From Max Schreck in “Nosferatu” to Florence Pugh in “Midsommar,” the horror genre is home to many great performances.
(Every week, IndieWire asks a select handful of film critics two questions and publishes the results on Monday. (The answer to the second, “What is the best film in theaters right now?,” can be found at the end of this post.)
Reactions to Ari Aster’s “Midsommar” predictably run the gamut, but there seems to be a general consensus that Florence Pugh is fantastic in the lead role. In the aftermath of Toni Collette’s work in “Hereditary,” and Essie Davis’ memorable turn in “The Babadook,” there’s been something of a renewed appreciation for horror movies as a vehicle for strong performances.
This week’s question: What is the best and/or most indelible performance you’ve seen in a horror film, and how did it leverage the genre to accomplish something that might not have been possible in a more grounded type of movie?
Isabelle Adjani in “Possession”
Upon reading the prompt for this survey, a single image came into mind, that of Isabelle Adjani violently and passionately convulsing in a dank subterranean hallway in Andrzej Zulawski’s “Possession.” Adjani deservedly won the Best Actress prize at Cannes for “Possession” and “Quartet.” She’s remarkable throughout the entire film portraying both Anna and Helen, but this scene is *the* scene for me when it comes to horror, a sort of grotesque and tragic miscarriage which feels completely out of control and other-worldly. And it’s arguably not even the most outrageous and disturbing scene in “Possession,” which is why the film is one of my all-time favorite horror films, as well as one I’m not sure I want to ever watch again.
Kathy Bates in “Misery”
While Toni Colette’s turn in “Hereditary” springs to mind immediately, I’d like to go at least a little further back and throw armfuls of roses (and maybe some soup) at Kathy Bates for her performance in “Misery,” a great Stephen King adaptation that could easily have been a miserable one, if not for her generous, deliberate, precisely balanced performance. If Bates played Annie Wilkes with a wink for even a moment, the whole thing would fall apart. She is wholly committed to what Wilkes believes of the world, including the fact that she is not the villain of this story, even when the sledgehammer comes out. That said, there’s no shortage of exemplary performances in horror films; looking forward to reading other spirited defenses of Sissy Spacek, Daniel Kaluuya, Jodie Foster, Mia Farrow, Naomi Watts, Sigourney Weaver, Max Schreck, the “Let The Right One In” kids.
Marilyn Burns in “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre”
Marilyn Burns sells pure terror for the second half of “The Texas Chain Saw Massacre,” but she isn’t reduced to just another screaming body. She’s still a person behind those vocal cords. The second to last shot, of Burns getting away in the pickup truck, is unforgettable. She’s doused in blood and exhausted, and we can see relief, terror, triumph, and joy, all in her face all at the same time. Toni Colette and Essie David turn in fantastic performances, but Marilyn Burns deserves to be lauded for her performance decades before.
Jamie Lee Curtis in “Halloween” (2018)
Horror has a lovely tradition of featuring a young actress front and center in her first, career-defining role and then bringing her back years later as an adult to showcase her talents again (think Neve Campbell in “Scream 4″ or Heather Langenkamp in “Wes Craven’s New Nightmare”). Never was this trope better utilized than with 2018’s hugely effective “Halloween” reboot, which found Final Girl Jamie Lee Curtis returning as Laurie Strode, quite literally 40 years after her first tussle with Michael Myers.
Curtis was terrific in the role, her first movie role, back in 1978. But, with four decades in the business behind her, she brings a new grit and a sophistication to the character. By making Laurie, essentially, a doomsday prepper living on the outskirts of Haddonfield in a secure compound with a drinking problem and a difficult, barely there relationship with her adult daughter, Curtis is given the opportunity to showcase her acting chops in ways hitherto unseen in the series (consider the fact she previously played an on-the-verge Laurie in another, less memorable installment).
We watch as Laurie sobs in her car, stroking a gun, unable to even look behind her as The Shape boards a bus that will take him to another high-security prison to live out the rest of his sentence. “Halloween” plays with our perception of Laurie by putting her in many of the positions Michael occupied in the original movie, this time as the instigator. Curtis takes to the role with aplomb, resisting the urge to chew the scenery by imbuing this new, older Laurie with the war wounds 40 years of running from her past have given her. It’s a quiet, emotionally nuanced performance rich with understanding of both the character itself and the many women who will see their (less outlandish) experiences reflected in her. It could only work in a horror movie.
