Christine Spines
July 24, 2009 AT 12:00 PM EDT

    Of all the reasons to spend a night blowing out your vocal cords and straining your adrenal glands while watching a scary movie through fanned fingers, fine acting doesn’t usually top the list. Generally speaking, the genre dominated by the likes of Leatherface, Pinhead and Chucky the evil doll has not been a place where our best thespians go to practice The Craft.    

    But recently, that’s started to change. This week’s release of the kid-from-hell spookfest Orphan is chock full of top-notch, indie-bred talent. The Departed‘s Vera Farmiga, who the New York Times Magazine compared to Meryl Streep, plays the family’s besieged matriarch opposite Peter Sarsgaard, the actor best known for his work in such awards magnets as Shattered Glass and Kinsey. Granted, Orphan is more about internal human torment than the kind of real-world torture that goes on in the Saw and Hostel movies. But one look at the little girl’s Satanic stare on Orphan‘s poster and it’s clear this movie’s meant to provoke more screams than dysfunctional family insights. And Farmiga and Saarsgard are just part of a widespread migration of A-list actors into B-movie horror. Nicole Kidman paved the way when she played the mom in the 2001 ghost story The Others. Then Naomi Watts scored a breakout horror hit in 2002 with The Ring. Halle Berry followed up her Oscar winning performance in Monster’s Ball with the supernatural spooker Gothika, which also starred Robert Downey, Jr. And most recently, two-time Best Actress winner Hillary Swank headlined 2007’s The Reaping, about a town cursed by God.  

    So what gives? There’s an easy enough explanation for the actresses’ genre dabbling: There aren’t many lead female characters who aren’t limited to serving as the leading guy’s wife, girlfriend, mother, or secret vice. Horror offers a rare opportunity for actresses to play characters at the center of the action, since women are almost always the characters who are the villain’s prime targets and final survivors. This is partly because, surprisingly enough, women also happen to be the genre’s biggest audience (see my story on this phenomenon in this week’s EW). As for the guys: Hey, times are tough, and there are worse ways to pay the bills than furrowing their brows through a psychological thriller. 

The question remains whether these horror forays actually help or hurt legit actors careers. In Naomi Watts’ case, The Ring turned out to be a smart move. As for Berry and Swank — maybe not so much. This makes me wonder two things: Which top-drawer stars could use a horror hit most right now? And how much value does good acting ultimately add to the thrill factor in watching a scary movie? Come on and weigh in, PopWatchers, the suspense is killing me.

addCredit(“Orphan: Rafy; The Ring: Merrick Morton”)

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