Grappling with horror: a look at wrestlers in scary flicks

In honor of WrestleMania 40 check out these horror wrestling tag-teams
The Mummy Returns DVD/VHS Release
The Mummy Returns DVD/VHS Release / Getty Images/GettyImages

In the Venn diagram of life, there exists plenty of overlap between wrestling and horror fans. Both feature intricately plotted stories, a level of physicality that most of us either couldn't or wouldn't want to attain, creative costumes and wildly appealing villains. Heck, some of the wrestlers themselves even have horror backstories with The Undertaker as probably the most well known. Even if you're not a wrestling fan, you've probably enjoyed a wrestler or two in your horror-watching lifetime. So, with WrestleMania 40 ringing in on April 6 and 7, let's look at some of the best, most compelling and weirdest wrestling-related horror flicks around!

Tor-o! Tor-o! Tor-o!

Plan 9 From Outer Space
Plan 9 From Outer Space / United Archives/GettyImages

Tor Johnson made his living grappling before he made his way to the silver screen. His name might not immediately leap to mind, but Johnson worked with one of Hollywood's most compelling creators, Ed Wood. The infamous director cast Johnson in his most well-known film, Plan 9 From Outer Space, but they also worked together in Bride Of The Monster -- which starred Bela Lugosi (Dracula) -- and Night Of The Ghouls, both of which featured Johnson as Lobo.

Though he mostly grunted his way through scenes, Johnson's huge form left its mark on cinema-goers. Beyond the Wood films, he also appeared in 1961's The Beast Of Yucca Flats as the title monster and in the 1956 film The Black Beast alongside legends Lugosi, Lon Chaney Jr. (The Wolf Man), Basil Rathbone (Tales Of Terror) and John Carradine (The Howling, The House Of Long Shadows). When Tim Burton made the Ed Wood biopic, he kept casting in the wrestling family and hired George "The Animal" Steele to portray him because of their incredibly similar looks.

The Masked Marvel

Mexico developed its own version of wrestling called Lucha Libre that embraced a fast-paced freneticism seen all over the world now. Some even wore masks to hide their identities. Reminding audiences of real life super heroes, some even became cultural icons like El Santo.

Santo's fame grew even more thanks to his appearances in over 50 films. A cross between Batman and James Bond, he took on all manner of opponents including vampires, zombies and witches. Though not initially released here in the States, the films have come out in recent years in both DVD and Blu-ray formats for optimal enjoyment.

Thanks to his status as a national hero, Santo's films were often presented as family films with him clearly playing the hero. If you're curious to see what happens when a luchador is the villain, there's a gonzo 2006 film called Wrestlemaniac starring Rey Misterio Sr. as the masked killer.

Let's Get Rowdy

On the Set of "They Live"
On the Set of "They Live" / Sunset Boulevard/GettyImages

In the late '80s there was a major push to bring wrestling into the general pop culture landscape spearheaded by the World Wrestling Federation, now known as World Wrestling Entertainment. Beyond the matches you could watch a cartoon called Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling, play with toys from LJN and even listen to The Wrestling Album. While Hulk Hogan and Andre the Giant might be the first personalities you'd think would move into horror lead roles, that distinction actually lies with "Rowdy" Roddy Piper. For what it's worth, Hogan appeared in Rocky III (1982), but his first solo film, No Holds Barred, came out in 1989 and his Gremlins 2 cameo hit in 1990.

For his star turn, Piper worked with beloved genre filmmaker John Carpenter on 1988's They Live. A mix of action, horror and sci-fi that feels as poignant now as it did then, the film is set in a world where nefarious forces use secret messages to keep humanity sedate. Piper plays Nada, a wanderer who uncovers the truth and works with his pal Frank (Keith David) to make that knowledge public. Carpenter reportedly wrote the film with his longtime collaborator Kurt Russell in mind, but went with a more imposing physical force as the lead.

Piper went on to star in plenty of action films from there, but did not segue back into horror much, though Hell Comes To Frogtown (1988) might count to some. It seems like he and his fellow wrestlers-turned-actors preferred to play the heroes as opposed to the villains, so they picked up way more guns than butcher knives. But that would change a few decades later.

Slasher Central

Wrestlers fit perfectly into the slasher genre. The whole endeavor is built around unstoppable, imposing killers who will do everything they can to catch and dispatch you with their weapon of choice. So, it should come as no surprise that many of the men behind the mask wrestled at some point in their lives. However, there have been a few notable wrestling stars to move into the field with mixed results.

