Acting is often hit or miss in the horror genre, which is why horror fans are so eager to latch onto good performances. Horror is a great way for actors to get their start, which is why so many performers begin their careers in genre film, even some of the biggest names in Hollywood. Everybody starts somewhere, after all. Sometimes, a high profile actor can join a horror production to elevate it and give it a boost so that it is taken seriously by harsh critics and audiences. More than that, a top-selling actor can raise an otherwise small independent movie into much bigger studio fare. This practice was commonplace in the ‘90’s and we’ve just been seeing it more and more ever since. The performances outlined below, to me, represent the best of both worlds. Some are actors who were just getting their start and delivered something magical when they probably had no reason to, others were great and respected actors who simply brought their A-game to a project they knew would become very special. Read on for seven great horror performances by A-List actors
Tom Cruise in Interview With the Vampire
Nobody expected Cruise to be cast in Interview With the Vampire, least of all Anne Rice. She’d had a lot of ideas for who should play Lestat for a number of years, and Cruise was nowhere on that list. When he got the part, she lobbied hard against it. Then, when she actually saw him in the film, she issued a full apology. Cruise embodies the character to the point where he’s almost unrecognizable, and not just because he’s under so much heavy makeup and a thick wig. He’s a vain, cruel character who loves others deeply but rarely as much as he loves himself. Cruise brings all of this and more to the screen in his portrayal of Lestat.
What’s to say about Jack at this point? He’s not known for his horror roles, although he’s done a few, especially in his early days. But his work in The Shining is legendary, probably due, in no small part, to the fact that Kubrick nearly drove him insane on the set. He’s not playing the character in the book, really. But the version of Jack Torrance created for the film is nonetheless completely enticing to watch. He looks worse and worse with each passing scene and it becomes clear to the audience that his veil of sanity is completely slipping away long before it becomes clear to the family. For that whole climax, he’s just on a an entirely different level.
Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist
People talk a lot about Linda Blair’s performance in The Exorcist, or Jason Miller’s, as he’s sort of the actual main character. Both Blair and Miller are excellent, but Ellen Burstyn as Chris MacNeil is the heart of the movie. She’s the reason we care so much about Reagan. Sure, we don’t want to see any child get possessed, but this mother is fighting so hard to save her daughter and we as the audience become so invested because of that.
Kathy Bates in Misery
Kathy Bates has had a lot of great, mainstream success in her career. But her Oscar-winning portrayal of Annie Wilkes in Misery is the performance of a lifetime. It’s unbelievable. She’s so quietly creepy, so fake-sweet to the point of being quite frightening. While many don’t consider Misery to be horror, they still talk about how terrifying it is. It’s such a great film and her performance is really what defines it.
Jodie Foster in The Silence of the Lambs
Again, this isn’t the performance everyone talks about necessarily, but she did win an Oscar for it just like Hopkins did. Hopkins is actually barely in it, but is still appropriately chilling. Foster carries the entire picture on her shoulders. Her arc is as strong as her accent. It’s so easy to feel for her and get why she needs to solve this case so badly, even if she barely ever talks about it directly. That’s what makes it a great performance, the fact that we can tell what she’s feeling even when very little is actually being said.
Matthew McConaughey in Texas Chainsaw Massacre: The Next Generation
I know, I know. It’s not a good movie. Believe me, I am not here to argue that point. But it’s watchable because of how absolutely insane it is. McConaughey embodies that insanity. His performance is all over the place and as much as he did not want this film out there, he’s clearly having fun. It’s so spastic, so energetic and so earnest that I can’t necessarily call it bad. This is a standout performance from a movie where no one else even bothered to act and I guess I’m grateful for that.
Gary Oldman in Bram Stoker’s Dracula
Oldman has played some excellent villains over the years, but rarely in the horror genre. His performance as Dracula, though, is outstanding. It’s very much the romanticized Count of adaptations following the Lugosi film, but he nonetheless makes it his own. He’s dark and, yes, romantic but he’s also extremely cruel and monstrous at times and I find that an interesting and refreshing dichotomy for the Count. Maybe the most remarkable thing about Oldman in this film is how he manages to shine even under tons of prosthetic makeup in various different forms.