Monday, October 31, 2016

The 15 Best Performances in Horror Movies

Scream queens like Jamie Lee Curtis have made careers out of expressing their characters' fears through that most primal of responses: a bloodcurdling, hair-raising shriek. No knock on those actors whose vocal cords are their primary arsenal, but there is so much more that horror film actors have at their disposal to show abject terror: facial spasms, nervous ticks, wide bloodshot eyes, tears, catatonia, etc. In the history of cinema, horror film actors have not been given as much respect as they deserve for convincing audiences that what they are experiencing--terrifying, sometimes supernatural assaults on the mind, body, or spirit--is real. There are many acting gems in horror cinema, ranging from eerily subtle to full-on unhinged mania. Here are the 15 best, in my view:

15. VERA FARMIGA (THE CONJURING, 2013)

Role: Lorraine Warren, a paranormal investigator and psychic

Citations:
Nomination, Best Scared-As-Shit Performance, MTV Movie Awards

Vera Farmiga already showed in another horror movie, Orphan, how good she is at playing scared. But the role of Lorraine Warren, burdened by a strange power and sense of obligation, beset by both internal and external demons, is a much more challenging and plum one that used the best of her considerable talents. You can see in Farmiga's eyes how some of the things that Lorraine has seen have shaken her to her very core, but she retains a steely, warm strength all the same. She gives a similarly strong performance in the sequel.

14. CATHERINE DENEUVE (REPULSION, 1965)

Role: Carol, a beautician who is repulsed by sex and spirals into depression and mania

Citations:
3rd Place, Best Actress, New York Film Critics Circle

You've probably heard of someone being described as "unraveling" or "coming undone." That is exactly what Catherine Deneuve, one of the legends of French cinema, does over 105 minutes of this Roman Polanski classic, and it's painful to watch. But it's also never short of mesmerizing. As the film progresses and Carol falls further away from reality, you won't be able to help but feel yourself unraveling just a little bit, too. That's largely due to the expert direction of Polanski, but it would have been much less disconcerting and powerful if handled by a less capable actress than Deneuve.

13. JULIE HARRIS (THE HAUNTING, 1963)

Role: Eleanor Lance, an unstable and insecure clairvoyant

Citations: None

In the best of all haunted house movies, revered theater, film, and television actress Julie Harris plays a mousy clairvoyant somehow convinced to brave the horrors of Hill House. She easily becomes our gateway to the creepy mysteries of the mansion, and it is her fears that we also feel because they're so palpable and real. Starkly contrasting with the bluster of Theodora (Claire Bloom), Eleanor is all nerves and brittle vulnerability. Who can't feel empathy toward a character who could so easily break at any moment, and one portrayed so convincingly by one like Julie Harris?

12. BETTE DAVIS (WHAT EVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?, 1962)

Role: Baby Jane Hudson, a former child vaudeville star who torments her paraplegic sister

Citations:
Nomination, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Academy Awards
Nomination, Best Actress - Drama, Golden Globes

Everything is crumbling and decaying in the decadently horrifying Grand Guignol piece called What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?, most of all its eponymous character. The grand Bette Davis, one of Hollywood's best ever, is scary as Baby Jane Hudson in almost the same way as a vicious monster clown is, though this one has been wasted away by time, misery, and loathing. Her creepiest moment: when she sings "I've Written a Letter to Daddy" with wistful, child-like, pitiful nostalgia. Yes, that and not the moment with the rat. Davis is a powerhouse and is awesome at playing angry, but it's in the more restrained moments that the dementia is most eerie.

11. KATHY BATES (MISERY, 1990)

Role: Annie Wilkes, obsessed super-fan of author Paul Sheldon

Citations:
Win, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Academy Awards
Nomination, Best Actress, Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films
Win, Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama, Golden Globes
Win, Best Actress, Chicago Film Critics Association
Win, Best Actress, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association
3rd Place, Best Actress, New York Film Critics Circle

Kathy Bates's Annie Wilkes is still the standard by which crazy obsessed fans are set. No wonder since she made sledgehammers extra scary (and she apologized for it in her Oscar acceptance speech). Bates's handling of the Wilkes character is nothing short of astonishing, as outwardly she's jolly and unobtrusive, but as the film progresses, the veneer slowly drops and the monster emerges. But it's never jarring; the transition is unnerving because it's so smooth and deftly done by both director Rob Reiner and the woman who held Wilkes's reins. Bates has gone on to portray more deranged characters, primarily in television ("American Horror Story"), but it's hard to match the level of batshit crazy that Annie Wilkes attained.

