The horror genre never gets the respect it deserves with Oscar. However, the genre has given us some of the most incredible performances. They don’t just conjure up fear. Instead, the best horror performances use other tactics to make us feel a myriad of emotions. They can make us laugh, cry or house incredible dramatic arcs that all run parallel to the horror conventions at play.
This week sees the release of “Us,” Jordan Peele’s highly anticipated follow up to the Oscar-winning film “Get Out.” The film stars Lupita Nyong’o and Winston Duke as a couple who’s family trip to Santa Cruz turns deadly when mysterious intruders show up. Early word on the film is incredibly strong, with Nyong’o specifically getting praised for her performance. In honor of the film’s release, let’s count down ten of the best horror performances of all time.
Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington in “Get Out”
Few shots were more iconic last year than Daniel Kaluuya’s tear-streamed face as his character, Chris, falls into the sunken place. “Get Out” was a massive, game changing hit for many reasons. Yet, the film’s success rests quite a bit on Daniel Kaluuya’s expert performance at the center of it. Kaluuya does more than just sell the horror. His performance also unearths the many ways a black man can feel uncomfortable in a room full of only white faces. Beyond the horror elements, the “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner” elements of the film work because Kaluuya shows us how he’s forced to code himself differently. His performance works on so many levels. The Oscar nomination for Best Actor he received was well deserved.
Boris Karloff as The Monster in “Frankenstein” (1931)
How do you make a stoic monster provoke so many complicated emotions? It’s a tall order. However, Boris Karloff is up for the challenge. He gives us one of the most deeply affecting performances as a character who’s supposed to be fully brand new. Frankenstein’s monster exists as his master’s creation. However, as he examines this new world he’s brought into, he’s instantly hunted down by the townspeople. Karloff sells the monster’s initial curiosity for the world. The way the townspeople and horror movie conventions see Frankenstein’s Monster is different from how Karloff sees him. The heart he brings to this seemingly heartless creature sells through the film’s heartbreaking final act.
Essie Davis as Amelia in “The Babadook” (2014)
Amelia (Essie Davis) is no ordinary mother. The titular “Babadook” represents the depression that Amelia burrows down deep inside her. As her son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman), goes through a tough time, her rage and exhaustion bubble past the surface. When the Babadook comes for her, Amelia finds herself horrified and susceptible to its mission. Essie Davis manages to navigate Amelia’s complicated maternal instincts. She takes us on a real horrifying journey of a mother who has been pushed to the brink. As a horror performer, she sells us on the fear aspect of being haunted by an otherworldly creature. However, she never loses the overarching metaphor the film is trying to sell through.
Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil in “The Exorcist” (1973)
“The Exorcist” still stands as one of the landmark horror films of all time. However, with all this praise, people seem to forget to talk about Ellen Burstyn’s powerful central performance. Burstyn, in a strange yet wonderful meta way, plays Chris MacNeil, a famous actress on location for her latest film. Chris doesn’t know where to turn when her daughter Reagan (Linda Blair) comes down with an unknown illness. When medicine doesn’t work, Chris finally turns to the Catholic church to rid her daughter of the demon that has possessed her. Many recall the vomit spewing or crucifix masturbation that Reagan performs. However, the movie works because we believe Chris would do anything for her daughter. There’s a steely resolve to her actress that serves as the successful through-line for the film.
Janet Leigh as Marion Crane in “Psycho” (1960)
Janet Leigh fully embodies a woman on the run with her role as Marion Crane. “Psycho” opens as Marion takes forty thousand dollars from her employer’s client, takes off in a car and runs away. It’s a dynamic opening and Leigh sells how long Marion has been waiting to break free. This leads Marion to the Bates Motel, as she looks for a place to crash on her journey. From here, we know of the horror Marion faces. We miss Marion once she leaves the film halfway through. Leigh takes us on a journey as Marion goes on the run. We wish we could continue to follow her, had Norman Bates not taken her life. Her shower murder scene is only iconic because we’ve come to care about Marion. Her murder is a shock, and we need to feel the loss in order for the movie to fully work.
Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in “Misery”
I know how Kathy Bates’ Annie Wilkes feels. I’m her biggest fan. Bates’ depiction of a super fan has only become more and more astute as stan culture online has gotten out of control. Author Paul Sheldon (James Caan) gets in a car crash in a blizzard and is rescued by a resourceful local woman, Annie Wilkes. Annie has read all of Paul’s “Misery” series and can’t wait for the upcoming final installment. However, as he convalesces, Annie holds Paul hostage once the story of her favorite character doesn’t go the way she wanted. Bates deservingly won an Oscar for her fully committed performance. She never lets Annie turn into a pitiful joke, even if the plot devices might lean in that direction.
Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson in “What Ever Happened To Baby Jane?” (1962)
After a long career of some of the best dramatic performances, Bette Davis turns her attention to horror in a late-career resurgence. The pairing of Joan Crawford and Davis, who famously butted heads, has been the stuff of legends (and an FX limited series – “Feud”). Despite on-set tensions, their film “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane” was a hit. Though Crawford anchors the film well, Davis steals the show and never lets it out of her clutches. Her Baby Jane was once a child star, but peaked too early and had to relinquish her spotlight to her sister Blanche. This led Baby Jane to cripple Blanche. The film takes place years later, as Baby Jane continues to torment Blanche. Davis lets all vestiges of vanity go as she delights in Baby Jane’s pettiness. Still, she’s able to tangibly bring to life decades of history between her and Blanche.
Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
Though only in the film for above 16 minutes, Anthony Hopkins more than earns his Oscar for lead actor. Hopkins famously portrays locked up serial killer Hannibal Lecter in “The Silence fo the Lambs” from Jonathan Demme. Once FBI trainee Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) descends into Lecter’s cell, Hopkins takes over the screen, just by existing in the frame. He delivers upon all the buildup the film has given him, as he plays 3D chess with Clarice. The interplay between Foster and Hopkins is ace. However, once the movie hands itself over to Hopkins as Hannibal escapes, it turns into a horror masterpiece. Hopkins sells us on both the refined and horrific aspects of Hannibal Lecter. He punctuates every motion with a sense of dread. What’s Hannibal going to do next? What does the caress of his finger against Clarice’s mean? Anthony Hopkins makes every second count.
Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling in “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
As great as Hopkins is, the movie works because both sides of this two-hander are incredible. Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling is the protagonist we need for every procedural detective story. From the opening moments, she’s framed by Jonathan Demme as an underdog that people routinely underestimate. However, Foster digs in to find the determination behind her newbie recruit. Her scenes with Dr. Lecter are incredible, as she goes toe to toe with a sociopathic serial killer. However, the climax finds Clarice having to finally confront what she’s worked to get to. She’s trapped in a basement, convinced she’s gotten in over her head. Yet, she finds the strength inside herself to fight out. It’s the best work of Foster’s career.
Mia Farrow as Rosemary in “Rosemary’s Baby” (1969)
Everything that makes an incredible horror performance is embodied by Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Farrow’s Rosemary perfectly embodies the young, idealistic 60s waif in the beginning. She’s excited about the new Manhattan apartment she’s moved into with her actor boyfriend, Guy (John Cassavetes). They entertain their eccentric new neighbors – Minnie (Oscar winner Ruth Gordon) and Roman Castevet (Sidney Blackmer). From there, Rosemary finds herself mysteriously pregnant and experiencing increasing paranoia. Farrow lets us into Rosemary’s mind early on, which makes it easier for us to indulge in her bouts of paranoia. She goes to great lengths to protect her unborn child from devilish forces she thinks are also involved in its conception. Farrow perfectly modulates Rosemary’s journey, finding new ways to express Rosemary’s fears and anxieties. This all builds to an incredible finale that presents Rosemary with a terrifying challenge. It’s a peak for her incredible career.