Top 20 Best Performances in Horror Movies of All Time

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Top 20 Best Performances in Horror Movies of All Time

VOICE OVER: Ryan Wild WRITTEN BY: Nathan Sharp
Horror movies don't often get the respect they deserve — let's change that. For this list, we'll be looking at the most memorable, compelling, influential, and acclaimed performances in horror films. Our countdown includes Toni Collette, Sigourney Weaver, Bill Skarsgård, Jamie Lee Curtis, Jack Nicholson, and more!
Transcript
Script written by Nathan Sharp

Top 20 Best Performances in Horror Movies


Horror movies don’t often get the respect they deserve — let’s change that. Welcome to WatchMojo, and today we’ll be counting down our picks for the Top 20 best performances in horror movies.

For this list, we’ll be looking at the most memorable, compelling, influential, and acclaimed performances in horror films

#20: Sigourney Weaver

“Alien” (1979)
Over four decades after its release, Ridley Scott’s “Alien” remains a hugely influential movie. And much of its legacy is tied to its protagonist, Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley. At a time when female characters in horror were often portrayed as damsels in distress, Ripley proved that there was lots of space (no pun intended) for badass female protagonists. But Weaver doesn’t just nail the badassery; she also imbues Ripley with contagious fear and courage. Ripley isn’t some unstoppable action hero without flaws. She’s just a brave person thrust into a desperate situation. “Alien” heralded a new age of horror, and Weaver was a big reason why.

#19: Roy Scheider

“Jaws” (1975)
Speaking of unconventional heroes, Roy Scheider’s Chief Brody is far from your typical lead in a thriller film. Sure, he’s chief of police, but he also looks like every dorky dad from the 70s. However, Scheider was the perfect casting choice for this everyman role, grounding the movie in his believable performance. His look of dreadful realization in “Jaws’” famous dolly zoom shot has become iconic - perfectly conveying the stomach-dropping sense of doom we all get when witnessing something terrible. His famous line about needing a bigger boat was entirely improvised, landing Scheider a spot in movie history. Not even horror movie history - just movie history in general!

#18: Naomi Watts

“The Ring” (2002)
It’s hard to make a movie as outlandish as “The Ring” feel personal and grounded, but Naomi Watts managed to do just that. “The Ring” is about a cursed VHS tape and a vengeful ghost girl that comes out of TVs. That premise sounds downright goofy, and in the wrong hands, this remake of the excellent Japanese original could have been laughable instead of creepy. Luckily, the filmmakers crafted a movie that oozes atmosphere and tension, in no small part thanks to Naomi Watts’s emotional and plausible performance as Rachel Keller.

#17: Boris Karloff

“Frankenstein” (1931)
It is incredibly difficult to make a speechless character so memorable, but the writing, makeup, and Karloff’s incredible performance made Frankenstein’s Monster one of the most renowned characters in cinematic history. Perhaps it’s Karloff’s hulking figure, or maybe it’s his incredible ability to convey so much emotion through facial expressions alone. This is showcased in the controversial scene in which he accidentally drowns the little girl Maria; his interactions with her perfectly convey the Monster’s childish innocence and his dangerous ignorance. Karloff is frightening, sympathetic, and even pitiful, and it takes a true talent to pack all three into a single character.

#16; Daniel Kaluuya

“Get Out” (2017)
As the lead in Jordan Peele’s groundbreaking directorial debut, Daniel Kaluuya had a lot of emotional ground to cover. Ensnared in a sinister plot by people he trusted, his character Chris Washington goes from uneasy, to desperate, and finally to furious in the film’s bloody finale, with stretches of guilt and betrayal on the way. Kaluuya wonderfully conveys all of these emotions; and the shot of his crying, wide-eyed face instantly became classic horror movie imagery. The performance made Kaluuya a star and landed him a well-earned Academy Award nomination.

#15: Bill Skarsgård

“It” (2017) & “It Chapter Two” (2019)
Skarsgård had monumental clown shoes to fill. Tim Curry’s haunting performance as Pennywise in the 1990 miniseries is historic, praised even by critics who found the miniseries overlong. We all thought he was irreplaceable - until we saw Bill Skarsgård. Skarsgård makes for a fantastic Pennywise, nailing the character’s pseudo-friendly facade and deeply sinister motivations. Plus, that wandering eye thing he does is just way too creepy. Even when “Chapter Two” faltered under its own ambition, Skarsgård kept it entertaining with his madcap and delirious performance. The laugh, the voice, the smile - it’s all horrifying stuff.