Bette Davis in “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?”
The great Bette Davis (1908-1989) – #2 on the AFI’s list of top actresses of the 20th century – was, amazingly, finding it increasingly hard to find work in her fifties when she landed the role of Baby Jane Hudson in director Robert Aldrich’s deeply unsettling (and relentlessly creepy) 1962 “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” opposite her lifelong rival, Joan Crawford. Though Aldrich – the quintessential journeyman – would continue to dabble in a variety of genres throughout his career, he created, with this particular movie, one of the best examples of psychological horror of its (and any) day.
The story of two sisters, both former movie stars who now live together in reduced circumstances, the one having caused the other’s debilitating injuries, “What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” gave Davis one of the indelible roles of a career filled with landmark performances. So far over the top that she soars above the planet, Davis mugs and emotes in a manner that would be ludicrous in any other kind of film, yet here is perfect in every way.
Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby”
Lindsey Romain (@lindseyromain), Staff Writer at Nerdist
The performance that will forever resonate with me is Mia Farrow’s haunting portrayal of a doomed pregnant woman in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Though physically small, her presence is enormous in the film. Her affected voice and demure polish make her come off as somewhat naive, but as the horrors unfold around her–and as she realizes all too late how alone she is and how cruel even our loved ones can be in the quest for power–she becomes ferocious. I can still recall her shrieks at the film’s end or the way she screams “this is really happening” before her rape by the Devil. It’s a legendary performance.
In my eyes, the best horror movies take characters meant to represent ordinary people and put them through an arc of unfathomable challenges. No roller coaster wringer was better than Mia Farrow’s in “Rosemary’s Baby.” The simmering and tortuous escalation of her character’s mounting fears is incredibly compelling to witness. What makes her role stand out is the convincing unraveling that comes out of Mia’s committed acting. The kicker is that soft, smiling final image of resignation and evil acceptance that washes over here after all she went through and was revealed. Most people in her position go down fighting, so to speak. She instead turns and we buy it. That doesn’t happen without Farrow’s twisted empathy and tremendous emotion. For over a half-century now, every female horror protagonist since is chasing her level of wrought veracity.
It’s hard to look at Florence Pugh in “Midsommar” and not think of the smiling claustrophobia beset upon Mia Farrow’s Rosemary Woodhouse in “Rosemary’s Baby.” Like Pugh’s Dani, Rosemary is welcomed into a seemingly-innocuous environment, one that celebrates her, only for her to begin seeing the sinister, disorienting forces at work around her. Farrow’s Rosemary is delicate as crepe paper, trapped in a world that infantilizes her so much she ends up internalizing much of it. Much like with Dani in “Midsommar,” the viewer feels absolutely helpless to help or save her, Farrow infusing Rosemary with a thick blanket of vulnerability. The lynchpin of Farrow’s performance is not in her fear, but her anxiety; the alienating nature of her marriage to John Cassavetes’ Guy, the uncanny attention of her neighbors, the nascent tension of feeling alone in a crowded New York City.
This is to say nothing of her nascent motherhood, a subject that causes Rosemary tremendous pause. If “The Babadook” is a horror film about the everyday challenges of motherhood, “Rosemary’s Baby” mines the anxieties of pregnancy — the slow subjugation of your body and life to another’s — to full effect. Farrow plays these tensions with an underappreciated sense of frailty, as if she could collapse into the Castavet’s Satanic influence at any moment. That suspense, so perfectly calibrated by Farrow, makes it one of the most elegantly layered horror performances of all time.
Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs”
Q.V. Hough (@QVHough), Vague Visages, Screen Rant, RogerEbert.com
While growing up in the 80s, horror villains like Freddy Krueger and Jason Voorhees creeped into my subconscious. Still, they remained movie characters. By 1991, “The Silence of the Lambs” felt less like a horror film and more like a real-life threat. And it wasn’t Anthony Hopkins that struck a nerve as the serial killer Hannibal Lecter, but rather Jodie Foster’s jaw-dropping performance as FBI trainee Clarice Starling.
