In 2018, Jordan Peele’s Get Out jolted the Oscars status quo by earning nominations for four awards, including a Best Actor nod for Daniel Kaluuya. It’s not totally uncommon for prestige to pluck a horror performance from the dirt and see it as the radiant flower it is: Ruth Gordon won an Oscar for her eerie turn in Rosemary’s Baby; Bette Davis got a nod for her freaky What Ever Happened to Baby Jane? role; and Jodie Foster, Natalie Portman, and Kathy Bates all took home Oscars for Silence of the Lambs, Black Swan, and Misery, respectively. But even when a horror performance is honored, a whole lot of people twist themselves into knots trying to say a film wasn’t actually horror — Kaluuya was nominated for a Golden Globe in the Musical or Comedy category.
Ever since the premiere of Peele’s sophomore feature Us at SXSW, Lupita Nyong’o’s stunning performance as Adelaide and Red — two distinctly different but complementary versions of the same character — has been earning her high praise. Not since Jeremy Irons’ turn in David Cronenberg’s Dead Ringers has an actor in a horror film rendered such a complex psychological study of the self through twinning. Nyong’o’s transformation is physical and visceral and — pretty clearly — the caliber for awards consideration. So Peele kindly settled any debate before it began by tweeting: “Us is a horror movie.”
In honor of all the actors who’ve toiled away in horror, either to be forgotten or snubbed, here are 13 horror performances we’ve adored – but which the major awards ignored.
Before Jennifer Kent’s The Babadook premiered in 2014, Essie Davis was best known in America for her roles in The Matrix films and her portrayal of master sleuth Phryne Fisher in Miss Fisher’s Murder Mysteries (check it out on Netflix – it’s a lot of fun). But grieving single mother Amelia was an opportunity for Davis to shine as a complex, terrifying anti-heroine haunted by a ghoulish children’s book character, and the death of her husband. Davis was so committed to the role that she lost her voice for three days after performing a wrenching 11-second scream on set. She told the Guardian, “It didn’t matter if I looked like s–t and felt like s–t every day, because that’s what it needed.” Her face — often in closeup — is puffy, with wild eyes darting in response to every creak in the house. Amelia is creepy and dangerous, and yet Davis imbues her with a sensitivity that makes her circumstance relatable and that much more horrifying.
When we look back on the scariest mothers of movie history, Toni Collette’s performance as Annie will likely hover around the number-one spot for a long while. Annie is unabashedly selfish with her time and art, quite different from so many of the doting mothers on film who give up their lives for their children. She both has pain and inflicts pain — indicative of the generational trauma of their family — which means she can’t really be boiled down into Good or Bad. Collette slams her whole body and being into this character for a riveting, histrionic performance that lays waste to restraint. Annie’s grief, laughter, and anger show themselves on the screen with Shakesperian levels of gravity and calculated artifice, and no one will soon forget the horrific contortions of Collette’s face as she wails in mourning for the dead. Also, against all odds, Collette somehow finds little slices of humor and humility in Annie. Miraculous. (Miraculous, too, that she was snubbed last awards season.)
How many completely different characters does a guy gotta play in the same movie to get any awards talk? In Split, McAvoy embodies 23 separate personalities, ranging from a literal beast who can crawl up walls to a prim, post-menopausal woman in heels and pearls named Patricia. McAvoy said his favorite character of the bunch was actually a 9-year-old boy named Hedwig, who’s got a slight speech impediment and a whole lot of saliva when he talks. In that role, McAvoy chewed up the scenery, shoulders slumped like a bored child, bouncing off the walls with the energy of a kid who’s seen way too many shoot-’em-up movies. McAvoy’s greatest craft trick, however, was in finding the silliness amid the horror, keeping the tension taut throughout those laugh lines, and then searching his way back to a more tender performance as Kevin Wendell Crumb, a broken man lost in his many identities.
