Franciso’s Favorite Horror Performances

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Written by E23 Executive Producer Francisco Meléndez

Edited by MUTV Digital Director Zack Hohenstein

My horror movie knowledge is so shallow that if it was an ocean it’d be a glass of water. Having said that, I still adore the genre. While not comparing to musicals, coming of age dramedies and animated road trip movies in my favorite genre rankings, it does come close. 

In recent years, the rise of the social horror movie hooked me into the genre, and ever since 2016 I’ve been more and more intrigued by it. While not immune to being stale, being one of the only major film genres dominated by female protagonists has kept the genre at least interesting since its inception. At any given point the horror in horror movies has come from what the creators and/or society fear the most, and as more diverse creators have gotten a chance to star in and write their own stories, these horrors have become more important. And looking at the genre releases coming out now, I see a lot of fun, fresh concepts and stories being brought to life by some amazing actors.

It’s no secret that award shows often dismiss horror movies entirely, but nowhere is this more aggravating than in the acting categories. For the past decade, “Film Twitter” has not been quiet about calling out the bewildering omission of groundbreaking horror performances at the Oscars, and I’ve been right there with them.  Horror requires a wide range of emotions from its leads, both as the monster and the hero, and when an actor nails a horror role, it can be some of the finest acting in all of Hollywood.  I’m not qualified enough to rank the “best horror” performances ever, I haven’t seen many of the staples like “The Shining”, “Rosemary’s Baby” or “A Nightmare on Elm Street”, but I do feel compelled to highlight some of my favorite performances. 

The only rule I have is one performance per movie, as to limit certain movies from taking over entirely, and I’m avoiding ranking them because honestly a lot of these could land in my top 5 on any given day of the week.  With that said, forget that because I’m starting with my favorite horror performance ever:

Lupita Nyong’o – Us

Image courtesy of Rolling Stone

Holy cow, how did she not sweep every single award show with this performance? 

It’s instinctive to overpraise dual roles in movies, but Nyong’o doing much more in Jordan Peele’s spectacular horror thriller. Adelaide and Red could not be more different, but as if being called “the tethered” didn’t give it away, they could not be more connected. As Adelaide, Nyong’o is deeply emotional and every scene with her sternly demands that we empathize with her as she tries to save her family. As Red, she has a seeming lack of humanity, precise movements, and terrifying voice that all come together to make you fear this embodiment of the part of ourselves we try to bury.

However, what truly elevates this to the top of my list is the ending, where we learn Red was the ‘real’ Adelaide all along, making us reconsider who we sympathize with and who we fear in real life.  Upon rewatch, it’s amazing to see all of the subtle elements Nyong’o plants to let us know what’s happening, but it’s never so much that it becomes insulting.  She really did do it all with this performance, and in a fair world she’d have swept the whole award season.Toni Collette – Hereditary

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I promise not everything on this list is from the late 2010s, but hey I got into horror in 2016. I naturally do favor some of the newer stuff, and even if I didn’t, it’s impossible to deny Toni Collette’s power in this role. 

“Hereditary” is overall an amazing movie and the entire cast and crew deserved to get some awards recognition, but you’d be hard pressed to find an actor more consistently under-appreciated by the film industry than Toni Collette. Watching this movie, you’d think Collette’s a horror veteran, but she’s just a damn good, expressive and chameleonic actor bringing Annie’s profound fear, anger, and especially sorrow to life. She’s never had to be this simultaneously terrifying and captivating before.

Sure, there’s the ending possession scene, but nothing in this movie is more terrifying than seeing her mourn her daughter and scolding her son.  This is an entire acting course in one performance, and yet she never goes overboard. It’s just what the movie calls for and if there’s one thing Collette can do,  it’s deliver a spectacular performance.

Daniel Kaluuya – Get Out

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While Daniel Kaluuya had already been acting for a while before “Get Out”, this is what landed him the spot among this new wave of Hollywood rising stars. And boy does he deserve to be here.

Like the two aforementioned performers, Kaluuya is an extremely versatile and expressive character actor that took a horror role as a chance to show the full range of emotions in his acting arsenal. While the entire cast in Jordan Peele’s directorial debut is something to behold, Kaluuya is extremely sympathetic and vulnerable throughout, communicating a strong sense of fear and vulnerability that comes to a boiling point in the iconic tea scene. While the music, direction, and Catherine Keener in this scene are all fantastic, Kaluuya’s tearful expression is what ultimately sells it, creating an image that has been drilled into our collective consciousness ever since 2017. It was amazing to see “Get Out” as a whole get praised that awards season, but part of me still wishes Kaluuya had rightfully been recognized as the strongest achievement in acting in that highly competitive year.

