Memorable acting within a horror or Halloween movie is rare because oftentimes such performances veer towards being campy or overacted. For big-name actors, starring in such films can be a career risk because a potential campy performance could be enough to decimate and ill-define their career. Yet when done correctly, such performances could be the very highlight of their career. Unfortunately though, such performances often are minimized in favor of other performances within that actor’s career or have been buried amongst the canon of horror film acting. Therefore it is important to remember these lesser known performances for the sake of not letting them be minimized or forgotten. Below are 10 such examples:
1. Ellen Burstyn in The Exorcist (1973)
When it comes to The Exorcist, the majority of the critical response has gone to Linda Blair as the possessed Regan MacNeil, when it was actually Ellen Burstyn was did the majority of heavy lifting for the film. Starring as the suffering mother who is emotionally isolated and desperate to have her daughter brought back to her, Burstyn was stunning in her performance and offered one of the best performances of her career. She was nominated for an Oscar for her performance, but lost. Many contemporary critics, though, have cited the reasoning for Burstyn’s loss being due to the then-controversial topic nature of the film.
2. Martin Landau in Ed Wood (1994)
In the performance that won him the Oscar for Supporting Actor in 1994, Landau stars in Tim Burton’s biopic/satire Ed Wood as true-life Dracula legend, Bela Lugosi. The film is a satirical biopic on the career of Edward D. Wood Jr., who is now known as the worst director of all time (Plan 9 From Outer Space). A large portion of the film was focused on Ed Wood’s friendship and film collaborations with Lugosi, who was washed-up, clinging to his former career as Dracula, and was deeply addicted to morphine at the time.
3. Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie in Carrie (1976)
The film may not have aged well, but the performances are still first-rate. Starring in Stephen King’s first film adaptation of his novels, an acting standard had to be set. This standard was undoubtedly set at a high level from both Sissy Spacek and Piper Laurie. What especially should be noted is that Sissy Spacek was an unknown actress when she took on her first major leading role as Carrie White, the high school misfit with telekinesis who enacts revenge on those who have wronged her. Also worth noting is that Piper Laurie, who stars as Carrie’s abusive bible-worshiping mother, came out of a 15-year film retirement to star in the role as Margaret White. Both of them were nominated for Oscars, but sadly lost.
4. Al Pacino in You Don’t Know Jack (2010)
Al Pacino starred in this film as real-life controversial figure, Dr. Jack Kevorkian, otherwise known in the 1990s as “Dr. Death.” Kevorkian defied authorities and the law by provided physician-assisted suicide to those who were terminally ill and sought out his methods. Pacino is acting perfection in this film by providing a thoroughly convincing and complex performance of the real-life figure. Pacino was awarded both an Emmy and Golden Globe for his performance.
5. Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane (1962)
Insanity and obsession is what defines Bette Davis’ performance in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane, in a role where she traps and tortures her wheelchair-confined sister. The performance is sinister and diabolical, to say the least. Bette Davis was nominated for an Oscar for her performance and was expected to win, but lost due to her famous rivalry with Joan Crawford, who vigorously campaigned against her co-star.
6. Tilda Swinton in We Need to Talk About Kevin (2011)
This performance holds a special place in this list for being one of the most unfairly ignored and disregarded performances in recent years. Swinton’s performance is dense and complex as a mother who believes her child to be abnormal in behavior and attitude, to which those around her downplay her claims and state that she is overreacting. It is not until her son commits mass murder that the same people who initially downplayed her are now citing her as the enabler to her son’s actions. Tilda Swinton’s performance is both flawless and extraordinary.
7. Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn in Death Becomes Her (1992)
It’s remarkable to acknowledge Meryl Streep and Goldie Hawn would even be willing to star in such a movie, but they did. The film is so exceedingly campy, overdone, and ridiculous; adjectives that would normally would be attributed towards a bad movie. Oddly enough, it is for those very reasons as to why the film is hilariously fun to watch. What happens when two rivals, who are both immortal, fight for the same man? Watch Death Becomes Her and find out.
8. Robert DeNiro in Cape Fear (1991)
Martin Scorsese remade the 1962 film with his own version with Robert DeNiro in the lead role of Max Cady, the vicious convict who begins stalking and terrorizing his former lawyer and his family. DeNiro completely transformed himself into this villainous role with such frightening intensity that it is surprising how lesser known this performance is when assessing his vast film resume.
9. Bette Midler, Sarah Jessica Parker, and Kathy Najimy in Hocus Pocus (1993)
In this Disney Halloween film, Midler, Parker, and Najimy star as the Sanderson sisters, who were witches hanged during the Salem witch Trials. They are accidentally brought back to life on Halloween and seek to secure immortality before the evening concludes. The film is beyond campy, yet the three leads utilize their comedic talents so well and have such perfect chemistry together that the film is not only watchable, but perhaps one of Disney’s best live-action movies. Additionally, Bette Midler has stated more than once that her role in this movie is her favorite performance of her career, to date. Of course, if one needs a reason to watch this film, Disney’s sly way to have Bette Midler sing “I Put a Spell on You” is, alone, worth watching the movie for.
10. Robin Williams in One Hour Photo (2002)
Robin William’s performance in One Hour Photo was so haunting because it preyed on our natural fear of the unknown. How much do we actually know of what’s going on around us? Are those who are seemingly nice to us actually stalking us? Williams’ performance easily could have been one that bordered on mere obsession, which it is to an extent, but Williams made it more than that. It is a performance of extreme desperation and the desire to connect with someone, even if it’s done in a fantastical way. Williams’ performance truly was a gateway into the mind of someone who is mentally unstable and barely clinging to a functional existence. His performance relied on a steady narrative that shockingly went unhinged the moment the narrative shifted outside of what his character was used to. Williams’ performance shocked critics and fans alike when One Hour Photo was released into theaters in 2002 because any sign of the comedic actor was gone and replaced with someone who was skin-crawling, yet heartbreaking to watch. This is one of the best performances of Robin William’s career.