It’s Winona Ryder’s 50th birthday, which is wild because it seems just like yesterday that she was an angsty, gothy teen in films like Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael and Beetlejuice. Since her earliest onscreen appearances in the mid- to late ’80s, Ryder has often gravitated toward outsider roles, whether as a lonely teen with a fixation on Catholicism (Mermaids) or a young woman struggling to get a grip on her mental health (Girl, Interrupted). That comfort with the dark side has also led her to some of her most iconic performances. With her birthday falling just days before Halloween, it seemed like the perfect opportunity to celebrate some of her most macabre films along with her bit 5-0.
The blackest of all teen comedies, Heathers has somehow become both a cult classic and a cultural touchstone. Ryder stars as Veronica, a reluctant insider in her high school’s clique of mean girls (including Shannen Doherty), all of whom are named Heather. But when charming sociopath J.D. (Christian Slater) arrives, he sniffs out Veronica’s inner ennui and tempts her into a killing spree, offing the school’s tyrannical popular kids and making their deaths look like suicides. It doesn’t get much darker than that.
Ryder is in full goth mode as troubled teen Lydia in her first Tim Burton film. Swathed in black lace, Lydia is seemingly unphased to discover that her family’s new home is haunted by more-or-less benevolent ghosts Barbara and Adam (Geena Davis and Alec Baldwin). But there’s also a more comically devious ghoul lurking in the shadows. Invoked by Barbara and Adam to rid their home of its living inhabitants, Betelgeuse (Michael Keaton) runs amok, inevitably setting his sights on Lydia, the goth of his dreams.
When Ryder next teamed up with Burton, she found herself playing against type as Kim, a beautiful, popular blonde teenager ensconced in pre-fab suburbia. Into this retro world comes Edward (Johnny Depp), an artificial man with scissors for hands. Despite his frightening appearance, Edward is actually a gentle innocent, and he and Kim fall in love. But Burton’s modern fairy tale has shades of both Beauty and the Beast and Frankenstein, which should give you a sense of where Kim and Edward’s relationship is headed.
Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Like her co-star Keanu Reeves, Ryder took a lot of heat for her performance in Francis Ford Coppola’s take on Dracula. And no, neither of their British accents are what you might call good. But this film is such a hothouse of swooning imagery, the performances hardly matter. In Coppola’s version of the story, Ryder’s Mina finds herself romanced by the immortal Count Dracula (Gary Oldman), an illicit courtship that sees her transform from chaste schoolmarm to wanton bride of darkness.
After a difficult period in the early 2000s, Ryder has been experiencing a bit of a career renaissance lately, the highlight of which has undoubtedly been her turn as single mother Joyce Byers in Netflix’s genre nostalgia series Stranger Things. The hit show centers around a group of kids who discover a dark dimension filled with monsters that can cross over to our world. But as the mother of one of the boys, Ryder not only lends her old-school goth cred to the series; she’s also a complicated, dynamic presence onscreen, able to deliver moments of motherly warmth as well as frenetic, panic stricken energy.