 

Jodie Foster and Anthony Hopkins – Silence of the Lambs

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Call me a coward, but this is the only case where I couldn’t just pick one actor.

While Anthony Hopkins is more commonly recognized as the sole standout of the film, Jodie Foster cannot be overlooked in this fantastic turn as Clarice Starling. Her raw, human emotion comes through extremely well. The horror of Hopkins’ iconic Hannibal Lecter portrayal makes all of their scenes together impossible to look away from. Together, they’re one of the most captivating, horrifying counterparts in horror history.

And while Foster has a lot more to carry throughout the film, it’s hard to deny the impressive fear Hopkins shows here by making such a specific, real threat out of a role that’s only on screen for around 10 minutes. While a lot of elements in this classic horror thriller haven’t aged very well, these two performances are as untouchable as ever.

Drew Barrymore – Scream

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I don’t have a lot to say about Barrymore’s amazing one-scene performance in this movie other than she is a perfect start to the film.  She balances the obviously silly nature inherent to these kinds of slashers with the genuine horror her character feels, and while she’s not in the film as long as the actual leads, she’s the performance that has lived in my head rent-free ever since I first saw it.

Natalie Portman – Black Swan

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“Black Swan” is one of my top 5 movies ever, thanks in no small part to Portman’s heart wrenching performance as Nina. True, she didn’t do all of her own dances (something some Academy voters resented), but when you’re portraying so many difficult, uncomfortable emotions in one film, it’s hard to get hung up on all that when she’s playing such a simultaneously sympathetic and selfish character.

She is self destructive, insecure and trapped in an endless, desperate search for perfection and while Portman makes you feel for her, she also doesn’t shy away from the darker side of Nina’s growth. Natalie Portman’s always appearing in varied, challenging roles, but it’s hard for me to imagine her topping this performance ever.  That being said, I should shout out her other great horror performance in “Annihilation”.  Interestingly, both movies make a great “Natalie Portman striving for perfection/a stronger sense of self” horror double feature.

Bruce Campbell – Evil Dead 2

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I’ll be honest, I wasn’t a fan of this movie, I found it pretty basic and dated, but Bruce Campbell gives the movie the energy it needs to keep you hooked the whole time. He was already really good in the first one, but here he gets to pull out a new wilder side that’s sometimes scarier, sometimes more deranged, but always groovier. He mixes the camp and intimidation factor extremely well, and while it’s always pretty clear that the threats in this forest will be impossible to escape, his raw charisma makes you hope that he’ll somehow pull it off.

Jamie Lee Curtis – Halloween

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From one horror icon to the next, Jamie Lee Curtis became an immediate scream queen with her debut film performance in the original “Halloween”, but her crowning achievement in the franchise didn’t come until 2018’s uneven, but entertaining “Halloween”. This is the only Halloween movie I’ve seen, so I may be wrong about that, but it’s hard for me to imagine Curtis topping this interpretation of Laurie Strode.

While the script in this one leaves quite a bit to be desired, she does everything with the material she’s given, painting a woman who’s become paranoid and a shell of her former self ever since the original Michael Meyers slaughter-fest.  At once she is a well-trained badass who’s been waiting for Michael all these years, but has also lost nearly everything in her life due to the trauma he left her.  The film overall doesn’t do her justice, but Curtis makes the whole film worth it on her own.

Bill Skarsgard – It

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My favorite purely monstrous role, the 2017 “It” remake took Pennywise from a scary clown to a scary clown that represents all the insidious, bigoted parts of this small town. And while the writing has a lot of interesting layers to it, Skarsgard still gets room to be utterly terrifying in every scene. Even in the far lesser “It Chapter 2”, he still brings an unbelievable level of fear to the story with all his energetic movements and creepy expressions. If that all wasn’t enough, the Pennywise voice will be enough to send a chill down anyone’s spine.

Janelle Monáe – Antebellum

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2020 hasn’t given us a ton of movies for mysterious reasons I can’t quite put my finger on, but it has given us some great ones. Case and point, “Antebellum”, a horror movie about the Confederacy and how America’s racist sins in the past have prevailed to this day.

It’s a bit held back by its insistence of keeping one of its narrative elements a twist when it didn’t need to be, but it’s still a pretty great story that gives Janelle Monáe room to show off her acting prowess. In her role as Veronica, Monáe portrays a woman in the highest of highs brought down to the lowest of lows by a hate group that is doing all it can to make sure the Confederacy never dies. In her scenes as a slave attempting escape, she shows her strongest acting moments, portraying a woman who refuses to be defeated. The typical slave film scenes are here, as hard to watch as ever (and deemed unnecessary by plenty of critics), but Monáe’s strongest acting doesn’t come from them; instead, it’s her cathartic, violent climactic fight against the slave owners that bring out a strong, unstoppable fire that is gratifying to watch.