Foster strays from the “I’m very good at what I do” young professional archetype. Clarice is vulnerable and naive, if only because there’s no definitive playbook for communicating with someone like Lecter. Foster carries that sense of unease in the way she walks, in the way she talks. Her face is rigid and full of stress. Clarice’s jaw is tight. As a viewer, you can almost feel her teeth grind. Foster brilliantly depicts someone who’s trying so hard to be professional, but doesn’t necessarily understand her small tells. She understands when to push and pull back on specific emotions; a swirling of nervous energy.
Because Hopkins both improvises and hams it up as Lecter, he’s able to produce genuine reactions from Foster, specifically during conversations at the Baltimore State Hospital for the Criminally Insane. As the film progresses, Foster’s performance becomes more affecting as she navigates mysterious settings and meets new characters. Her scenes with Hopkins establish a full character profile and narrative depth, but the primary investigation sequences bring the character to life. Foster’s teeter-totter mannerisms – the distinct character idiosyncrasies – make Clarice feel like a relative, or a friend. Incidentally, the climactic Buffalo Bill sequence feels purely terrifying as Foster interprets her character’s disbelief and fear; Clarice’s perseverance and ride or die commitment. Foster makes the viewing experience seem authentic, like a real-time live stream. It’s chilling.
Gloria Holden in “Dracula’s Daughter”
Andrea Thompson (@ areelofonesown), The Young Folks, A Reel Of One’s Own, The Spool
When I saw the 1936 film “Dracula’s Daughter,” I was immediately struck by Gloria Holden’s performance as the titular character, the Countess Marya Zaleska. She makes the Countess, possibly Hollywood’s first reluctant vampire way before that idea ever caught fire, a woman who was as worthy of fear and respect as sympathy. Zaleska’s tragedy was just how much she aspired to be good, despite a nature that found nourishment in blood and death.
And the genre meant “Dracula’s Daughter” could take what truly lied at the heart of her conflict and run with it to the darkest places. The ending also doesn’t offer much comfort or reassurance, or even allow the righteous hero to save the day after he rushes in to rescue his damsel of a love interest. No, Zasleska’s downfall is trusting the wrong person, someone even more monstrous than she, and had nothing like her vampiric nature to excuse them. Thanks to Gloria Holden’s beautifully chilling presence, what could’ve been another cheesy B-movie ends up an engaging psychological study that leaves audiences questioning just how much separates us from the monsters that are the source of our worst nightmares.
Anthony Hopkins in “The Silence of the Lambs”
At the risk of going with (maybe?) a very obvious, cliched choice, the answer is Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter in Jonathan Demme’s 1991 film, “The Silence of the Lambs.” It’s not as though horror and horror-adjacent films hadn’t been scary prior to 1991, but that scariness was always derived, somehow, out of super-natural or sci-fi elements. There were demons, monsters, aliens, evil spirits, zombies, villains who seemingly couldn’t be killed, or some combination of all of the above. Dr. Lecter was none of these things. He was a short, middle-aged man in a cell with no extraordinary ability except his intellect (and, I suppose, his eyes that apparently didn’t ever need to blink).
But Dr. Lecter was the scariest of all, and that fear arrived almost purely based on the performance of Anthony Hopkins. His stare, his cadence, his posture, his sound effects, his perpetual serenity… they all served to cripple our defenses. We let him into our fear centers and ceded control to his gaze, because it was so incomprehensible to our brains. Most horror movies, even the best ones, still operate at some sort of base cognitive dissonance. Not Dr. Lecter, though.
Duane Jones in “Night of the Living Dead”
Not only does Duane Jones portray the smartest character in “Night of the Living Dead,” he’s the best actor. Much of the cast is over earnest: bordering on comical—but Jones offers a calm and thoughtful respite, though his character performs much of the heavy lifting when defending this motley crew of ‘survivors.’ He stands as the hero, up until recently a rarity for Black actors, while adding a complexity to Ben, partly born through the color of his skin, but also through the content of his actions.
