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The 10 Most Disturbing Movie Performances of All Time

21 April 2013 | Features, Other Lists | by Tyler Harris

Acting is an art, and a mysterious one at that. When you look at it in its simplest form, many would say it’s really simply a bunch of grown people dressing in costumes and pretending as if they were other people, getting paid millions of dollars for it. But it’s not just that at all. Actors do what they do so that us cinephiles can indulge in our love for the cinema and escape from the harsh realities of the world. However, what happens when a performance in a film becomes too real and too scary? Well, naturally, it disturbs its viewers.

These are 10 of the most frightening acting performances of all time. Actors and actresses who willingly slipped into the deep, dark corners of the universe to portray a film’s antagonist, and may have gone a little too far…


10. Heath Ledger as The Joker in The Dark Knight


Many credit this role as one of the attributing reasons for Ledger’s alleged suicide, saying he slipped too deep into the role. Even if the role did have something to do with his death, though, he still pulled off a fantastic job, and definitely deserved the Oscar he was awarded post-mortem. He’s the film’s crown jewel and without him Christopher Nolan’s second Batman film wouldn’t have been nearly as great.


9. Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery

Annie Wilkes Misery

Misery, inspired by the Stephen King novel of the same name, was the film that launched the unknown Ms. Bates into stardom through her brutally disturbing portrayal as a woman with some serious dominance issues who’s transfixed on her favorite author. The infamous “ankle” scene is one for the ages, and still makes even the most hardcore horror film-lover squirm.


8. Leonardo DiCaprio as Calvin Candie in Django Unchained

Calvin Candie

It truly is a shame that DiCaprio didn’t even receive a nomination for his role in Tarantino’s blaxploitation-western, but it’s the price he had to pay for portraying such an evil racist, especially in the midst of today’s Hollywood, who apparently sees no issue in holding a film that’s set during the Civil War against today’s “politically correct” standards.

With slight undertones of a possible incestual relationship with his sister, and several incidents of gruesome Mandingo Fighting violence, it all builds up to his big “Phrenology” speech, where he delivers one of the most intense and frightening monolgues given in cinematic history.


7. Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter

Harry Powell in The Night of the Hunter

Mitchum gives a terrific performance here as a religious fanatic hellbent on deceiving his way into a family in order to find $10,000 he knows is stored somewhere on the family’s farm. We see a dark landscape as the figure of Reverand Powell appears on the horizon, inching his way closer and closer to the children as he coos the innocent “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” in some of the eeriest singing you’ve ever heard.


6. Matthew McConaughey as Joe Cooper in Killer Joe

Joe Cooper in Killer Joe

Prior to this film, McConaughey had starred in primarily the cheap, goofy rom-coms he’s mainly known for, but his turn in the film “Lincoln Lawyer” in 2010 was quite a surprise to audiences, and showed us that he could actually play a serious role.

The next year he came out in this deeply disturbing film, directed by the great William Friedkin. As he torments a family for the money they owe him — well, I won’t give away too much. Let’s just say that after watching the film you’ll never look at a piece of Kentucky Fried Chicken the same way again…



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  • Although the film sucked as a whole, I thought Kenneth McMillan’s take on the Baron Vladimir Harkonnen in Lynch’s Dune was pretty psychotic, gross and disturbing itself. He really made the Baron disgustingly sleazee as a fat slob of a pedophile. How can you not be repulsed by one who makes sexual advances on young boys and then pulls out their heart plug?

    • Yolanda Anne Brown


  • Mohit Kumar

    You forgot Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in “No Country for Old Men”…

    • Dave

      This immediately sprang to mind when I read the category

  • who is robert mitchem? , i only know robert mitchum

  • Cassandra Atticum

    I would add John Cusack as Hillary Van Wetter in The Paperboy. Truly disgusting and disturbing character.

  • Cassandra Atticum

    And Malcolm McDowell in A Clockwork Orange.

  • John Camargo

    rosamund Pike, GOne Girl

  • Indigo

    You forgot Matt Damon in The Talented Mr Ripley. Wasnt that disturbing enough?

  • Wally Davies

    Sorry. Can’t recommend any “Most Ever” list on a film history website that is so skewed to recent films. Half your films are from the 2000 onwards!

    • Dave

      Somebody show this writer some Hitchcock. Particularly Psycho and Vertigo

      • Yolanda Anne Brown

        So true! Perkins was beyond disturbing.

  • CCRider

    Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant didn’t make this list? …

  • williamdais

    Bette Davis as Baby Jane Hudson in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, Linda Blair as Regan McNeil in The Exorcist, Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho.

  • Abhishek

    I don’t find Leo’s performance as disturbing

    • Mortimer

      Yeah…it was over the top in a comic book-villain-way. Amusing but not disturbing at all.

  • Nenad Mihajlovic

    Jacki Weaver (Animal Kingdom) maybe? Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu (The Vanishing?). yeah and def. Javier Bardem (No Country..), Malcom McDowell (A Clockwork..) and Matt Damon in Ripley…The list should’ve been longer..

  • Pablo Iranzo Duque

    Ralph Fiennes in Schindler’s List. John Huston in Chinatown. Matt Damon in The Talented Mr. Ripley. But the most disturbing of all and missing on this list is Ted Levine in Silence of the Lambs. Even more than Hopkins.

