Even as the popularity and presence of horror movies continue to grow and more horror movies are being handed prestigious accolades, one thing remains elusive: recognition by the Academy. For the last few years, the Oscars’ continued disregard for the horror genre has stirred up an ongoing debate as to whether or not the horror genre has been done dirty. While the Academy Awards tend to eschew most genre films, it’s hard to argue that horror films have been the most overlooked. So undervalued has it been as a genre that only six horror movies have ever been nominated for Best Picture at the Academy Awards: Jaws, The Exorcist, The Silence of the Lambs, The Sixth Sense, Black Swan and Get Out.
That’s a shame, because horror movies have been offering up some Oscar-worthy acting, particularly in recent years. Let’s discuss the horror movie performances of the last decade that deserved to be nominated for an Oscar.
1. Toni Collette – ‘Hereditary’ (2018)
It would be impossible to start this list off with anything other than the universal treasure that is Toni Collette doing some career-best work in Ari Aster’s breakout feature debut, Hereditary. Her turn as Annie, a grieving mother haunted by her own past and slowly descending into flat-out madness, was unforgettable. Her monologue in the grief support group scene alone should have been enough to seal a nomination. The way she’s so tightly wound and gradually opens up in the torrent she’s held back for years as the camera slowly pans in on her is note-perfect.
As the movie continues, Collette gives in and throws her whole self into a completely unhinged, completely unrestrained performance of a maniacal mother warped by pain who has no other outlet but to inflict it herself.
Trauma begets trauma begets trauma and Collette is masterful at being an absolute monster while also getting our insides to twist in sympathy. It’s one of the top three performances from one of our most underrated actresses and for that reason, she gets not one but two video clips.
2. Lupita Nyong’o – ‘Us’ (2019)
You’d be hard-pressed to think of a performance in a horror movie where the lead actress played two completely different roles in the same movie, let alone in a horror movie. Yet, Lupita Nyong’o did, and did it brilliantly in Jordan Peele’s sophomore effort Us. Nyong’o pulled double duty as both the haunted Adelaide and the feral Red. In a dual performance given (almost) equal screen time, it’s sometimes clear which character the actor favors or is more comfortable with. But Nyong’o excelled in both roles, both tightly wound and traumatized as Adelaide and unhinged and malevolent as Red. While Us wasn’t quite as complete or compelling as Peele’s Oscar-nominated Get Out, Nyong’o’s performance was still more than Oscar-worthy.
3. James McAvoy – ‘Split’ (2017)
Speaking of multiple personalities in one movie, James McAvoy gives what is perhaps the prime example of this in M. Night Shyamalan’s Split. McAvoy has long been known as an excellent impersonator and having a mastery of accents, and in Split, those talents of his get to shine in the form of Kevin Wendell Crumb, a character who has two dozen different personalities. Though McAvoy doesn’t touch upon all 24, he does show off eight distinctly different personalities throughout the movie, from Hedwig, a playful 9-year-old, to the calm and matronly Ms. Patricia, to The Beast, a monstrous, animalistic persona with a murderous streak. He performs all roles flawlessly, seamlessly transitioning from personality to personality, sometimes within the same scene, a feat of mental, verbal, and physical dexterity that is utterly amazing to watch.
4. Anya Taylor-Joy – ‘The Witch’ (2016)
Coincidentally, Anya Taylor-Joy is the lead protagonist in the above Split, but that role isn’t why she makes this list. Instead, it’s for her indie horror from the year before: The Witch, directed by The Lighthouse‘s Robert Eggers. Most credit goes to Eggers’ always-meticulous research and craftsmanship evoking a near-perfect recreation of 1630s New England. But Anya Taylor-Joy, who found her breakout role in this film and whose star has only risen since, was mesmerizing in the role of Thomasin, a young woman trapped between girlhood and womanhood and bare to the forces of darkness pulling at her innocence. Her performance as a girl being sucked into the darkest depths of the unknown evokes incredible tension. Yet Taylor-Joy’s full commitment to the intensity of the role turns a story that might be cold or less relatable into an incredibly layered coming-of-age story where the young actresses’s considerable talents shine.
