I'm sure Peter Sarsgaard didn't intend to make a horror movie that would provoke gales of unintentional laughter. Yet in a key, emotionally-wrought scene near the end of Orphan -- out on DVD today and, perversely enough, worth a rental -- that's exactly what happens; by that point, the film's determination to take itself way too seriously has worn down the viewer, and its lunatic premise collapses upon itself. Sarsgaard bravely goes down with the ship, as does Vera Farmiga, two talented actors that were better than their material.
How do good actors end up in bad movies? The same way some of us end up in jobs we hate: (1) It sounded better than it turned out; (2) Gotta pay the bills. Sometimes they liven up the movie (The Devil's Advocate wouldn't be nearly as much fun without Al Pacino's self-parodying scenery-chewing) and sometimes they look befuddled that they ended up in such a turkey (Robert Downey, Jr. in Gothika, Zooey Deschanel in The Happening). We salute those who gave it their best shot, and ask the rest: what were you thinking?
1. Jon Voight in Anaconda
Intentionally cheesy or merely undone by cheap CGI? This tale of a film crew seeking to document a mysterious tribe of Amazonian natives is a rather tepid and poorly-executed horror adventure until Voight lends it a jolt of electricity as a jungle guide with an accent that's never been heard before. While decent actors like Eric Stoltz and Owen Wilson look like they're ready to cash their paychecks and go home, the Academy Award-winning Voight nearly saves the picture with his larger-than-life theatrics. That's entertainment!
2. Robert De Niro in Godsend
De Niro's won two Academy Awards, but his track record has unfortunately become very spotty. De Niro had edged into horror territory before, to mixed results (Angel Heart, Frankenstein, Cape Fear), but Godsend represented a new low. De Niro plays a doctor who clones a child for a grieving couple, and then re-enters the story when the kid starts suffering severe nightmares. The movie itself is misshapen and lumpen, a would-be horror thriller with no thrills and nothing as horrible as the realization that you've fallen asleep several times while trying to watch it.
3. Richard Burton in Exorcist II: The Heretic
Nominated seven times, the great Welsh thespian never won an Academy Award and made some other questionable movies in the latter part of his career, but of all his puzzling roles, this senseless sequel may take the cake. The movie itself was a confused and contrived mess, and the actor's personal demons reared their ugly little heads and wrecked the possibility that anything worthwhile might emerge.
4. Nicolas Cage in The Wicker Man
There are those that would question Nicolas Cage being described as a "good" actor, though I'm not one of them. It's difficult to dispute, however, that his ratio of good to bad movies is poor, and Neil LaBute's rancid remake is another case of a horror movie that's so bad it provokes laughter. This one races off the rails early, as Cage clearly has no idea how to play the character of a police officer investigating a mysterious disappearance. "Not the bees!!!" "Get ... off ... the ... bike!!!"
5. Morgan Freeman in Dreamcatcher
There are those that would question Dreamcatcher being described as "bad" horror, though I'm decidedly on the side of those who boo and hiss whenever this movie is mentioned. Among the most dreadful, clueless adaptations of a Stephen King story, Dreamcatcher was directed by Lawrence Kasdan, who has no idea what he's doing. Some talented actors (Timothy Olyphant, Damian Lewis) are simply left adrift, but I'll single out Morgan Freeman as one who seems to be looking plaintively for his agent, as in, 'Get me out of here!'
6. Ray Milland in The Thing With Two Heads
Another former Academy Award-winner who ended up making drecky flicks, Milland's career surely bottomed out in this would-be cautionary tale about a white racist whose head is transplanted onto the body of a death row inmate (Rosey Grier). It's a long way from The Lost Weekend and Dial M for Murder.
7. Michael Caine in The Swarm
Caine isn't the only good actor who was somehow convinced (ka-ching!) to perform in Irwin Allen's disastrous bug flick; Richard Widmark, Olivia de Havilland, Ben Johnson, Fred MacMurray, and Henry Fonda also sullied their resumes in a picture that's so bad, almost no one remembers it.
I'm sure I left out your favorites -- a couple of other Academy Award winners nearly made the list -- so please share in the comments!