For some people, the fall season means sweater-wearing weather, pumpkin carving, hayrides, and snuggling under the covers in the morning. For other people, autumn means haunted houses, creating spooky Halloween costumes, and binge watching horror movie classics.
We can all agree that an on-screen performance can either make or break a movie—and horror movies are no different. Here are some actors and actresses with performances that left us shaking to the bones.
Don’t worry either, these performances are so good that you can watch these movies year round so you don’t have to wait for Halloween.
Toni Collette in Hereditary
In 2018, Ari Aster made his feature directorial debut with the bone-chilling, toe-curling nightmare, Hereditary. The film itself will rattle audience members to their core, but actress Toni Collette tackles the role of Annie, an artist turned wife turned mother, without missing a beat and takes her fictional character’s inner life beyond the lines of storytelling. Collette’s Annie is not just a victim in the film–she’s the soul of it, too, and possibly even its devil–she is pure terror.
There is one scene in the movie when Annie tells her son, “I never wanted to be your mother.” At that moment, past the heartbreaking cruelty and honesty, Annie slaps her hand to her mouth just a second too late in the realization that what she said can never be taken back. The words she uttered aren’t just sadistic; it’s sadistic because there is a semblance of truth that is spoken. Collete successfully portrayed the amalgam of backbreaking roles in Hereditary while struggling to deal with traumas left behind by her recently deceased mother. The way that Collette portrays panic and grief in such a visceral way won’t be forgotten anytime soon.
Lupita Nyong’o in Us
12 Years a Slave and Black Panther star Lupita Nyong’o gives a chilling performance in Jordan Peele’s Us, his followup to Oscar winner Get Out. Nyong’o portrays both Adelaide Wilson, a mother with an unclear past, and Red, Adelaide’s evil doppelgänger. Early in the film, the audience is introduced to Red and her family who are clad in red jumpsuits and eerily resembles each member of Adelaid’s family. The doppelgängers are there to exact vengeance on the Wilson family but Peele doesn’t let the audience know why until near the end.
The most chilling part of Nyong’o’s performance as Red was her voice. To make her doppelgänger stand out, she drew from real-life psychosomatics. In an article published by Variety, Nyong’o said, “I was inspired by the condition spasmodic dysphonia, which is a condition that comes about from a trauma—sometimes emotional, sometimes physical—and it creates this spasming in your vocal cords that leads to an irregular flow of air.”
Anthony Hopkins in Silence of the Lambs
Anthony Hopkins was only on screen for 16 minutes as convicted serial killer Hannibal Lecter in the 1991 classic, Silence of the Lambs, but his performance was so memorable and superb in that brief amount of time that Hopkins ended up winning an Academy Award for Best Actor. However, there was a lot of suspense and anticipation that was built up around Lecter even when Hopkins wasn’t on screen.
During the film, the audience is fed bits of information that helps heightens Hopkins’ on-screen performance and makes Lecter more grounded as a character. To the audience, Lecter is a villain yet not the villain–a mentor, maybe even a friend to the protagonist FBI agent played by Jodie Foster, but an opponent to her as well. The ability to portray a complex and technical character demonstrates why Hopkins was worthy of an Oscar for this role. It’s worth noting that Foster received an Oscar for Best Actress for her role in the film as well.
Natalie Portman in Black Swan
Many little girls growing take dance lessons or even dream of being a famous ballerina. In Black Swan, directed by Darren Aronofsky, Natalie Portman portrays Nina, a young ballet dancer with a driving ambition so disturbing it makes the audience uncomfortable. Nina is a perfectionist willing to push herself over the edge for the sake of her art.
In order to bring the prima donna to life, Portman spent hours a day training with the world’s best dancers, coaches, and teachers. Portman’s performance as the dancer who falls into madness is so convincing that it’s hard to remember that it’s just fiction. While Portman may not be able to completely relate to the dancer’s obsessive ambition, there is one thing Portman shares with Nina–Portman told Vanity Fair in 2011 there is a connection between the actress and her character: “The quest for perfection and the need of an artist to sort of please yourself and find your own way, not to be just trying to please other people.”