In fact, Jones’s best moments arrive when his character is basically left to his own wits, as the supporting participant Barbara sits catatonic on a couch. The instances where the gears are turning in his head: when finding small advantages through the leg of a table or the burning of a chair, and when he offers shoes to Barbara—add subtle layers of wit and empathy. The tight rope he must walk, from the shocking scene of him slapping a white woman to the sharp barbs he throws at the older white Henry, is rife with pitfalls to become the villain, especially during a segregationist period. In the end, he’s barely given a backstory. Nevertheless, the control Jones displays: not just through his character’s actions, but upon his character’s emotions, especially as others offer wide-eyed proclamations, adds a naturalistic component to this unnatural film.
And while Jones’s character would later become a stereotype of the sensible black guy who’s perpetually slain in a horror film, his awareness of the film’s importance to the Civil Rights Movement and to America during the period is reflected in his acting, making for an influential role and performance ahead of its time.
Peter Mullan in “Session 9”
I find horror films tend to get some of the best and most unsung performances from actors on a near yearly basis, given both a physical and emotional commitment from the performer. As such, there are plenty to list, many who have probably come up in this survey. I’m going a bit more obscure with Peter Mullan as Gordon Fleming in Brad Anderson’s “Session 9.”
This moody, psychological horror / haunted house film does plenty to keep the viewer uneasy. And thanks to a compelling and grounded story, the film has you relating to Gordon, while not knowing what to think with him.
For a film about working in an abandoned mental hospital, it would be easy to turn it into a slasher flick. Anderson makes it much more about the personal drama shared between these characters (with the addition of spooky recordings some of the crew become obsessed with). For Mullen’s role, in particular, we know something is up with him, but he does plenty to keep certain motivations hidden while maintaining a pained expression throughout.
As a viewer, the stress of wanting Gordon to complete this job almost overtakes whatever possible supernatural element there may be. Given his talent as a character actor, it’s not much of a surprise to see Mullan play a layered role so effectively, but it makes it all the more personal to see the actor as such a flawed man who is also the lead character.
By the time “Session 9” reaches its violent conclusion, the movie satisfies on a level fit for a horror film, but there’s a character resolution that plays into the strength of Mullan’s very human performance that helps the film stand so strong.
Terry O’Quinn in “The Stepfather”
Years before “Lost” became a TV phenomenon, I was a fervent fan of Terry O’Quinn because of his deliriously brilliant work in “The Stepfather” (1987). This wickedly funny and terrifying satire of Reagan-era family values stars O’Quinn as a man who marries into existing households, striving for picture-perfect perfection. When his new spouses and step-children invariably disappoint him, he murders them, changes his identity, and moves on to the next family. What makes the film work as well as it does is O’Quinn, all “Father Knows Best” blandness one minute and homicidal malevolence the next. It’s a performance that’s both unsettling and hilarious in a film (written by the legendary Donald E. Westlake) that achieves a similar effect.
Jordan Hoffman (@JHoffman), Freelance
Roman Polanski’s performance in “The Tenant” (the titular tenant, if you will!) is the lynchpin in a movie that’s a collage of styles and obscure narratives. The character as written is a bit of a blank, but the sniveling, shrimpy Polanski (loathed now more than ever!) comes to life as the dark hybrid of Chaplin’s Tramp and Josef K. That Polanski isn’t a “movie star” (this is his only lead role) adds even more curious gloss.
Jaroslava Schallerová in “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders”
There are three names written on the proverbial masthead of the Czech New Wave: Vera Chytilová, Milos Forman, and Jaromil Jires, Jires among the seminal movement’s most forgotten filmmakers. It might be intimidating to dive headfirst into a filmography as dense and pop-culturally unexplored as Jires’s, but you won’t second guess your decision if you start with the bizarre, surrealist, coming-of-age trance that is “Valerie and Her Week of Wonders.” Jaroslava Schallerová plays Valerie, a 13-year-old girl (who’s just had her first period) in a relatively medieval daydream full of sensuous extravagance, sharp-toothed vampirism, and fairytale references galore.
The film is mesmerizing in all of its macabre, phantasmagorical expression, but its intentional lack of an interpretable plot structure means it hinges almost entirely on Schallerová’s execution, which is truly extraordinary. Valerie ebbs and flows between unbridled curiosity, childlike fear, brazen audacity, and bewildering delirium. Spurred by the wonders of an erotic awakening, she steers us through the unpredictable terrors of self-discovery, sinister religiosity, and the loss of innocence in a cruel, ever-shifting sphere of (sur)reality. It’s an unforgettable performance that will leave you with more questions than answers.