It’s no secret that Nicolas Cage is known for throwing himself deeply into his roles, creating a kind of fun dance of them, seeing how far he can take the character with spontaneous emotional outbursts. Too many filmmakers simply rely on that Cage-iness when they cast him in their movies, but director Panos Cosmatos offered the actor real motivation with the character of devoted and then heartbroken Red Miller, whose quiet, sensitive side embraces his love, Mandy, with all his heart, before she is brutally ripped from him. Despite Cage’s character having to smelt his own battle axe, Cage himself is actually appropriately restrained and then only unhinged in rare moments when the narrative calls for it, but every emotion is grounded in grief and then wild and painful revenge. Cage co-star Andrea Riseborough as Mandy deserves more than a mention here, as well, having delivered an equally stellar performance that ranges from philosophical monologues to maniacal laughter.
Betty Gabriel was filming a low-budget action movie called Beyond Skyline when co-star Frank Grillo recommended her for a role in Blumhouse’s The Purge: Election Year. Word had it that Jordan Peele was going to direct his debut feature and was looking to fill out a couple of roles. Gabriel showed up, and the rest is history. As housekeeper Georgina, Gabriel locates the heart of this supporting character — both the woman she was and the new woman who’s inhabiting her body. In one pivotal scene, her voice quakes as she says, “No. No-no-no-no-no-no,” her eyes — filled with tears — at odds with the smile on her face, as though she’s a dummy puppet and either part is being manipulated by a different puppeteer. This chasm in Georgina’s personality becomes her central tension and the source of so many skin-crawling scenes, with the underlying message that the scariest thing is not knowing yourself.
Yeon Sang-ho’s ultra-violent zombie action film earned a place in America’s hearts, not just because of its thrilling and bloody chase sequences, but because it’s really the story about a father’s sacrifice for his child. Gong Yoo plays Seok-woo, a busy, divorced dad whose young daughter has asked him to take her to be with her mother in Busan. Before he even gets on the fateful train with the girl, he already feels like a failure, unable to properly show love. Gong Yoo’s performance of this sad dad finding his way grounds an otherwise flighty narrative. Even in busy action sequences populated by hundreds of zombified extras, Yoo exudes a kind of nervous strength focused singularly on the survival of his daughter. Sang-ho also includes another dad in the film, Sang-hwa, played by Ma Dong-seok, who offers an extremely complementary performance to Yoo’s, displaying a kind of earnest courage, which Yoo feeds off of for the transformation of his character.
Who can make you jump out of your skin and also yearn for his fateful embrace? The candyman can! Tony Todd’s presence in this frightfully ridiculous story rises above the material. The convoluted urban fairy tale features Todd as its boogeyman, called from his grave when his name is said in the mirror three times. Todd said he was immediately taken with the role, despite some misgivings around race in the story, simply because the imagery of gore in the city was something he hadn’t seen before. In 2015, he told IGN: “I’ve always wanted to find my own personal Phantom of the Opera.” That desire is evident in Todd’s melodrama and theatricality. He embodies and flaunts the grotesque, a mythically imposing figure with sweeping grand gestures that become impossibly romantic — even though the Candyman’s got a rib cage of bees! Todd’s resonant voice, wide smile, and mesmerizing eyes add up to one tempting, unforgettable villain.
It’s galling that, at first, the studio couldn’t see Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, the brilliant scientist destroyed by his own teleportation creation. But perhaps they didn’t know that Goldblum would work out like a madman and drink coffee every waking minute of his days to embody the maniac his character would become — the Brundlefly. Cronenberg knew. As Brundle, Goldblum’s natural charisma perfectly matches Geena Davis’ Veronica, a journalist who’s come out to a stranger’s apartment to check out his weird machines. Veronica’s inquisitiveness puzzle-pieces together with Brundle’s excitement, and the two settle into a lovely, if short-lived, romance. Where Goldblum shines is when he transforms into a wild man capable of snapping off a strongman’s arm in a bar. In one scene, the actor ad-libbed an entire caffeine-fueled, buzzy monologue about philosophy and science while Davis played off his energy as the straight-man. Even under pounds of goopy makeup, Goldblum makes his Brundlefly a sympathetic monster of circumstance.
