It’s the witching hour, and we’re just in time to serve you our final frightening dish in our Halloween-themed horror banquet. We’ve discussed the best of the genre from the 70s, the 80s, the 90s, and this century, the best foreign-language horrors, and some of the most visually stunning on-screen nightmares we’ve ever seen. Now it’s time to shine a spooky light on 25 riveting performances in horror films. Ranging from as early as the 1930s all the way to the present, the men and women who populate this article have kept us awake on many nights, sent currents of chill down our spine, and, in a few cases, made us laugh just as readily as they made us scamper to the nearest blanket.
It’s an appropriately mixed bag of roles, we hope, that all have a touch of the iconic about them. From the crazed to the subdued, the hysterical to the delicate and frightfully possessed; here, then, are 25 Spine-Chilling Performances in Horror.
Jack Nicholson in “The Shining” (1980)
The making of Stanley Kubrick’s seminal horror masterpiece, “The Shining,” is legendary, with the director’s sky-high standards casting a dark shadow over proceedings and pushing the cast members to their brink. This of course included Jack Nicholson, arguably the greatest actor of his generation, whose mesmerizing performance was all the more effective perhaps because it was pushed to the edge. For what became one of his most memorable roles, Nicholson’s portrayal of Jack Torrance, the man whose mind slowly crumbles as the Overlook hotel takes hold of him, is a study of the acting form, at its most manically unhinged. Even while being forced to walk down one hallway over 200 times, Nicholson never once lets his performance suffer for it. Indeed, once the dementia hits Torrence, every scene he’s a part of — the bar and his explanation of how he hurt Danny, the conversations in the bathroom and the freezer, the bat-swinging on the stairs and the classic axe-wielding “Heeeeere’s Johnny!” moment, etc. — is punctuated by Nicholson’s instinctual, raw and menacing acting bravado. Just try to watch him preparing for that axe scene here without getting goosebumps.
Jeffrey Combs in “Re-Animator” (1985)
Redefining our thoughts on medical students in horror films from 1985 onwards, Jeffrey Combs is a ball of obnoxious, geeky, egomaniacal fury in Stuart Gordon’s cult classic “Re-Animator.” He plays Dr. Herbert West (and successfully reprises the role in two sequels), a prideful man obsessed with the notion of bringing dead cells back to life, regardless of the cost or casualties or if the re-animated corpses turn into murderous brain-dead zombies. When an innocent man is brutally murdered by one his failed experiments, his cohort Dan (Bruce Abbott) freaks out but Herbert sees an opportunity. “We’ve never had one this fresh!” he screams. Combs sinks his teeth into the horror as deeply as he does into the comedy of “Re-Animator” and is the primary reason why the original is among the best films to balance both genres so well. The actor’s ignited line-delivery and profusely physical performance keeps pumping fuel to the film’s pace and energy until the tank is empty and we’re left utterly shocked, mesmerized and entertained.
Natalie Portman in “Black Swan” (2010)
Gestating for over 8 years as an idea between director Darren Aronofsky and Natalie Portman, and with one whole year of rigorous ballet training before shooting began, it’s safe to call “Black Swan” her passion project. And boy did she put that passion on display. Her obsessive, determined and ultimately mentally-brittle Nina is one of the most committed performances of the genre in recent memory, and still very much the shiny pinnacle of Portman’s accomplished career. Showcasing a staggering range of multi-layered emotions — metamorphosing from an innocent shy girl to villainous seductress — Portman transforms and becomes Nina from head to broken toe. It’s a tour de force portrayal of the psychological and physical burdens that weigh heavily in the dark world of ballet, finding the perfect balance between ego and artistry and losing one’s own identity in the process. Portman’s transcendent performance is also one of the finest studies in screen acting, the way she’s in sync with the camera. She deservedly swept the awards season all the way to her Oscar.
Anya Taylor-Joy in “The Witch” (2016)
Scaring the bejeezus out of festival goers in 2015, Robert Eggers’ film about a puritanical family living in New England circa 1630 was released to the public this year and, with only a couple of months to go, is a safe bet as the horror film of the year. While its gorgeous visuals, taut direction and ridiculously effective scare tactics do most of the spellbinding, it’s the pivotal role of the heroine, Thomasin, that astonishes. 20-year-old Anya Taylor-Joy, a name you should get used to, dug deep and left a huge impression — so huge, in fact, that it reminded us of all the other actors on this list who got their first big break in horror. Once her family starts to suspect that she might be the titular witch, Eggers’ smartly keeps the truth ambiguous and Joy’s performance soars: the love she feels for her family is all-too-real but there is a glint in her eyes that always makes you think “is she?” The maturity and confidence she brings to the role is all the more jaw-dropping when you consider that this was her first lead performance in a feature film.
Mia Farrow in “Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
“Mia was a little… left of center. That’s the reason I wanted her. She wasn’t just another pretty face. She had a… she had another dimension,” says Robert Evans describing his belief in Mia Farrow for the role of Rosemary in the Criterion making-of for “Rosemary’s Baby.” Roman Polanski himself needed some convincing, up until he saw her audition. With the role of the demon-pregnant ingenue, Farrow (sporting that iconic golden pixie cut) registered a ridiculous amount of layers in the department of wide-eyed disbelief; personifying paranoia in such a memorable, ethereal, slightly left-center, way that it’s virtually impossible to think of any other face when you want to describe the sense of paranoia in horrors. Or, indeed, mothers in horror films. That it’s one of Polanski’s most accomplished films helps of course, as Evans continued to say: “What she didn’t have, Roman got out of her.” The director and actress worked in such magnificent creative concert, that the film made her blossom into an established movie star. Ruth Gordon may have won the Oscar for her disarmingly off-kilter portrayal of the neighbor, but it’s Farrow’s performance we’re still talking about.