While the opening  scenes of the film are difficult to stomach, there is nothing more rewatchable than seeing Veronica obliterating her captors and standing tall in her power.

Kathy Bates – Misery

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Sweet one moment, cruel the next, Kathy Bates’ Annie keeps you at the edge of your seat the whole movie.  Actually, that’s not true, Bates’ delivery is much more complex than that, catching you off guard in the beginning.  While she initially seems like a kind yet overenthusiastic fan, over time her darker side comes out, and after that you can never feel secure in her kinder moments again. She provides the movie with all of its highlights, especially that bone-breaking scene that makes me squirm whenever I so much as think of it.

Anthony Perkins – Psycho

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Does this performance live up to its monumental legacy?  Not quite.  Is it still really good?  Oh yes.

While taking an Alfred Hitchcock class this semester has exposed me to many better villainous performances that are similar to this one, it’s still hard to ignore how good Perkins is at soothing you into a false sense of security before pulling out the wig and the knife.

Much like Bates in “Misery”, Perkins seems genuinely welcoming at first, but once his dark side comes out he doesn’t stop being intimidating until the credits roll. Even when he’s trapped, the closing scene provides one of the most bone-chilling endings ever.

Essie Davis – The Babadook

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This is the movie that got me into horror movies, and I was immediately obsessed. 

While Noah Wiseman is giving a great child performance in this familial horror film, it’s his mother Amelia, played by Davis, that completely steals the show. She carries the whole film with her mind deteriorating in ways that make us wonder if there’s a monster in this house or if her struggles to be a mother are what’s making the tension escalate.

Similarly to the previously mentioned Collette performance in “Hereditary”, this picture of maternity is both emotional and intimidating. While she’s impressive in the more obvious acting feats, like her powerful, rage-filled denouncement of the titular Babadook, what makes her performance are the quieter, subtler moments where she’s just showing the quiet sadness she feels at all times. In yet another ever-memorable horror ending, the scene where she tends to the Babadook is partially effective because of how matter of fact she treats the beast, showing her character growth perfectly.

Florence Pugh – Midsommar

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Speaking of ever-present sadness, subtlety, big acting feats, and connections to “Hereditary”, let’s talk about how Pugh totally bodied this performance in Ari Aster’s 2019 follow-up. While 2019 was Pugh’s year all around with perfect performances in “Fighting with my Family” and “Little Women”, her crowning achievement (no matter what the Oscars said) was “Midsommar”, where she plays an utterly destroyed, repressed Dani.

Just as Aster’s perverse, horrific, unrelenting narrative allowed Collette to bring out an entire spectrum of emotions for her “Hereditary” role, the same can be said here for Pugh. Throughout a lot of the film she looks completely empty, a husk of a woman without any support in her life, but when her emotions come out they come out big.

By this point the image of Pugh crying- no, wailing as a group of women surround her has been ingrained in our brains, but it’s still not even her best acting moment in the film. That honor has to go to the entirety of the climax and ending of the film where she’s drugged, confused, terrified, welcomed, happy, elated, blissful, and elevated in a relatively short amount of time. While a lesser actor would’ve floundered when told to transition between so many contrasting emotions, Pugh makes it feel natural, and it all culminates in a sobbing Dani standing up, realizing she has what she’s been looking for, and smiling at all her troubles burning alive.

Megan Fox – Jennifer’s Body

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While it may sound laughable to the less-astute horror fans out there to even mention Megan Fox in a list with Toni Colette, Kathy Bates and Anthony Hopkins, “Jennifer’s Body” really gave Fox the space to portray a character instead of the one dimensional underwear models Michael Bay pigeonholed her into for so many years. Here, she plays both a victim and monster who goes from a normal, popular cheerleader at her school to an intimidating monster bent on eating the boys in her school. 

While the advertising of this movie sold it as a horny excuse to show Megan Fox in fetishistic schoolgirl outfits, the actual film is a really powerful statement on female friendships, grounded by Megan Fox and the equally wonderful Amanda Seyfried. Seeing a group of guys sacrificing Fox for their own gain is not just emotional because she is selling every second of it, but because in a way that’s what happened to her in Hollywood. If there’s one movie I encourage you to watch from this list, it’s this one, it shows the range Fox can bring to the table, going from a larger than life popular girl to a banshee while always being a sympathetic, if a bit parasitic, friend.

 

This list obviously excludes a lot of the most iconic performances in horror history, but just because October ends today doesn’t mean I won’t be looking for more great creepy movies to watch, so go to @MUTV23 on Twitter and tell us what your favorite horror performances are. 

And, as always, stay spoopy.