#14; Jeff Goldblum

“The Fly” (1986)
When you think of acclaimed horror movie actors, you might not immediately think of Jeff Goldblum, who’s often typecast as the eccentric or nerdy comic relief. However, anyone who’s seen David Cronenberg’s body horror masterpiece “The Fly” knows just how amazing he is in darker roles. Despite being a gory body horror flick, “The Fly” was acclaimed by critics, and many even thought that Goldblum would receive an Academy Award nomination for his performance as Seth Brundle. Even the highly popular Gene Siskel (of Siskel & Ebert fame) thought he was snubbed! Goldblum did win a Saturn Award, so that’s something we suppose.

#13: Haley Joel Osment

“The Sixth Sense” (1999)
M. Night Shyamalan’s supernatural thriller is a legendary horror movie, and it all hinges on Haley Joel Osment’s timeless performance as little Cole Sear. Well, that and the famous twist ending. Osment was just eleven years old when “The Sixth Sense” was released in the summer of 1999, yet he was instantly hailed as one of the best actors of the year. His chilling delivery of “I see dead people” alone was widely referenced and parodied, and even ranked the 44th best movie quote of all time by the American Film Institute in 2005. Osment’s performance earned him an Academy Award nomination, making him the second-youngest performer to receive a supporting Oscar nomination. Now that is one heck of a legacy.

#12: Toni Collette

“Hereditary” (2018)
Collette starred as Lynn Sear in “The Sixth Sense,” but she really earned her horror credentials in the 2018 masterpiece “Hereditary.” Collette’s leading performance was lauded, and like Jeff Goldblum, many thought that she would be nominated for an Academy Award. When that didn’t come to pass, it was derided as one of the year’s biggest snubs. Collette’s role as the grieving Annie Graham is a masterclass in acting. She conveys deep grief, but also incredible anger, and her transformation in the finale is in a league of its own. It’s moving and spine-chilling work.

#11: Linda Blair

“The Exorcist” (1973)
“The Exorcist” is often regarded as the scariest movie ever made, and Linda Blair’s demonic performance as the possessed Regan MacNeil is a large reason for its legacy. Blair was 14 years old when “The Exorcist” was released in 1973, and she faced intense media scrutiny for her performance. Some called it “blasphemous,” and others falsely declared that she had suffered a mental breakdown during filming. However, it also garnered incredible praise, including an Academy Award nomination and a Golden Globe award for Best Supporting Actress. Of course, we also can’t discount the amazing makeup and Mercedes McCambridge’s haunting voice, both of which combined with Blair’s stellar performance to create one of the most iconic characters in movie history.

#10: Max Schreck

“Nosferatu” (1922)
Like Boris Karloff in “Frankenstein” (1931), Max Schreck conveys incredible power without a single line of dialogue. Schreck plays Count Orlok, based on Bram Stoker’s Count Dracula. “Nosferatu” is an enormously influential film and is often praised for its atmosphere, haunting visuals, and Schreck’s chilling performance. As with “The Exorcist,” we also can’t discount the visual design of Orlok. Even if you’ve never seen “Nosferatu,” you’ve seen Orlok’s demonic and otherworldly face. Through Orlock, Schreck helped establish a template that countless horror movies would follow - and the character he created still remains a terrifying force in its own right.

#9: Jamie Lee Curtis

“Halloween” (1978)
Before Sigourney Weaver’s Ellen Ripley, there was Jamie Lee Curtis’s Laurie Strode, one of the earliest “Final Girls” in film. “Halloween” was well received upon release, and even critics who don’t typically like slashers, such as Roger Ebert, praised the movie for its grounded approach. Curtis portrayed Laurie as an introverted, intelligent teenager, whose vulnerability hides hidden strength and resourcefulness. The character helped originate the “final girl” archetype, and Curtis was instantly labeled a Scream Queen. The “Halloween” franchise might have lost its way for a time before Curtis’ 2018 return, but Laurie Strode has remained a seminal cinematic heroine.

#8: Mia Farrow

“Rosemary’s Baby” (1968)
This film left even the most down-to-earth viewers feeling paranoid, and that’s largely due to Mia Farrow’s sympathetic portrayal of Rosemary Woodhouse. Rosemary begins to suspect that her neighbors are using her pregnancy to birth the Antichrist, and she grows increasingly panicked as the story progresses. The movie was widely acclaimed for its writing and performances, as most of the horror stems from suspicious circumstances and dreamlike visions, rather than gore or violence. The movie would have utterly collapsed in the hands of a less capable actress, as it hinges entirely on her sympathetic plight. Farrow is instantly lovable, and it makes watching her downfall all the more chilling and poignant.

