himself to be not overly selective with some of his film roles. Perhaps as a result, Willis has a few movies that fall under horror and/or the broader category, psychological thriller. Nonetheless, it would be difficult to argue that Willis has a better horror movie in his filmography than The Sixth Sense. While he’s often derided for his twist endings, M Night Shyamalan’s directorial debut was a genuine phenomena. You just don’t see ‘leg’s at the box office like The Sixth Sense anymore. Compelling, scary, and, yes, the twist still works.

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I am a Criminology professor in Canada but I've always had a passion for horror films. Over the years I've slowly begun incorporating my interest in the horror genre into my research. After years of saying I wanted to write more about horror I have finally decided to create my own blog where I can share some of my passion and insights into the films I love.

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