Director Brian De Palma was adamant that Carrie’s telekinetic outbursts were simply about teenaged angst, but young actor Sissy Spacek latched onto the idea that Carrie was “really about a young girl who is an artist who just wants to be normal,” and that the girl dreamed of expressing herself through poetry one day, but her fascist mother took it away from her. Spacek’s mythology of her character was so deep that De Palma at times just let her run off with the role, while he focused on specific shots. Her mannerisms equally evoke an innocent naïf and an all-powerful goddess, and her performance is matched only by that of Piper Laurie, who didn’t at first understand what would be required of her from the script, until she read it with the eyes of Lady Macbeth. The result of Laurie’s work is an unrivaled whites-of-her-eyes performance of Biblical intensity, glimmers of it present in Toni Collette’s Annie of Hereditary.
Though Ruth Gordon was honored by the Academy Awards for her part as the nosy neighbor attempting to lure Rosemary into an orgy with the devil, Mia Farrow sadly was not, despite the arc of her emotions anchoring this nightmarish tale. Director Roman Polanski himself said he didn’t really have to direct her. He trusted her to come to these emotions herself, and he didn’t pre-plan or storyboard any shots, instead watching how Farrow approached the scene and setting up around that. Rosemary transforms from shy, childlike cheerleader wife to pregnant paranoid prisoner of a cult. The way she moves between gullibility and strength becomes so relatable, while the gaslighting becomes more and more absurd — an accurate, if frightening, portraiture of a woman at the whims of her man and the devil he’s made a deal with. Her performance is so affecting that the calm and resolute demeanor she strikes when she’s made peace with her destiny is both surprising and inevitable.
Three words: Subway tunnel scene. Andrzej Zulawski’s tale of an unearthly sex monster who’s taken hold of a Berlin housewife turns into high art because of Isabelle Adjani’s dedication to self-annihilation over the course of the film. Here, she plays Anna, one half of a marriage that’s suddenly imploding in hysteria and intrigue. Anna’s husband, played by an impeccable Sam Neill, attempts to search out where and with whom she’s been spending her time. When she is in the house, she’s erratic, cutting herself and her husband with an electric knife, eyes possessed. But in that tunnel scene is where the audience gets the full indication of how much Anna’s body is not her own, as Adjani flagellates herself with a milk carton, ramming her tiny frame into the tile walls, bathing in the spilled milk as though she’s communing with a higher, violent spirit. She barks and gasps with laughter until her body erupts with blood and green goop, and, holy wow, is it unnerving.
Linda Blair earned an Oscar nomination for her role as possessed little Reagan, thank God, but lost out to another young actor, Tatum O’Neil, in the Supporting Actress category. Famously, writer William Blatty blasted George Cukor for leading a campaign to denigrate horror films as undeserving of an Academy Award, but Blair’s performance lives on, award or not. As the lovable Reagan (pre-possession), she gleams with innocence and precociousness, which makes that moment when she stands with blank eyes, cursing her mother’s fancy guests and urinating on the carpet, so shocking. The emotional flexibility it takes for a child to then be strapped to a bed, globbed with green makeup, hurling incredible insults at adults, is otherworldly, not to mention the physicality required of her to constantly thrash on the bed and yank at the straps on her wrists and ankles. Oh, lord, and then there’s the crucifix… We’ll just say it’s a tour de force performance most adult actors wouldn’t have the maturity to do, let alone a child.
Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall as Jack and Wendy Torrance are two sides of a terrifying coin. Jack is all action, while Wendy is reaction, their push and pull and friction grinding this film into brutal horror. One gets the sense that Nicholson was born to play his role of a sadistic alcoholic narcissist who blames his wife and children for his writerly failures, even though they’ve uprooted their lives to fulfill his dream of finally getting some free time to work on that novel. Nicholson is wild-eyed and untethered, some of his greatest lines (“Here’s Johnny!”) resulting from a multitude of takes meant to wear the actors down into lunacy. Duvall embodies pure, unadulterated fear, lip quivering, earth quaking beneath her. Nicholson’s performance lives on for its horror only because Duvall can deliver the uncertainty and panic, her arms limply but dutifully swinging a baseball bat at an approaching monster Wendy always knew lurked beneath.