Horror movies are often stressful to watch, so it’s only logical to assume filming them is a far more unsettling experience. The actors in the films convey a wide range of emotion, often much more so than in comedic or even dramatic roles. Yet Hollywood is quick to overlook these performances, with mainstream award shows rewarding and praising more traditional dramatic roles over horror.
Horror has gained some respect as a serious genre, with prestigious actors and directors taking on projects that were reserved for B-level filmmaking 20 years ago. It’s a genre that allows for allegory, political commentary, and high-level acting performances; yet while the genre is becoming more respected, it still remains one that is overlooked come awards season.
Here are a few of the most talked-about horror performances that earned a number of independent award nominations and wins, but that many fans and critics feel deserved higher recognition, especially from the Academy Awards and the Golden Globes.
After starting out in a Nickelodeon series alongside his brother Nat, Alex Wolff is known primarily for his roles in indie films. The actor made waves in the film industry after his performance in A24’s Hereditary (2018). Playing a son who finds himself responsible for his sister’s horrific death, before ultimately uncovering a terrifying family secret, Wolff flexes some serious acting muscles.
His most notable scene is a long take in a close-up of his face after accidentally killing his younger sister. The scene contains no dialogue, only the face of a young man coming to terms with what just happened – and it is haunting, to say the least. Wolff’s performance is anxiety-inducing and sympathetic, breaking down his teenaged character to the level of a much younger child in the wake of a family tragedy.
In another of A24 and director Ari Aster’s horror hits, Midsommar boasted a breathtaking performance by Florence Pugh. The young actor demonstrates skill well beyond her years as a woman grieving the death of her family. Midsommar finds a few unsuspecting Americans in the middle of a Swedish cult community that quickly devolves into unspeakable horrors.
Similar to Alex Wolff’s long take close-up in Aster’s previous film Hereditary, Pugh delivers a gut-wrenching performance as she expresses her concerns about her family’s whereabouts in a phone call to her distant boyfriend in a long take close-up. Pugh conveys an extraordinary character arc throughout the film, from submissive girlfriend to a literal Queen – and while the ending of the movie, and her character’s role in it, can be debated, one thing is for sure: Florence Pugh is a world class actor.
Although relatively tame by horror standards, Split (2016) was a stand-out film largely due to the performance from actor James McAvoy. The M. Night Shyamalan film follows Kevin, a man with Dissociative Identity Disorder who kidnaps three young girls. The girls interact with most of Kevin’s 23 separate and relatively benign identities, before facing his most buried and dangerous 24th persona.
McAvoy portrays everything from a demure woman with a British accent named Patricia, to a young and impressionable nine year old boy named Hedwig, to an older lady treating herself for diabetes (a condition not shared by other identities) named Jade, to name a few. The film itself faced much criticism, both for its depiction of DID and as a film overall, but McAvoy’s performance as multiple and very distinct characters was highly praised.
The Lighthouse was a highly polarizing film, dividing viewers between the obsessed and the baffled. The film focuses on two lighthouse keepers in the 1890s spend time getting to know one another before descending into madness after becoming trapped. Dafoe plays the older, more seasoned lighthouse keeper.
He offers a haunting performance, playing a madman yet somehow remaining unsettlingly subdued. The third A24 release on this list, The Lighthouse is quite experimental and is more of an arthouse horror, making it less appealing to a more traditional horror audience. However, the film is certainly worth watching for Dafoe’s disturbing performance.
The 2007 American remake of the 1997 Austrian film Funny Games was highly praised, both by fans of the original and new audiences alike. Naomi Watts plays a wife and mother whose family is terrorized by two deranged men who hold them captive and torture them mentally and physically.
Funny Games is not for the faint of heart, as it is extremely disturbing and violent. Ultimately, though, it’s worth the watch for its exquisite filmmaking techniques and acting performances. Naomi Watts gives a devastating performance as she watches her family die at the hands of these madmen, showing fragility and vulnerability, but also a stoic strength and defiance.
The actor blew audiences away with her role in the 2018 hit Hereditary. The A24 horror film has been regarded as one of the most disturbing movies ever made, and it’s a title that Hereditary comes by honestly. Collette gives one of the most heart-wrenching performances many movie-goers had ever seen, as her character deals with the loss of her mother, and subsequently her daughter in a horrific accident.
Collette gives a devastatingly real performance as a grieving mother succumbing to what she initially perceives to be mental illness, but proves to be something much more sinister. Her most notable scenes include writhing on the floor after discovering her daughter’s body and her monologue coming to terms with her son’s role in his sister’s death.
Jordan Peele’s 2019 horror film Us served as the perfect follow up to his 2017 political satire Get Out, with both films delivering an important message through horrifying allegories and immaculate writing. The film follows a family on vacation who are confronted and tormented by their apparent doppelgängers, leading to the discovery of an entire underground world occupied only by these doubles.
One of the most notable aspects of Us was the performance by Lupita Nyong’o, who played two characters in the film: wife and mother Adelaide Wilson, and her terrifying doppelgänger Red. Nyong’o adopted a disturbing raspy voice and stilted manner of speaking in her role as Red, which was in stark contrast to her subdued performance as Adelaide, demonstrating her ability as an actor to perform in a scene against no one but herself.