Max Schreck in “Nosferatu”
Richard Brody (@tnyfrontrow), The New Yorker
Horror, schmorror; genre has nothing to do with it. Most great movies are marked by distinctive performances, because most great directors have original ideas about performance. The performances in “Midsommar,” despite the actors’ talent and dedication, are merely professional and competent, certainly not unusual; it’s not their fault. One doesn’t have to look far to see that, when a film labelled “horror” is exceptional, so are its performances, as is Max Schreck’s, in F. W. Murnau’s “Nosferatu,” which is both more phantasmagorical than most and as grounded as any—Murnau didn’t take its supernaturalism as an excuse for laziness, but as an inspiration for inventive makeup, costumes, and effects. Yet Schreck’s performance isn’t different in kind from Emil Jannings’s performance in Murnau’s “The Last Laugh.” The concept of genre is regressive.
I have to go with a classic, Max Schreck as Count Orlok in “Nosferatu”. Would there even be wildly committed horror performances without him? Silent films can often seem cheesy to modern audiences, but there is something so creepy and off-putting about Schreck’s performance in “Nosferatu” that it defies even the most cynical modern viewer to find it anything other than totally effective. After nearly a century of genre expansion, “Nosferatu” might not scare you, but Schreck’s performance will definitely creep you out. His silhouette is one of the most famous images in horror cinema, and his long-nailed and long-toothed vampire is so indelible it still works as a reference for movies like “What We Do in the Shadows”.
Without dialogue to communicate his intent, Schreck built Orlok as a purely physical terror, something strange and demented and not quite of our world. Sound would cheapen Count Orlok, who, without words, seems to exist in a dreamlike state, a silent horror emerging from darkness. Count Orlok is a creature that can only exist in silent cinema, and the days of early cinema, with no reference for a “real” vampire, gave Schreck the room to create a monster so acute he survived through changing technologies and tastes to remain one of the most unforgettable monsters in film. Max Schreck crept up the stairs and set a standard that actors have been chasing for almost a hundred years.
Edith Scob in “Eyes Without a Face”
Horror goes where other genres can’t (or won’t dare) to go. Many of the dark stories and characterizations in horror movies reveal tragic realities or responses to something horrifying that couldn’t be explored in regular dramas. One of the best examples of this is Edith Scob’s brilliant and terrifying performance in Georges Franju’s “Eyes Without a Face.” Her character, Christiane, wears a white mask to cover her disfigured face, and dreams for a chance to leave the house she’s confined in. Scob plays both a creepy and tragic figure, trapped in her paternal household that won’t let her do anything until she has her face “back”; most of her performance during the film relies in her expressive eyes, which reveal her internal struggle for self-worth and desire for freedom.
Liv Ullmann in “Hour of the Wolf”
In “Hour of the Wolf”—Ingmar Bergman’s sole venture into something like traditional full-throated horror—Liv Ullmann has by far the least showy role. Playing the concerned wife to Max Von Sydow, who delivers a performance full of sound and fury as a painter plagued by mental illness and the increasingly real manifestations of his paranoid conjectures, Ullmann is asked mostly to listen and react, slowly absorbing the instability of her life’s foundation and struggling to envision a way forward. It would be easy for a less skilled performer to fade into irrelevance in the role, and yet Ullmann commands the screen, embodying the role with such complete assurance that it seems less like a performance than a conjuring. She may be the often-silent observer to the howling maelstrom around her, but “Hour of the Wolf” belongs to Ullmann, and the film’s success is owed almost entirely to her work as an anchor keeping us rooted in a story that without her might well spin off into hollow hysteria.
Naomi Watts in “The Ring”
As someone with a particular fondness for horror films, it’s hard to pick just one performance here. That said, I think what Naomi Watts did in “The Ring” exemplifies how great acting is just as important to a scary movie as the traditional creepy elements. “The Ring” has a pretty outlandish premise: anyone who watches a cursed videotape dies seven days later. Watts makes the paranoia her character feels after viewing it seem authentic. And that paranoia turns to outright panic once she realizes her young son has also seen the tape. The actress grounds all the crazy supernatural stuff, giving the movie a strong human center. With a less capable lead, “The Ring” would have been silly. With Watts, it’s harrowing.