Sissy Spacek in Carrie
A lot of people don’t recall their high school days quite as fondly as others may. Brian de Palma’s Carrie, released in 1976, plays on that teenage angst to an extreme degree in this Stephen King adaptation about a young abused girl who possesses very strange and terrifying powers. Actress Sissy Spacek portrays Carrie and Piper Laurie portrays Carrie’s religious fanatic mother.
At 27 years old, Spacek received an Oscar nomination for role as Carrie. The audience can feel Carrie’s desperation and insecurity in every scene throughout the movie. Spacek was able to show the audience what everyone feels at some point in their life–feeling like an outsider and not being able to fit in. As a teenager, it can be very traumatizing to not fit in. Spacek was able to successfully deliver a frightening performance of a variety of emotions, including a great deal of frustration and fear. By the time of her–and the film’s–violent climax, the audience can see exactly how and why Carrie has been pushed to such a point.
Anthony Perkins in Psycho
A good horror or thriller doesn’t need to depend on violence, gore, or the supernatural to make it successful–or scary. Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho, featuring Janet Leigh and Anthony Perkins, is a testament to that fact. In an interview with The Record in November 1990, Perkins, who portrayed the titular killer Norman Bates, said, “There’s no place to hide in Psycho.”
Perkins made his fame by playing the deranged motel owner, and went on to play Bates in several sequels. As a product of being a tormented child in Hollywood, Perkins was able to take his experience and pour it into his acting career–especially in roles where he needed to portray the darker side of nature. He played the role of the tense and repressed man well because he drew from personal experiences. Despite being soft-spoken and eerily calm for most of the movie, Perkins made Norman Bates one of the most famous and frightening horror movie monsters of all time.
Jamie Lee Curtis in Halloween
More than forty years ago, executive producer Irwin Yablans asked director John Carpenter to make a low-budget movie about babysitters getting murdered. Carpenter told The New York Times in 2018, “It was a horrible idea. But I wanted to make more movies, so I said, ‘Great!’” One of the greatest slasher villains of all time, Michael Myers, was born.
Halloween helped launch a career for actress Jamie Lee Curtis, daughter of Janet Leigh, the aforementioned star of Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho. Curtis’s teen protagonist Laurie Strode was meant to be an innocent, repressed teenage girl who is quick on her feet. Her inner strength comes out as she’s forced to go toe-to-toe with an unstoppable killing machine, and Curtis made the role her own by the end of the first film. Since then, Halloween has spawned several sequels, remakes, and reboots, and Curtis has gone on to reprise the role of Laurie Strode in several subsequent films in the franchise: Halloween II, Halloween H20: 20 Years Later, Halloween: Resurrection, the 2018 Halloween, and its upcoming sequel, 2020’s Halloween Kills.
Jack Nicholson in The Shining
Oscar-winning actor Jack Nicholson gives one of the most famous horror movie performances of all time in Stanley Kubrick’s 1980 adaptation of Stephen King’s The Shining, with multiple iconic scenes including Nicholson smashing through a door with an axe and screaming “Heeeeeeere’s Johnny!”
Nicholson is not only an actor, he’s written and directed as well, and had the opportunity to write an entire scene for The Shining. He recalls being berated by his wife when he would be at home writing, telling The New York Times, “That’s what I was like when I got my divorce. I was under the pressure of being a family man with a daughter and one day I accepted a job to act in a movie in the daytime and I was writing a movie at night and I’m back in my little corner and my beloved wife Sandra walked in on what was unbeknownst to her, this maniac—and I told Stanley about it and we wrote it into the scene.”
Pulling from his own personal experiences at home, Nicholson was able to ground his growing supernatural insanity with the foundation of everyday pressures–talk about great acting!