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10 Genuinely Great Horror Movie Performances

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Out this week on Blu-ray, and just in time for Halloween, William Peter Blatty’s Exorcist III is much more than your standard cash-in horror sequel – thanks in no small part to Oscar winner George C. Scott, who turns in a lead performance of real strength and skill. It’s a reminder that, with the occasional exceptions – the stars of Silence of the Lambs and Carrie, for example – critics and awards-givers seldom recognize horror movie acting, and its difficult balance of credibility, empathy, and self-awareness. So with that prejudice in mind, here are a few genuinely great scary movie performances.

George C. Scott, The Exorcist III

Blatty’s follow-up to his original book and film (ignoring the events of Exorcist II entirely, and wisely) finds Scott stepping into the role of police detective Kinderman for the late Lee J. Cobb, and the focus on that character makes this as much a cop thriller as a horror movie. But it’s one where the solution to the crime requires a giant leap of supernatural faith, and Scott masterfully embodies the weary, seen-it-all cop who must wrestle with the illogical conclusions he keeps reaching, as well as the grief and fear that drives him.

Anthony Perkins, Psycho

This one sort of goes without saying, but believe it or not, Perkins didn’t nab so much as an Oscar nomination for his iconic turn as Norman Bates (even though the film netted four noms, including one for co-star Janet Leigh and another for director Alfred Hitchcock). Perhaps it’s just the kind of performance that takes a second viewing to fully appreciate – once you know Norman’s little secret, it gives extra depth and dimension to all of his little nervous tics and affectations, and fills in the subtext of his most enigmatic dialogue. But it’s a virtuoso performance by Mr. Perkins, who spent the rest of his life trying in vain to break out of the casting box this persuasive turn had locked him in.

Steve Railsback, Helter Skelter

Railsback fought a similar battle (with similar results) following his breakout role in this two-part 1976 TV movie adaptation of Vincent Bugliosi’s definitive account of the crimes and prosecution of the Manson Family. The resemblance between Railsback and Manson was so strong, and his performance so scarily convincing and unshakably unnerving, that for just about anyone who saw the film (in it is original airing or its copious repeats on cable outlets like TBS), Railsback was Manson, end of story.

Gary Oldman, Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Oldman had no such trouble parlaying his starring turn in Francis Ford Coppola’s big-budget 1992 Stoker adaptation into an ongoing career – he wasn’t a known quantity to mainstream American audiences at the time, but the role’s shifting physicality (he ages decades and takes on numerous forms) meshed nicely with his chameleonic nature. It’s a deliciously theatrical performance, an actor having a great time playing one of our best-known baddies, but he’s not just showboating either; there’s real soul and pain in his work here, particularly in its memorable prologue, even with the waves of blood splashing around him.

Margot Kidder, Sisters

Viewers who only know Kidder for her work as plucky Lois Lane in the original (good) Superman movies might be surprised by the depth and saltiness of her dual role in this 1973 horror thriller from director Brian De Palma (the first of his films in that vein, which became his signature). It’s a complicated and often chilling piece of work, allowing Kidder to display a complexity and sexuality understandably muted by her most famous role. (Fun coincidence: in his original review of the film, which was released five years before Superman, Roger Ebert calls the character played by Kidder’s co-star Jennifer Salt “kind of a women’s lib Lois Lane.”)

Jamie Lee Curtis, Halloween H20

Scream queen supreme Curtis is engaging, credible, and never less than charismatic in the first two Halloween movies (and in her other slasher pics of the era, Terror Train and Prom Night). But her long-awaited and much-ballyhooed return to the role of Laurie Strode in the series’ seventh installment, twenty years after the first (hence the goofy title) wasn’t just a gimmick; she’d gone off and become an honest-to-goodness actor in the ensuing years. The screenplay had to do some real plot-twisting to explain her return to the franchise, which had killed her off, off-screen, before Halloween IV. The explanation – that she’d faked her own death to escape her murderous brother, and was living in California under a pseudonym – is goofy, but it allows Curtis to act up a storm, dramatizing decades of trauma and fear, and an intense need to close the book of the past, no matter the cost.

Michael Rooker, Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer

Rooker was an unknown Chicago stage actor when he was cast in the title role of John McNaughton’s low-low budget dramatization (recently restored and re-released) of the confessions of serial killer Henry Lee Lucas. It was his film debut, and while much of the film’s success is due to McNaughton’s frightening, no-frills, semi-documentary style, it also rests entirely on the chilling flatness of Rooker’s work. It’s one of those performances where the performer’s inexperience works to the benefit of the film around it – with no preconceived notions of the actor, the character seems capable of absolutely anything. And that possibility grows more distressing the further we get into this horrifying story.

Jonathan Pryce, Something Wicked This Way Comes

Similarly, Pryce wasn’t yet the beloved embodiment of class and grace he would become for American viewers when he was cast as “Mr. Dark” in this 1983 adaptation of Ray Bradbury’s book; most of his work to date was in Britain, and he used that mysteriousness to craft his creepy characterization of the sinister carnival owner on the lookout for souls. It’s a scarily believable turn, a haunting character crisply rendered, though this viewer’s perception may’ve been affected by my tender age at the time of its release. (You will not sway me on the spider scene, though. That shit is scary.)

Tony Todd, Candyman

This 1992 adaptation of Clive Barker’s “The Forbidden” has a classier pedigree than your average slasher movie: it stars future Oscar nominee Virginia Madsen, is directed by Bernard Rose (who would go on to helm the acclaimed Beethoven biopic Immortal Beloved), and features a score by the great Philip Glass. But those are just its credits – Candyman works because of the remarkable title performance by towering, terrifying Tony Todd, an actor whose sheer physical presence is unsettling enough that yes, you believe he could be an urban legend made flesh.

Terry O’Quinn, The Stepfather

Mr. Quinn became one of television’s most reliable character actors, with memorable short- and long-term appearances on Lost, The X-Files, Alias, and Millennium. But his big break came a few years earlier, as Jerry Blake, the suburban father who so desires the picture-perfect nuclear family, he’ll kill for it. It sounds the set-up for a pretty unexceptional thriller, but under the guidance of director Joseph Ruben (Sleeping with the Enemy, The Good Son), O’Quinn crafts a portrait of true, everyday evil – deceptively folksy and charming on the surface, cold-blooded and murderous just underneath.