    • jann1k

      Hell yeah! Amon Goeth would even be a contender for the #1 spot. That performance was gut-wrenching.

  • Klaus Dannick

    Nice list, but Robert Walker as Bruno Antony in Strangers on a Train belongs here. Or, some Hitchcock character, at least.

  • Freojim

    Brando in “Reflections in a golden eye” and Peter Lorre in “M”

  • Mortimer

    DiCaprio in Django more disturbing than Fassbender in ’12 Years a Slave’, Ted Levine in ‘The Silence of the Lambs’, Matt Damon in ‘The Talented Mr.Ripley’ , Javier Bardem in ‘No Country for Old Men’ etc ? I don’t think so.

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    How about Quentin Tarantino in Dusk till Dawn?

    • Ricardo Correia

      Great comment

  • Cook Rising

    How about Daniel Day Lewis in There Will be Blood?

  • fantail31

    De Niro – Taxi Driver.

  • Chris Englund

    Michael Rooker – “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer”
    Dylan Baker – “Happiness”
    Carl Boehm – “Peeping Tom”

  • gustavomda

    Robert MITCHUM

  • jann1k

    There are definitely some performances missing for me on this list. I think DiCaprio as Candie was great, but while he clearly was a racist asshole, he was too over-the-top to be truly disturbing. On the other hand I love that you included Kyung-chul and Killer Joe – both are often overlooked.

    These are some performances I’d add to such a list:
    Ralph Fiennes as Amon Göth in Schindler’s List (#1 contender)
    Jake Gyllenhaal as Lou Bloom in Nightcrawler
    Kevin Spacey as John Doe in Se7en (“chilling” is the word.)
    Robert De Niro as Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver

    Others I might consider:
    Douglas Silva/Leandro Firmino as Li’l Dice/Li’l Zé in City of God
    Robin Williams as Seymour Parrish in One Hour Photo
    Jung-woo Ha as Young-min Jee in The Chaser
    Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh in No Country for Old Men
    Ted Levin as Jame Gumb in The Silence of the Lambs
    Ezra Miller as Kevin in We need to talk about Kevin
    Vithaya Pansringarm as Chang in Only God Forgives
    Ellen Page as Hayley Stark in Hard Candy

  • scors54

    Ben Kingsley as Don Logan in “Sexy Beast”, Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge in “A Clockwork Orange”, Robert Walker as Bruno Anthony in “Strangers on a Train”

    • Horacio Machado Flores

      Kingsley blew the roof off the sucker in that one.

      • ton

        “it’s the one with the ginger hair…”

        • ttt

          you could make a fuckin suitcase out ouf you

  • Tom Hardy as Charles Bronson,Ellen page in Hard Candy,Bob Hoskins in super Mario bros 🙂

  • ton

    Harvey Keitel in Bad Lieutenant.

  • Cheerlock Holmes

    Tommy Wiseau in The Room.

  • fantail31

    Ralph Fiennes – Shindlers List.

  • Dave

    Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

  • Grzegorz G

    Nice title, poor list 🙁 Most disturbing ever from list above… in my opinion only Hopper as Frank and also Mr Nicholson eventually deserve top10

  • Twinless

    Clancy Brown – Highlander. Tchéky Karyo – Doberman.

    Matthias Schoenaerts – Bullhead; The Drop.

    Casey Affleck – The Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford ( not quite disturbing, but..). Javier Bardem – No Country for Old Men. Min-sik Choi – I Saw the Devil. Daniel Day Lewis – There Will be Blood.

  • Carl Edgar Consiglio

    That guy who invented the human centipede.

  • Tony Emond

    The three kids who play Kevin in “We need to talk about Kevin”. Each one is scary as hell.

  • Anthony Lancaster

    Bill McKinney and Herbert ‘Cowboy’ Conrad as the hillbillies in DELIVERANCE (1972)

  • Sebastian Pablo

    Charlize Theron – Monster
    Jennifer Jason Leigh – The Hateful Eight
    Brittany Murphy – Girl Interrupted
    Bette Davis – Whatever happened to baby Jane
    Divine – Pink Flamingos

  • Ricardo Correia

    The only thing disturbing about Nicholson’s acting in The Shining is how bad it is
    Jurgen Vogel in The Free Will would be a terrific pick

  • Ricardo Correia

    Per Oscarsson in Hunger and Charlize Theron in Monster, maybe cinema’s two finest acting performances are disturbing as hell

  • Samuel Segura

    Daniel Day-Lewis “There Will Be Blood”

  • Abhishek

    Leo is a misfit in this category. He was not at all disturbing. People have mentioned Javier but one more comes to my mind is Phoenix in The master was fucking crazy.

  • oscarseason

    Rosamund Pike in Gone Girl. A performance for the ages


    Christian Bale, American Psycho

  • Terek Brajan

    Respect to all this performances, but nothing can top Donald Sutherland in Bertolucci’s 1900 aka Novecento…..Sutherland himself says that he got
    so upset after seeing his own performance as the sadistic homicidal
    fascist leader Attila, that he was unable to watch the film for years.

  • Kirk Brainard

    This beats them all……….