In 2005, Rachel McAdams starred in Wedding Crashers, The Family Stone, and Red Eye. The latter is a rare horror in a career that has spanned nearly 20 years, but this performance in the underappreciated Wes Craven movie makes a strong case for McAdams dipping her toe back in the scary story well. McAdams made her mark as the scene-stealing Regina George in Mean Girls and as the romantic lead in the weepy The Notebook — both in 2004. Rather than getting stuck in one type of story or typecast, McAdams doubled down on versatility, swinging between a bawdy comedy and a family dramedy.
Sandwiched between these releases was her role as hotel manager Lisa Reisert, and with Craven as the director, the expectation for Red Eye was that it would be a straight-up horror. However, it shifts seamlessly through different genres before it reaches a slasher climax. The airport bar meet-cute with Jackson Rippner — Cillian Murphy also in the early flourishes of his career — is full rom-com potential, from the jokes about his murderer sounding name to further flirtation over drinks. Mid-flight, his true intentions become known, and the movie tips into psychological thriller mode, which gives the actress the chance to flex her teary but determined chops.
From the moment she stabs Jackson in the throat with a Frankenstein’s Monster-topped pen after the plane has landed, the character’s quick-thinking Final Girl status is solidified. The stalking showdown at her father’s house includes Lisa using her old hockey stick stashed in her childhood bedroom closet as a weapon — like a true Final Girl, she uses what is at her disposal to aid her fight — and while Craven undermines his lead’s prowess by having her father make the kill shot, McAdams more than proves her horror bona fides. Unfortunately, she hasn't taken up the scary mantle since. Rewatching this mid-'00s gem is a reminder that McAdams should join the dark side and embrace her Final Girl status once more.
Variety in projects likely informs the choices she makes — as well as what is offered — but it would be remiss if we didn’t mention McAdams' proclivity for material with a time travel narrative that her own character never gets to experience. From Doctor Strange to About Time to The Time Traveler's Wife, her passive love interest role in these movies completes a frustrating pattern. A lack of agency would not necessarily be an issue as the lead in a horror project, and while 2020 has been an unprecedented one for the film industry, the amount of interesting roles for women in this genre continues to grow.
Now is the ideal moment for McAdams to flex the fearlessness of previous work beyond Red Eye. In the Robert Downey Jr.-starring Sherlock Holmes franchise, she plays the enigmatic Irene Adler — a role she is rumored to be reprising for the forthcoming third installment — and is more than a match for her co-stars. More recently, she starred in the hilarious 2018 dark comedy Game Night, which had a sinister undertone and let the Oscar-nominated actor show off her comic timing and physicality. Of course, horror often dishes out intentional laughs so it doesn't have to be a hardline scare-fest.
There is a multitude of potential reasons why McAdams hasn't done any more movies in this bracket, from her schedule to the availability of interesting scripts. Additionally, getting labeled a "scream queen" is not always seen as a net positive and while Jamie Lee Curtis has returned to her Halloween roots, she famously looked for non-horror roles after a run of scary movies in the '80s — including The Fog and Prom Night. Her mother Janet Leigh is best known for Psycho, but that iconic role shaped the rest of her career and not always for the better. Leigh said Alfred Hitchcock wouldn't work with her again because "Whatever I put you in, the audience would immediately think of Psycho. It wouldn't be fair to the picture or the character." Leigh already had a career before playing Marion Crane, but the indelible image of this character was impossible to shake.
The worry of typecasting is a legitimate concern, particularly because this category of filmmaking doesn't always get the respect it deserves. The bias against horror on a critical level has led to terminology like "social thriller" and "elevated horror" used to distance the work from something that is not always taken seriously. Dressing up a frightening narrative in a semantic bow doesn't make it any less of a horror, no matter what the filmmaker or the press might tell you.
Genre bias is very real and is evident in the lack of Best Picture Academy Award nominations — there have been only six in nearly 100 years. Actors are often snubbed for complex and layered performances that are beloved by audiences and critics alike. In recent years, Toni Collette, Lupita Nyong'o, and Florence Pugh were left out in the cold despite delivering terrifying and awe-inspiring turns in Hereditary, Us, and Midsommar. It is worth noting that costume imagery from both Us and Midsommar was used in the Academy Awards opening sequence despite the lack of nominations. This might seem like a deviation, but it illustrates that while horror is giving women an array of characters to perform, they are not always viewed with the same reverence as biopics and other dramatic roles.
McAdams would be an excellent choice for an A24 or Blumhouse horror vehicle, and while 15 years have passed since Red Eye, this length of time should not be a deterrent and nor should age. McAdams turns 42 this month (November 17) the wide range of excellent 2020 female-led scary movies is a welcome sight. The Invisible Man, Relic, Saint Maud, Kindred, and Swallow are just a handful of titles that reveal the depth and breadth of storytelling possibilities. On television, The Haunting of Bly Manor, Monsterland, and Lovecraft Country have all served a range of terrifying tales with a deeper meaning and impressive female story arcs.
An actress who is proving just how far and wide this genre can go is American Horror Story queen Sarah Paulson, who took on the monstrous nurse trope in Netflix's Ratched before headlining Run. The latter is available to watch on Hulu this month (November 20) and is director Aneesh Chaganty's follow-up to the innovative John Cho thriller Searching. Of course, McAdams did star in the second True Detective season and while this featured one particularly harrowing sequence, the wealth of horror options on television are awaiting the actress.
The Nordic singing fantasy of Eurovision was an early lockdown thrill, but we are pulling for the next McAdams project to be more Midsommar — though bops like "Jaja Ding Dong" and "Volcano Man" are still welcome. With the wealth of talent and material available, hopefully, Red Eye is not the only horror flight McAdams will board.