8. Isabelle Adjani – Possession (1981)
One of the greatest female performances ever, a deserved winner of Cesar and Cannes Film Festival Best Actress award. Adjani is a total tour-de-force in this creepy, scary, confusing and maybe a little wickedly funny Zulawski classic.
It’s a very daring and challenging performance that not many actresses can take, but Adjani does wonders with it, with the subway scene being a particular stands out. Seriously, if you only look at that scene alone you’d understand why she’s on the list.
Some may find the performance, particularly her expressions as over-the-top which is understandable, films like this are always of acquired taste but that’s the nature of the movie. Adjani has gone on record to say it took her several years to recuperate from her performance here.
That was probably the golden age of her career when she kept working with strong high-profile directors and gave some amazing work (“Story of Adele H” is another standout and of course, Herzog’s “Nosferatu”), but “Possession” remains possibly as her best performance ever.
7. Marcia Gay Harden – The Mist (2007)
Stephen King has created some of the scariest domineering and fanatically religious characters of literature. Margaret White is probably the first comes to mind, portrayed by Piper Laurie for her Oscar-nominated turn in Brian De Palma’s “Carrie” (1976) and more layered turns (but in not-so-good films) by Patricia Clarkson and Julianne Moore in subsequent adaptations.
In 2007, Frank Darabont assembled one of the best casts ever in a horror film for his (so far) last Stephen King adaptation, but many of them are overshadowed by Harden’s extraordinary work. How many people can you find who didn’t end up hating her character after seeing the film? She dominates the film in a way it should and elevates it.
6. John Lithgow – Twilight Zone: The Movie (1983)
In soon, Lithgow will appear in the new film adaptation of Stephen King’s “Pet Semetery” and one would think how come that he didn’t do more horror. He can be very scary, like truly frightening scary (Blow Out) or campy, entertaining way of scary (Raising Cain).
“Sinister” and “Exorcism of Emily Rose” director Scott Derrickson once said, when a horror film frightens us, it’s because of how characters themselves are scared, how believable they are in their expression of fear. He argued that if Shelley Duvall wasn’t so convincing in “The Shining” as a scared woman, the film won’t be as great as much as it was. It’s very true in this case of Lithgow’s, who stars in this version of “Nightmare at 20,000 Feet”, directed by George Miller.
Lithgow gives a bravura performance as a very anxious passenger with a fear of flight, a performance which he will make a very fun reference to in one episode of “3rd Rock from the Sun” in the future. Lithgow was already having a great year as he also had a supporting, sensitive part in Best Picture-winning “Terms of Endearment” and he got ended up nominated for that performance instead of this. It’s hard to complain as his turn in “Terms” is also beautiful, but if he’d be nominated for this performance instead, that’d be more deserving.
5. Nicole Kidman – The Others (2001)
Alejandro Amenabar is one of the most underrated directors of genre films and he’s great at getting some amazing performances from his actresses such as Penelope Cruz in “Open Your Eyes” and Rachel Weisz in “Agora”, but probably the best performance ever been given in an Amenabar film (okay, Javier Bardem is also excellent in “Sea Inside”) has to be Nicole Kidman in “The Others”, who got nominated for her performance in “Moulin Rouge” at that year and just like Lithgow, probably this performance helped her to get some extra points.
She had a showier part in “Moulin Rouge” part probably, but that’s not a reason to overlook “The Others” in where she stars as a neurotic single mom, raising two seemingly problematic children while her husband is fighting in WWII. She’s superbly cast here (but then again, Kidman is always amazing), she nails the English accent (no surprise) and carries the film on her own.
4. Anthony Perkins – Psycho (1960)
No need to say more probably. Perkins’ performance in “Psycho” is not only one of the most famous and iconic performances in horror film history, but probably one of the most popular performance ever in cinema in general. Perkins plays Norman Bates, a young man, suffering from dissociative identity disorder, who runs a small off-highway motel in California.
In Robert Bloch’s source novel, Norman is a short-sighted, overweight and balding man in his 40s, prone to heavy drinking, who becomes Norma whilst drunk and blacked-out but the screenwriter Joseph Stefano and Hitchcock himself decided to make a change and it worked.
Anthony Perkins turned the character into a sensitive vulnerable, good looking, charming and sad young man. Perkins created an original, complex villain character and even though “Psycho” was a sensation, Academy snubbed him for a nomination.
3. Mia Farrow – Rosemary’s Baby (1969)
Strong performance is the one that makes you feel what the character is feeling which is something Mia Farrow did it amazingly in “Rosemary’s Baby”. As influential film critic Pauline Kael said “Mia Farrow is enchanting in her fragility: she’s just about perfect for her role.” She sure was.
The expression of pure horror on her face at the end alone is Oscar-worthy, but even though she was considered as a lock through the year of its release, surprisingly she got snubbed. Some connected it with the genre bias but Ruth Gordon was nominated and won for the same film in a supporting performance. Strange, indeed.
2. Jeff Goldblum – The Fly (1986)
Goldblum is an actor of wide range; he has played a serial killer, a Satan, a rapist, a furry alien, an actor and many kinds of characters, but what people associate him the most are eccentric scientists and Goldblum-esque parts which have elements of his own real life persona (that is more eccentric than most of his characters) such as “Jurassic Park” and “Independence Day”.
Goldblum played such characters before and after David Cronenberg’s “The Fly”, but it’s the performance that features everything that makes him such a special actor: his ability of playing strange characters and the elements of his own unique screen persona, and the result is brilliant.
Goldblum plays all of his moments with such high level of skill; he’s convincing when the film focuses on his character’s relationship with Geena Davis character and even though he gets buried under the make-up in the later parts of the film, he still makes his audience to feel the human inside, use his eyes very effectively also. Goldblum’s phenomenal and transformational performance got major acclaim but was snubbed by the Oscars.
1. Jeremy Irons – Dead Ringers (1988)
The Academy just didn’t care for Cronenberg’s body horror films, did they? Widely considered to be one of the masterpieces of Canadian cinema, “Dead Ringers” is a remarkable showcase for Jeremy Irons. We had seen many great actors playing dual roles in films, but it’s hard to find a performance that has the same level of strength of Irons’ work here.
He plays two extremely complex characters, he never gets over-the-top but at the same time, he’s also never inexpressive in any moment, which makes it impossible to not get impressed by him here. He keeps confusing the audience and plays his character with high level of intelligence. Irons had a terrific part in “Reversal of Fortune” (1990) two years later which finally brought him the Gold but in a perfect world, we’d have “two-time Academy Award winner Jeremy Irons”.
Honorable Mentions: Serial killer films are often categorized as “thriller”, but one would argue that “Henry: Portrait of a Serial Killer” and “Angst” are scary enough to be considered as “horror films” as they prefer to focus on the psychology of serial killer rather than creating a mystery around them. If we’d consider them as horrors, then Michael Rooker and Erwin Leder‘s performances respectively are more than worthy for an Oscar and every other award possible. Other notable snubs include Ashley Judd-Michael Shannon (“Bug”), Donald Sutherland-Julie Christie (“Don’t Look Now”), Kurt Russell (“The Thing”), Christian Bale (“American Psycho”), Sigourney Weaver (“Alien”), Tim Robbins (“Jacob’s Ladder”) and Jack Nicholson-Shelley Duvall (“The Shining”).