With so many great actors known for turning in solid performances in genre work, you sometimes expect a particular performance out of an actor. While they all definitely have a wide range, you call on Robert Englund to be a specific kind of creepy and you get Kane Hodder to be a large, intimidating villain, most of the time. But there are a whole lot of horror films out there, and they don’t all feature the same rotating cast of genre faves.
Sometimes people who are not really known for work in the genre will show up in a horror film and deliver a hell of a performance. And it’s a great, unexpected treat every single time they do. It’s a shame that many of the actors you’ll see on this list never really made it to an A-list level of stardom. Some of them have certainly become well-known, but only for doing a certain kind of thing, while others are far from being household names.
But all great work deserves a shoutout and with that in mind, here are some amazing and completely unexpected performances in horror.
Sam Neill in In the Mouth of Madness
With Sam Neill, you traditionally expect a more straight-laced performance and my favorite thing about his work in this movie is that that’s the way he starts out. John Trent is a stalwart guy just focused on the work, not really believing in much of anything he’s seeing or hearing until he’s forced to. After the success of Jurassic Park, it was great to see him jump so quickly into a role that’s totally out there. It’s bonkers. And it’s great to see him go bonkers. It’s not his first foray into that world, he’d been there before in Possession, but this time he’s really the driving force.
Melinda Clarke in Return of the Living Dead 3
I love this one and I love this performance. Sure, she’s an actress in a low-budget B-Movie sequel, but as such she delivers the best possible job that she can. Not only does she convey a sympathetic heroine, but she has to do so much, from acting dead to the practical FX she becomes buried under in the second half. My favorite thing, though, is the outstanding physical performance she gives. She brings a tenderness to the character, but when she turns full zombie, she’s not stiff or rigid, instead her movements are so fluid and almost snakelike and that transformation is stunning to watch.
David Cronenberg in Nightbreed
This has to be one of the most genius casting decisions of the ‘90s. Cronenberg isn’t even an actor. He’s a director. But Clive Barker saw an interview with him and said, “That’s the guy for the job.” It’s such a quiet, understated performance, pretty much delivered as an exaggeration of the way Cronenberg normally speaks—and that’s exactly what it needs to be. There’s something just subtly unhinged about Dr. Decker and when it’s time to go full-on crazy, he nails that as well.
Christopher Walken in The Dead Zone
Christopher Walken is an icon. I wouldn’t dare say that he isn’t. But he’s sort of become a pop culture joke for being such an easy impression, for the awkward and instantly recognizable way that he talks. But he’s been in some astounding movies. And I’m not kidding when I say that I think The Dead Zone is his best dramatic performance. He’s not doing “The Christopher Walken Thing” here. He’s giving a sincere, complicated, emotional presentation of this man who has both lost everything and gained a sense of responsibility he does not know how to live with.
Bill Paxton in Near Dark
I don’t see how anyone could have expected this from the late Bill Paxton. Sure, Near Dark came just after Aliens, in which Paxton certainly played a larger than life character. But this is his Clockwork Orange. Severin is just a remorseless, thrill-killing Southwestern punk rock monster. In a movie full of vampires he stands out as particularly vicious. He out-creeps Lance Henriksen. There’s something amazing about that. It’s definitely one of the top, most overlooked standout roles in a career cut too short.
Lance Henriksen in Pumpkinhead
Lance Henriksen plays a great, creepy villain. But he also proved that he could excel at sympathetic supporting roles in Aliens. Yet in Pumpkinhead, for one of the few times in his career, he takes the lead. And my God, he nails it. This is the kind of performance that would have gotten accolades if it weren’t in a monster movie called Pumpkinhead. Here, he’s a vengeful father full of remorse, trying to correct a terrible thing he did, all while attempting to grieve. There are so many different facets to what Henriksen has to do in this film and he never stumbles once.
Isabelle Adjani in Possession
This movie hinges on Isabelle Adjani’s performance. As bizarre as it is, it needs something equally bizarre to carry it and that’s what Isabelle Adjani does in this. She is equal parts sensitive and scary and that’s a really hard thing to pull off. Sam Neill is also great, but she’s easily the driving force of the feature. It’s also worth noting that while Posession took a while to gain a cult following in the US, Adjani won the award for Best Actress at the Cannes Film Festival in 1981.
Billy Zane in Tales from the Crypt Presents Demon Knight
This performance is lightning in a bottle. Who knew that Billy Zane had this kind of manic insanity, as well as this kind of charm? And look at how effortlessly he slips between the two, being suave and seductive one moment and balls-to-the-wall crazy the next. There’s no way anyone could ever emulate or duplicate what Zane did in this movie. It is so perfectly of its time. And while I’d love to see something like this from him again, I like that it exists as this time capsule of perfect crazy. At the very, very least he gave us one of the most underrated villains of the ‘90s, yet unforgettable to anyone who’s seen it.