#7: Bette Davis

“What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?” (1962)
There was a lot of buzz surrounding this movie back in the 60s, thanks in part to the real life rivalry between stars Bette Dravis and Joan Crawford, but also Davis’ stellar performance. The movie concerns Davis’s Baby Jane Hudson, a psychotic, washed up child star who keeps her older sister imprisoned in a mansion. Davis’ fascinating and harrowing performance was praised by critics and audiences alike, and earned her Golden Globe, BAFTA, and Academy Award nominations. In 2003, Jane Hudson was voted the 44th greatest movie villain of all time by the American Film Institute. The performance revitalized Davis’s career and gave cinema one of its most disturbing characters.

#6: Kathy Bates

“Misery” (1990)
“Misery’s” success hinged entirely on Kathy Bates’s performance as the deranged Annie Wilkes. Had she veered too far into friendly territory, the audience wouldn’t have bought her violent behavior. Too far into psychotic territory, and she would have lost Annie’s charm and believability. Luckily, Bates toes this tricky line perfectly - and won herself an Academy Award in the process. Wilkes is now rightfully regarded as one of the greatest villains in movie history. Probably for that sledgehammer scene alone. We still get shivers thinking about it.

#5: Sissy Spacek

“Carrie” (1976)
“Carrie” is arguably one of Stephen King’s most popular works. The book is short and easy to digest, and the 1976 movie is an all time classic by an extraordinary Sissy Spacek. Like most villain protagonists, Spacek has the unbelievably difficult job of making her character relatable, sympathetic, and terrifying. We feel horrible for poor Carrie White, and care for her unfortunate plight. That is, until she’s drenched in blood, widening her eyes in the most horrific expression imaginable, and setting fire to the school. It’s a brilliant performance, but that gym scene alone earns Spacek a place on this list. It is unimaginably scary.

#4: Shelley Duvall

“The Shining” (1980)
Shelley Duvall had a tough time with “The Shining” - both on set and off. On set, she was relentlessly bullied by director Stanley Kubrick, and she became so stressed over his rigorous directorial process that her hair began to fall out. Her performance was also widely ridiculed. Stephen King criticized her depiction of Wendy Torrance, and she was nominated for a Razzie for Worst Actress. However, her performance has been reappraised in recent years, and many now consider her a believable and tragic figure next to Jack Nicholson’s psychotic Jack Torrance. Her mounting terror and desperation as Wendy feels all too real. Let’s give Duvall the credit she rightfully deserves.

#3: Jack Nicholson

“The Shining” (1980)
Nicholson is one of the greatest actors of all time, and his performance as Jack Torrance is one of his best. Bizarrely, Nicholson didn’t receive a single award nomination - in fact, many people criticized his performance for being a little too “crazy”. Over time, Nicholson’s Jack Torrance has become regarded as one of cinema’s scariest and most memorable villains. The baseball bat scene, his creepy talk to Danny, the horrifying stare out the hotel window, the talk with Lloyd, “Here’s Johnny,” the hedge maze chase - it’s frankly amazing how many memorable scenes Nicholson helped create through his performance.

#2: Anthony Perkins

“Psycho” (1960)
As Norman Bates, Anthony Perkins delivered a performance that was subdued, realistic, and entirely believable. It’s amazing to watch how he so effortlessly flips between acting styles and personalities. In the first act, Norman is friendly and charming, if a little “off.” In the second act, he plays the pseudo-friendly villain who’s barely keeping his resentment and fury contained. And in the third, he goes full “Psycho.” That final smile is deliriously creepy and undeniably historic. It’s incredibly hard to make a simple smile look so sinister and threatening, and it just goes to show that Perkins was a master of his craft.

Before we unveil our top pick, here are a few honorable mentions.

Essie Davis
“The Babadook” (2014)

Isabelle Adjani
“Possession” (1981)

Natalie Portman
“Black Swan” (2010)

Édith Scob
“Eyes Without a Face” (1960)

Anya Taylor-Joy
“The Witch” (2015)

#1: Anthony Hopkins

“The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
Anthony Hopkins’ mesmerising performance made Dr. Hannibal Lecter one of the greatest and most memorable characters in movie history. As the cannibalistic serial killer from Thomas Harris’ novels, he imbues his dialogue with incredible gravitas, making it easy to see why the equally terrific Jodie Foster hangs on his every word. Of course, he’s also feverishly unhinged, and Hopkins does wonders with mere body language and facial expressions. One look into his eyes is enough to give you nightmares. Hannibal Lecter is a fascinating character, and Hopkins plays him to perfection.
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