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The 25 Greatest Performances In A Horror Movie

28 April 2014 | Features, Film Lists | by Russell Harper

great performances horror movies

Everyone might have a different reason for liking a horror movie. Some enjoy the way it scared them. Some enjoy the violence and gore. And for others, it’s the characters and performances that keep you coming back. Here we take a look at the 25 best performances by an actor or actress in a horror film.

Some played the protagonists fighting an evil force, while others played psychopathic killers. But it wasn’t just the character that was great, but the person behind the character bringing it to life. This list goes in depth on why each performance was great. Not performances that were aided by heavy use of makeup to make the character, such as Max Schreck in Nosferatu or Boris Karloff in Frankenstein. Rather people who used true acting grit to make the performance both believable and effective. Here are the top 25 examples of that.

 

25. Byung-hun Lee in I Saw The Devil

i-saw-the-devil

Most people might know Lee from the GI Joe movies, but few have seen his amazing work as Kim Soo-hyeon in 2010’s I Saw The Devil. Lee plays a secret agent whose pregnant fiancée is brutally murdered by a serial killer. Kim then goes on a manhunt to find the killer. When he finds him he decides not to kill him, but instead keep coming back to inflict pain on the psychopath.

Lee brings a calm intensity to the role. He is unrelenting, yet still shows slight sadness in his eyes whenever the character reflects on what he is going through. It should also be said that Lee does a tremendous job in the action scenes for this movie.

 

24. Harvey Stephens in The Omen

omen_1976_damien

You’re six years old, you’ve never been in a movie before, and now you have to play the son of the devil. Not an easy task at all, but Harvey Stephens was able to pull it off splendidly in 1976’s The Omen. As Damien, Stephens played a young boy who was adopted by a couple who had just recently give birth to a still born child. Once they bring Damien home, people start dying, and the father expects it’s his newly adopted son.

As the possible anti-Christ, Stephens brought out fear and hatred from audiences everywhere. Which is commendable, considering he was a small child at the time. It was truly a great performance and one that can be inspiration for child actors everywhere.

 

23. Woody Harrelson in Zombieland

zombieland+woody+harrelson

With many of his recent roles, it seems like Woody Harrelson can pull off the crazy redneck character. This was especially true when he played Tallahassee in the 2009 zombie-comedy Zombieland. Harrelson provided both the laughs and the kills as a badass redneck tossed in with a group of misfits.

It’s always fun to watch a character enjoy killing zombies as much as we the audience love watching zombies get killed. And Harrelson oozed enjoyment in this role.

 

22. James Woods in Videodrome

videodrome

Body-horror films seem like a difficult task for actors who are cast in them. They have to pretend to be going through gruesome and sometimes downright repulsive acts that of course aren’t really happening. This is why James Woods deserves credit for his work in Videodrome.

It’s a bizarre film with a message that is not only clear and a lot of “what the?!” moments to it. But Woods does admirably in the role of Max Renn, the President of a UHF station who defends his right to show snuff-TV. Woods has to act out scenes where he thinks horrible things are happening to his torso. Great work from a true movie veteran.

 

21. Robert Mitchum in The Night of the Hunter

the-night-of-the-hunter-love-hate

Although not know strictly as a horror film, The Night of the Hunter is a terrifying thriller about a preacher who terrorizes a poor family. That preacher is Harry Powell, who is portrayed by Robert Mitchum. Powell is a murderer, liar, thief, misogynist, sadist, and worst of all he thinks it is all for the good of the lord.

Mitchum excelled in this role, as he makes the audience cringe more and more at his criminal ways. And all just to steal money from a couple of scared kids.

 

20. Jeff Goldblum in The Fly

the Fly

Jeff Goldblum pulled double duty in The Fly, having to act out the body horror transformation of turning into a massive fly, but also playing the mad scientist. Seth Brundle is a brilliant scientist who has everything going for him, but with his new Telepod invention things begin to go wrong.

Goldblum is eccentric and clever in this role, bringing his own brand of wit to the character. There is a lot to this character, but Goldblum was able to reel in all of the crazy and come out with another great role.

 

19. Nicole Kidman in The Others

The Others Cap

Playing a mother who is convinced her house is haunted, Kidman is a tour de force in The Others. Grace Stewart has two photosensitive children, and must protect them from what she thinks is a haunted house.

Each scene where a ghost let itself be known, the pure fear that Kidman displays in her eyes is seeping through the screen. The entire film is carried by Kidman’s terror and strength when faced with other-worldly obstacles.

 

18. Michael Parks in Red State

red state Michael Parks

Although it’s not hard to make the leader of a homophobic and murderous church detestable, Parks still deserves credit for his performance as Abin Cooper.

A man who feels like killing sinful teenagers will bring him and his family closer to God; Parks plays the role to perfection. He makes the character disgusting, yet oddly charming at the same time. A truly underrated gem of a film, Red State is carried by a great cast, led by Michael Parks.

 

 

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  • Terry Powell

    Wait, you dismiss Airlift because of the makeup but you include Gollum, Robert England and especially Tim Curry? That’s pretty goofy. And where’s Christopher Walken from the Dead Zone?

    • Russell Harper

      Those three did a lot more acting, bringing their characters to life, without it being solely the makeup. A majority of Karloff’s performance was walking around moaning. Hence, the exclusion. Thanks for reading.

  • Daniel Kalban

    Hopkins/Lecter should be #1; a much better character imo

    I’d also like to nominate, as an honorable mention, Lon Chaney as the Phantom of the Opera. Best film version of the character IMO

  • Ted Wolf

    Karloff just walking around and moaning? I’ll never forget the scene where they first show the monster light in Frankenstein, or in Bride where he enjoys dinner with Dr. Praetorius. And Karloff’s greatest acting achievement was as Ardith Bey in The Mummy.

  • Monster Master

    Fredric March won the Academy Award for Best Actor in “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” in 1932. An amazing performance. Are all the lists on the internet compiled by people under 25?

  • Ziggy Stardust

    No Linda Blair as Reagan on The Exorcist? Really??

  • Unkle Amon

    Nice list, Hopkins and Nicholson should be #1 and #2. Why there is no Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula?!

  • Paesito Paez

    Linda Blair, Gary Oldman, any vampire from what we do in the shadows and Drew Barrymore are missing here

  • Adi

    Nicole Kidman in The Others deserves to be higher on the list.