If I had a dollar for every time a horror film wasn’t given the recognition it deserved, I would need a sketchy offshore savings account to manage my inordinate amount of wealth. All jokes aside, horror is a genre of film that almost never receives its proper dues. Perhaps it’s the uncomfortable subject matter or the “cheap thrill” that many horror movies provide, but it seems like horror movies almost never find themselves as highly regarded as their peers in comedy or drama. One place I find horror receives zero credit is within the acting category. Maybe people think it’s easy to scream and run from a rubber chainsaw but acting in horror films has a lot more nuance and finesse than it seems. Hence why I’ve chosen October, the certified spookiest month of the year, to give proper recognition to some of the best acting performances in horror.
Disclaimer: Black Swan, Silence of the Lambs and The Vanishing are all thrillers, otherwise Natalie Portman, Anthony Hopkins and Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu would be in the top 5.
10. Fright Night (1985) – Chris Sarandon
The camp classic Fright Night is chock full of memorable effects and a crazy fun story, but people forget about the acting on display. Chris Sarandon as Jerry Dandridge, the vampiric neighbor to Charlie Brewster, is delightfully wicked in all the best ways. He can be scary, and he’s always threatening, but it’s Sarandon’s display of sly cunningness and sophistication that stands out to me. He embodies exactly what you would expect a vampire to be, polite and mysterious until he flips and becomes a horrific beast. Being able to play both sides of the role is a difficult task, but Sarandon pulls it off with flying colours.
9. Funny Games (1997) – Arno Frisch
Never has a sly wink to the audience felt so dark. Michael Haneke’s condemnation of fictional violence is simultaneously a hateful criticism of horror while also being a horrifying experience. It’s essentially the anti-horror horror movie. Helping make the movie as disturbing as it is Arno Frisch playing Paul, one of two home intruders. Frisch is scarily calm the whole time, even when committing violent and disturbing acts. He finds humour in his sadistic games, and he knows how to make the audience squirm in their seats. His 4th wall breaks are instructive and upsetting, Frisch is able to transcend the film and reach straight into the heart of the viewer. With a cold stare and a boyish smirk concealing pure malevolence, Frisch displays one of the evilest performances captured on film.
8. Hereditary (2018) – Toni Collette
Upon release, Hereditary was hailed as one of the scariest movies to come out in the past 10 years, and rightfully so. Ari Aster’s writing and direction delivered horrific moments and visuals, but the glue that held Hereditary together was the family dynamic. While Gabriel Byrne and Alex Wolff are superb as the father and son, Toni Collette went all out as the matriarch of the Graham household. She commits fully to the role, selling every argument, blow up, moment of grief and pure terror to a degree rarely seen in the modern film landscape. A frightful mix of over-acting and somber qualities marks Toni Collette’s performance in Hereditary at quite possibly the best of the decade.
7. What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? (1962) – Bette Davis
Teetering on the line of a psychological thriller, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? is pushed into full on horror territory by Bette Davis’ unhinged portrayal of a jealousy-stricken woman who torments her paraplegic sister. Bette Davis is firing on all fronts during the entire film, sometimes sympathetic, oftentimes repulsing. Despite her being known for slick dramas and wry comedies, Bette Davis completely shed any semblance of composure while taking on the role of Baby Jane, running headfirst into full on lunacy in what some consider to be the actress's best role to date.
6. Get Out (2017) – Daniel Kaluuya
Another recent entry on this list highlights the breakout role of one of Hollywood's best up and comers, Daniel Kaluuya as Chris Washington in the biggest horror release in years, Get Out. Get Out boasts an all-star cast including names like Catherine Keener, Stephen Root, Bradley Whitford and Lil Rel Howery, but Kaluuya outshines them all. Chris’ slow realization of the horror unfolding in front of him is exemplified by Kaluuya’s subtle expression and line delivery. He accomplishes so much by doing so little, taking an extremely stoic approach to a role that could have easily been too loud and theatrical, and it makes it all the more memorable.
5. Evil Dead II (1987) – Bruce Campbell
One of the best parts of horror is its ability to differentiate itself from the norm. Nothing but horror could ever create the spastic, bloody beast of Evil Dead II. Bruce Campbell returns to take on one of the most iconic figures in horror, and he doesn’t just reinvent the wheel, he invents a rocket ship. Manic. That’s the best word to describe the oddity that is Ash in Evil Dead II. He is a ball of pure power and energy that brings enough spunk to last 10 movies. Bruce Campbell does what you could never do in any other film, go absolutely insane. Giddy laughter, exaggerated expressions, ridiculous terror, he’s basically a live action cartoon. Campbell in Evil Dead II is campy, exciting, fun, magnetic, and most importantly, groovy.
4. Psycho (1960) – Anthony Perkins
Regarded as one of the best films ever made, Psycho has been talked to death and back, so I won’t waste time. Anthony Perkins is just amazing. A shy momma’s boy concealing a dark secret could easily be screwed up, but Perkins is masterful the whole way through. Never has a skinny man dressed in a grandma’s night robe held so much darkness and nuance.
3. The Exorcist (1973) – Ellen Burstyn
Before Toni Collette had her household rocked by demons, there was the MacNeill’s. The timeless horror story of a young girl possessed by a malevolent spirit is a technical masterpiece that will scare the living daylights out of even the most stone hearted individuals. The Exorcist also boasts arguably the strongest acting ensemble in horror. Max von Sydow, Jason Miller, Lee J Cobb and Linda Blair each deserve a spot on this list, but I have to limit it to one performance per movie, and Ellen Burstyn takes that spot. There’s only so much I can say about who might be the greatest actress of all time, but I’ll try my best. Burstyn brings a rawness and vulnerability to a character who is equally strong willed and fierce. She makes the character of Chris believable and in turn, the story feels terrifyingly real. Burstyn controls the ferocity of her performance, making room for scary moments and other character moments without ever melting into the background, which allots her control over any screen time she has. A powerful performance from an equally powerful movie, both of which have a lot more depth that you might think.
2. Universal Monsters
So yeah, this is cheating. I understand it’s not just one movie, nor is it one actor, but it would be a crime to make a list on horror performances without mentioning the grandfathers (and grandmother) of it all. Bela Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Boris Karloff, Claude Rains, Elsa Lanchester, and Lon Chaney Jr., these individuals paved the way for modern horror acting. The range that these actors accomplish is unmatched. Bela Lugosi’s Dracula is suave and sophisticated, feeling like he stepped out of a Shakespeare play. Boris Karloff’s Creature and Lon Chaney’s Phantom are each body acting to the finest degree. Lanchester is electric and campy as the Creature’s bride while also playing great comedic characters in the other universal horrors. Claude Rains is literally just a voice and is still memorable, and Lon Chaney Jr.’s Wolf Man is another impressive combination of makeup and body acting. These guys, and girl, laid the groundwork for what was to come, and they deserve endless praise for reinventing what genre acting can accomplish.
1. The Shining (1980)
I doubt anybody is surprised to see this at the top. The Shining is one of a few movies I would genuinely call a masterpiece and a large part of that is due to Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance. Nicholson is unhinged. He’s never been a posh theatrical actor, he’s always had an element of organized chaos to his roles, but this performance makes all his other projects look like daytime television. There is no organization to this chaos, just a straight descent into madness. This a genuinely horrific performance, watching it feels like staring into the eyes of insanity. Soulless, malicious, and pure evil, Jack Torrance becomes more beast than man, and only Nicholson could pull it off.