10. JASON MILLER (THE EXORCIST, 1973)

Role: Father Damien Karras, a Jesuit priest who faces diabolical forces

Citations:
Nomination, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Academy Awards

Jason Miller got a very well deserved Oscar nomination for his performance as the Jesuit priest with a crisis of faith, but I'd still say that his is an underrated turn in a movie with a grieving mother and a vomit-spewing, head-spinning possessed child getting almost all of the attention. But Miller handles the character's emotional and spiritual crises with astounding skill. You can easily feel his weariness and his loss of hope, primarily with the slump of his shoulders and the ways his eyes change. It's an amazing performance.

9. SIGOURNEY WEAVER (ALIENS, 1986)

Role: Ellen Ripley, the alien-busting heroine of the Alien franchise

Citations:
Nomination, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Academy Awards
Win, Best Actress, Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films
Nomination, Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama, Golden Globes

That very rare Oscar nomination for a performance in science fiction/horror hybrid was achieved by Sigourney Weaver because of her iconic, badass portrayal of embattled but never defeated Ellen Ripley, a warrior woman for the ages. At times maternal and vulnerable, at others vicious and almost superhero-ish, she is never less than human, and that's what makes her turn so, so memorable, especially as she's surrounded by so much emptiness and abomination. Along with Sarah Connor (Linda Hamilton) and Furiosa (Charlize Theron), Ellen Ripley is a grand manifestation of feminine strength. One can't imagine the role in the hands of any actress other than Weaver.

8. CHARLOTTE GAINSBOURG (ANTICHRIST, 2009)

Role: She, a grieving mother and wife whose retreat to the woods brings out the unspeakable

Citations:
Win, Best Actress, Cannes Film Festival
2nd Place, Best Actress, Central Ohio Film Critics Association

Such a bravura performance! Even critics' or journalists' groups that shunned the film itself lauded Charlotte Gainsbourg for her bravery. The pain, anguish, self-loathing and terror are all so raw, like a delicate fresh wound. There is a certain helpless, apathetic vulnerability to the character that only Gainsbourg's understated and subdued acting style can portray. The demonic forces of nature would not have been as unsettling had a more fiery actress taken on the role. Gainsbourg and Lars von Trier are a perfect match, as they also proved in Melancholia and Nymphomaniac.

7. NICOLE KIDMAN (THE OTHERS, 2001)

Role: Grace Stewart, a woman who lives in a dark house with her two photosensitive children

Citations:
Win, Best Actress, Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films
Nomination, Best Performance by an Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama, Golden Globes
Nomination, Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role, BAFTA
Win, Best Actress, Kansas City Film Critics Circle
Nomination, Best Actress, Online Film Critics Society
Nomination, Best Actress, Phoenix Film Critics Society

In the same year that saw her get an Oscar nomination for playing the tragic Satine in Moulin Rouge!, Nicole Kidman gave another excellent, award-worthy performance (some, like myself, would have preferred a nomination for this one). Luminous and ethereal, Kidman's Grace Stewart is nevertheless solidly grounded, fiercely maternal. A lesser actress would not have been able to give Grace the fragility that gave the now infamous twist such a heart-rending poignancy to it.

6. HALEY JOEL OSMENT (THE SIXTH SENSE, 1999)

Role: Cole Sear, a boy who sees dead people

Citations:
Nomination, Best Actor in a Supporting Role, Academy Awards
Win, Best Performance by a Younger Actor/Actress, Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films
Nomination, Best Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role in a Motion Picture, Golden Globes
Nomination, Outstanding Performance by a Male Actor in a Supporting Role, Screen Actors Guild
Win, Best Child Performance, Critics Choice Awards
Nomination, Best Supporting Actor, Chicago Film Critics Association
Win, Best Supporting Actor, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association
Win, Best Supporting Actor, Kansas City Film Critics Circle
Win, Best Supporting Actor, Online Film Critics Society
Win, Best Supporting Actor, Southeastern Film Critics Association

"I see dead people." Who can forget those immortal words uttered by an equally unforgettable Haley Joel Osment? Precociously and frighteningly good, Osment portrayed the perturbed, harassed Cole Sear with warmth and innocence that made us want to tell him "Everything will be ok" even as restless spirits assailed him. He is aces in all scenes, but the one with his mother (played superbly by fellow Oscar nominee Toni Collette) in the car is the best of them. Here he shows us that despite Cole's supernatural talent and Osment's own, they are just kids. That makes it all the more impressive.

5. ANTHONY HOPKINS (THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, 1991)

Role: Dr. Hannibal Lecter, former psychiatrist and now cannibalistic serial killer

Citations:
Win, Best Actor in a Leading Role, Academy Awards
Win, Best Actor, Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films
Nomination, Best Performance by an Actor in a Motion Picture - Drama, Golden Globes
Win, Best Actor, BAFTA
Win, Best Supporting Actor, Boston Society of Film Critics
Win, Best Actor, Chicago Film Critics Association
Win, Best Actor, Dallas-Fort Worth Film Critics Association
Win, Best Actor, Kansas City Film Critics Circle
Win, Best Supporting Actor, National Board of Review

Few roles in horror cinema are as iconic as Dr. Hannibal "The Cannibal" Lecter, and while several other actors have portrayed him (Brian Cox, Gaspard Ulliel, Mads Mikkelsen), it's Anthony Hopkins's deliciously wicked turn that is definitive. He won an Oscar for less than 16 minutes of screen time (the second shortest performance to win a Best Actor Oscar) but that's not surprising given how unforgettable Hopkins made the character. His obvious brilliance and insanity, his amorality, his words and ticks...all of these get under the skin of not only Clarice Starling (Jodie Foster) but our own. It's truly insidious.