Rob Zombie went that route when he needed to cast his Michael Myers for the 2007 Halloween remake and hired Tyler Mane. Mane had wrestled for years under a variety of names, many of which included the word "sky," before moving to acting. His first major role was as Sabretooth in the first X-Men movie and he's stayed in that field since.

The transition may have been even easier for Glenn Jacobs who already had a horror-themed character in Kane before he started making movies. The two See No Evil films in which he starred even came out from WWE Studios. That same production shingle also set up Dylan "Hornswoggle" Postl as the lead in the 2014 franchiser Leprechaun Origins. Bill Goldberg even got in on the action by playing a killer Clause in 2005's Santa's Slay.

The Rock Unwrapped

Just when it seemed like Dwayne Johnson would be more fully known as an incredibly successful actor and producer than a wrestler, he announced a return for WrestleMania 40, fighting alongside his Fast & Furious Present: Hobbs & Shaw co-star Roman Reigns.

Johnson's first steps towards international silver screen stardom came thanks to the Mummy franchise which launched in 1999. The attempt at resurrecting the Universal Monsters began with The Mummy and produced a second film, 2001's The Mummy Returns, which brought in The Rock to play Mathayus, also known as the Scorpion King. He flexed his muscles early on and then was recreated as a not-so-great-looking CGI scorpion monster towards the big finale.

But, the filmmakers knew that this superstar was just starting to cooking and brought Johnson back to star in The Scorpion King the following year. Helmed by A Nightmare On Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors and The Blob remake director Chuck Russell, the film is a prequel to the Mummy films, but definitely takes on more of a Conan-inspired sword-and-sorcery adventure feel. Rock would go on to become one of the biggest action stars around, but only after headlining the ill-fated Doom, which went for a sci-fi-horror-action vibe. Down the line he tried his hand at giant monster flicks with Rampage, a good old-fashioned disaster movie in San Andreas and even the sneaky horror or Jungle Cruise.

Kid Stuff

John Cena
WWE Superstar John Cena Runs Into Scooby Backstage At Summerslam's Fan Axxess / Rich Polk/GettyImages

As already mentioned, the major wrestling outfits have always worked to bring in a younger audience. The cartoon and toys of the 1980s gave way to video games and a variety of other endeavors. In 2014, WWE Studios embraced gateway horror leadiing to Scooby-Doo! WrestleMania Mystery. In that film, Shaggy, Scooby, Daphne, Velma and Fred try to solve the mystery of the Ghost Bear who wants to steal the new championship belt. Along the way they work with John Cena, Triple H, Sin Cara, Brodus Clay and others. That was followed up by Scooby-Doo! and WWE: Curse Of The Speed Demon in 2016 which features a souped-up vehicle race, a villain called Inferno and appearances by The Miz, Kofi Kingston and The Undertaker.

Hey, speaking of which, Kingston and his New Day cohorts Xavier Woods and Big E star in the Netflix Interactive project Escape The Undertaker. The set-up here is that the trio have heard that the Undertaker's magical urn can boost their abilities so they go into his creepy mansion to find it. As the viewer, you get to guide the adventure by way of on-screen prompts. It's a fun experience that oddly hearkens way back to the Old Dark House subgenre and comedies set therein like Spooks Run Wild or You'll Find Out which revolve around funny characters dropped into secret passage-lined mansions. In this case, instead of scrappy New York city kids or a big band, the fish out of water here are charming wrestlers. Escape The Undertaker is rated PG, so it might work as a bit of gateway horror itself.

Serious Business

As it turns out, Phil Brooks is no punk when it comes to acting. He appeared in the Soska Sister's version of Rabid in 2019 and then played Deputy Colton in Travis Stevens' Jakob's Wife (2021) which starred genre icons Barbara Crampton and Larry Fessenden. But it was his appearance in Steven's first feature Girl On The Third Floor that really showed what he could do on screen.

In that roller coaster of a film, Brooks plays an expectant father and husband named Don who was doing his best to stay on the straight and narrow while fixing up the suburban house they had purchased. Along the way he makes a series of mistakes while coming to understand the truly maniacal nature of their new home. A developing actor, Brooks has a Bruce Campbell quality to him that makes him compelling and like that actor, he also pulls off some incredible gore scenes, in one case, quite literally.

And this is really just the tip of the iceberg. With both wrestling and horror as near-constant pop culture presences, expect even more crossover in the future.