When it comes to horror films, what makes them truly scary? It’s a matter of opinion for each of us macabre-loving cinephiles. For me, it doesn’t get any better than award-worthy acting. I can overlook shoddy effects. I can ignore gaping plot holes at times. So long as you get me some grade-A acting.
Fortunately for us, especially over the last fifteen years or so, there have been a number of fantastic horror films with incredible acting performances. But what really hits the sweet spot for me is when an A-list actor steps in and crushes a role. Long considered the red-headed step-genre of the film industry, it’s always great to see an actor or actress of high esteem come into our playground.
I’m not talking about Tom Hanks in 1980’s He Knows You’re Alone. As his first film role, this doesn’t count – he was far from returning kickoffs at Alabama as Forrest Gump at that point. I’m talking about established Hollywood royalty at the time the film came out. Some of the following names were long considered far too superior to even step onto a horror film set. Thankfully, their career choice lent the horror world some unforgettable performances.
George C. Scott, The Changeling
Before he starred in arguably the greatest haunted house film of all time, Scott was a four-time Academy Award nominated actor who also directed and was a major Prime Time Emmy nominee to boot. Of course, his most memorable performance was in 1970’s Patton. But it was his role as composer John Russell that endeared him to horror fans. The moodiest, most eerie haunt film you’ll find, Scott doesn’t mail in this performance for a second as a grieving father and husband who begins to realize he is sharing his residence with something not of this world.
Gregory Peck, Cape Fear/ The Omen
Peck, of course, is best known for his portrayal as Atticus Finch in 1962’s To Kill A Mockingbird. The Academy Award-nominated, Golden Globe-winning actor had nearly fifty credits to his name before he learned the terrible truth about his beloved son, Damien. Sixteen years before The Omen, Peck played another tormented father, as Sam Bowden in 1951’s Cape Fear. He plays both roles with a fierce professionalism, completely saturating himself in the mind of a seemingly helpless father who is determined to make things right.
Natalie Portman, Black Swan
This one feels like cheating a bit, as arthouse horror always seems to reel in the goods as far as casting goes. But Portman gives such a raw and unsettling portrayal here that she most definitely deserves acknowledgement alongside two true titans of the industry. Portman was a silver screen darling at the time, with an impressive resume that included both major motion picture and independent film accolades. As Nina Sayers, a ballet dancer with the chance of a lifetime at her fingertips, Portman runs the gamut of emotions throughout Darren Aronofsky’s Academy Award-nominated film.
Danny Glover, Saw
Long after Lethal Weapon and his appearances under the Disney label, Danny Glover stepped back and enjoyed a stellar spell as one of the best supporting actors around. That changed when Lions Gate approached him about this crime thriller/horror about a sadistic mad man (or is he?) intent on providing life lessons to a number of folks he deems are in need of a perspective adjustment. Never too old for this shit, Glover immediately brought a tent pole of integrity and familiarity to this indie flick as a gray beard detective determined to catch the culprit of these twisted games. This little-indie-that-could quickly launched a franchise and one of the most financially successful horror films of all time.
Nicole Kidman, The Others
It doesn’t get much more A-list than Ms. Kidman. She certainly didn’t waste her visit to the world of supernatural terror, either, as The Others is not only one of the most aesthetically perfect horror films but it also is one of the downright creepiest. Kidman’s paranoid and emotionally stressed portrayal of Grace, a strictly religious mother hoping to receive positive news about her missing father during World War II deserved major accolades. Kidman is a superstar, acting with the grace of a stage performer down the dimly lit halls of this chilling horror tale.
Bruce Willis, The Sixth Sense
Another one that kind of feels like a cheat, because M. Night Shyamalan has made a habit of bringing in big name actors and actresses to star in his seemingly low-budget horror masterpieces. By the time Willis starred in this one, his name was synonymous with Hollywood stardom. From Die Hard to Pulp Fiction, he was one of the most sought-after actors working. Willis crushes it here as Dr. Crowe, a psychologist brought in to help a young boy cope with horrific visits from the afterlife. The stunning ending is known the world over at this point in time, but that doesn’t diminish Willis’ stirring performance.
Mel Gibson, Signs
I’m going back to the Shyamalan well. Sue me! Gibson was just as prolific as Willis and equally untouched by the horror genre up to this role. Mel delivers one of the best performances of his career in this chilling extraterrestrial horror. As Graham Hess, a grieving husband, struggling father and lost former priest, Gibson instills an incredible emotional depth to the role. The man who dominated the box office with Lethal Weapon, Braveheart and We Were Soldiers did not disappoint in his lone horror excursion.
Song Kang-ho, The Host
Considered one of the biggest actors in South Korea, Song had already etched out quite a career as one of the most decorated faces on the silver screen before earning additional awards for his part in 2006’s The Host. An all-out creature feature, Song plays Park Gang-du, a food service worker who finds himself at ground zero of a monster attack on his hometown. The monster? A giant Lovecraftian water beast intent on devouring anything and everything in its path. The film? An expertly-crafted film that just so happens to star a CGI monster and an incredibly effective Song.
Bette Davis & Joan Crawford, What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?
Saving the absolute best for last here, folks. Arguably one of the best horror films ever, what really makes this film go is the very real and very palpable hatred Davis and Crawford shared for one another. Crawford plays Blanche, the older sister to Davis’ Jane. Blanche enjoyed an illustrious acting career as an adult, while Jane struggles to cope with the fact that her success as a child star faded long ago. The sisters absolutely hate each other, which makes the casting all the more perfect. By the time this film was shot, Davis was in her fourth decade as an actress and Crawford in her fifth. A 10-time Academy Award-nominated actress, Davis is Hollywood royalty through and through. Her role in this film earned her the 10th Academy Award nomination of her incredible career. Crawford sits right beside her rival on the Mount Rushmore of Acting, with eleven award nominations to her credit. Davis and Crawford both received stars on the Hollywood Walk of Fame on February 8, 1960.
Who’d we miss? Let us know in the comments below! Thanks for reading!