4. SISSY SPACEK (CARRIE, 1976)

Role: Carrie White, a friendless and lonely telekinetic

Citations:
Nomination, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Academy Awards
Win, Best Actress, National Society of Film Critics
3rd Place, Best Actress, New York Film Critics Circle

Another truly iconic role in horror films? The titular character Carrie White, one of Stephen King's most brilliant creations. Long known for her range, Sissy Spacek, already in her late 20s when she portrayed 17-year-old Carrie, truly made the character her own: shy, naive, repressed...and uncontrollably vindictive. Carrie has an innocent fragility all the way until the floodgates of horror are opened, but the transition is entirely realistic. In fact, audiences can't help but cheer on the cathartic carnage because we feel that Carrie has been wronged. That would not have been possible if Spacek had not made her so sympathetically ordinary before the metamorphosis.

3. ESSIE DAVIS (THE BABADOOK, 2014)

Role: Amelia, a single mother who's at wit's end due to her husband's violent death and her child's psychoses

Citations:
Nomination, Best Actress, Academy of Science Fiction, Fantasy and Horror Films
Win, Best Actress, Central Ohio Film Critics Association
Nomination, Best Actress, Detroit Film Critic Society
Nomination, Best Actress, Houston Film Critics Society
Nomination, Best Actress, London Critics Circle
Win, Best Actress, North Caroline Film Critics Association
Nomination, Best Actress, Online Film Critics Society
Nomination, Best Actress, San Francisco Film Critics Circle

Is her very high ranking in my list due to the film having been a recent release? Perhaps, but to attribute it to that would be to undermine the sheer brilliance of the performance. The maternal--whether protective or smothering--has long been a fixture of horror cinema, and Essie Davis brings this in spades to the excellent film. She is so genuine as both a sympathetic figure and a terrifying embodiment of the "monstrous feminine" as she comes undone. That the film was directed and written by a woman (Jennifer Kent) probably made the difference, but that she had such an amazing actress in the lead role made the film transcendent.

2. ELLEN BURSTYN (THE EXORCIST, 1973)

Role: Chris MacNeil, film actress and mother of a child possessed by a demonic force

Citations:
Nomination, Best Actress in a Leading Role, Academy Awards
Nomination, Best Actress in a Motion Picture - Drama, Golden Globes

Talk about mothers in horror films! The Exorcist's primary conceit is that a mother is forced by desperation to go against her [lack of] belief just to save a daughter assaulted by inexplicable forces. Ellen Burstyn's Chris MacNeil is a strong, confident, and rational actress who is also an agnostic. She is, above all, a loving mother, and this always comes across to the audience. So does her terror when she realizes what her fragile daughter is coping with. She does not accept the failure of medicine and psychiatry and turns to a faith that she has largely abandoned. The anguish within her is real and keenly felt. With six Oscar nominations and a win to her name, Burstyn has long been one of Hollywood's most respected actresses, and while this would not necessarily be her most iconic role, it is surely one of horror cinema's most effective.

1. ISABELLE ADJANI (POSSESSION, 1981)





Roles: Anna, an unhinged wife and mother; and Helen, a gentle school teacher

Citations:
Win, Best Actress, Cannes Film Festival
Win, Best Actress, C├ęsar Awards

We've heard of actors being described as committed to their craft. For me, commitment is nearly three full minutes of physical contortions, screaming, and emission of blood and other fluids in a dingy subway. It's having a sex scene with an otherworldly tentacled monstrosity. It's spending practically the whole film contorting one of world cinema's most beautiful faces to a visage of confusion, terror, and desperation. Just as there is no other film like the mind-boggling puzzle that is Possession, there is no other performance in a horror film--or perhaps even outside the genre--like Isabelle Adjani's. Unhinged and mercurial, Anna is an actress letting go of all ego. She also delivers a deranged monologue after the subway scene where she says, among other strange things, "What I miscarried there was sister Faith, and what was left is sister Chance." Truly unnerving. On top of that, she also plays a different character, the gentle teacher Helen, whose fate at the end of the film is nevertheless as mysterious as the rest of it. Today, Adjani is rightly recognized as one of the true greats of French cinema. No one less capable would have plumbed the depths of Anna the way she did.

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