5. Gong Yoo – ‘Train to Busan’ (2016)
If Bong Joon Ho’s Parasite proved one thing, it’s that foreign films can be considered contenders for Oscars nominations outside the international film category. Train to Busan is the first foreign-language film on this list (but not the last), hailing from the same place as Parasite: South Korea. Director Yeon Sang-ho delivers one of the best zombie movies ever made, fact-paced, taut, and with nail-biting action. But despite the rapid clip at which the story moves along, there’s still plenty of space for character development and fullness of connection between the characters and most of this is thanks to star Gong Yoo. As a rather crappy father determined to protect his daughter, Gong is the emotional center of the movie, a deeply flawed man trying to do right. Gong expresses it through the jittery energy of a man forcing himself into bravery despite it going against his nature. It’s not easy to inject nuance and meaning in between running from zombies, but Gong’s performance as he transforms from a selfish man driven by self-preservation into the hero of the story is so human and open that it allows us to root for him even when he’s behaving badly.
6. Bill Hader – ‘It: Chapter Two’ (2019)
Comedic actors have long shown themselves to be some of our best dramatic actors, too, when they’re allowed to break out of their funnypeople box and lean into drama. Bill Hader isn’t about to break that streak. As an adult Richie Tozier in It: Chapter Two, Hader’s role was meant to be the comic relief – and if often was, Richie’s nonstop motormouth and cutting humor both welcome and exhausting. But Hader’s performance as a closeted gay man was also introspective and tortured, full of the quiet pathos of a man willing to face an external demon but not his own. Richie repressing his sexuality isn’t the main focus of the story, but it’s certainly central to Richie’s arc, and Hader plays him with the intensely miserable desperation of one frantic to deny who he is – and who he loves. Hader’s performance is powerful in how understated it is, Richie the embodiment of Thoreau’s quote, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Never has Hader been so desperate in a role and rarely has he been better.
7. Essie Davis – ‘The Babadook’ (2014)
As with Toni Collette, it’s impossible to put together a list of award-worthy performances in horror and not include Essie Davis. There’s a trend in horror movies for the last half-decade of stories about complicated, terrible mothers and while Hereditary is the best-known example of this, The Babadook arguably kickstarted that trend. Davis plays single mother, Amelia, with an unsettling intensity that puts you on edge even in her most sympathetic scenes. She is the protagonist, but she’s also the antiheroine, the victim but also the monster. The rawness with which Davis portrays Amelia is highlighted by her disheveled appearance and eyes often puffy from screaming and crying. She’s a fragile, broken thing holding herself together with sheer will – but all along, Davis’s fractured performance hints that if Amelia were ever to break completely, she might become the most monstrous thing of all.
8. Ewan McGregor – ‘Doctor Sleep’ (2019)
It’s been truly great to see the career resurgence of Ewan McGregor in recent years. The wildly talented actor has always been criminally underrated, his career association with showier, high-energy roles like Obi-Wan Kenobi, Renton in Trainspotting or Christian in Moulin Rouge! undermining the truth of his equal ability to shine in quieter, steadier roles. Such is the case as a grown-up Dan Torrance in The Shining sequel Doctor Sleep. The movie underwhelmed at the box office, but McGregor was universally praised for his performance. There are few actors like McGregor, a Swiss army knife actor who is so good at emanating a broken vulnerability that belies his leading man ability to quietly command a screen. His performance is an acknowledgment of and break with trauma and addiction, the most reluctant of reluctant heroes who just wants to stay clean. For better or worse, Dan has turned his back on the demons of his past, including his powers of the shining. He’s an f’ed up mess just doing the best he can, and thanks to McGregor’s all-star charm keeping pace with Dan Torrance’s introspective melancholy, he created one of the most relatable characters of the past year.
9. Juan Ramón López – ‘Tigers Are Not Afraid’ (2017)
Horror movies go hand-in-hand with heartbreak. It’s impossible not to when death is a constant specter and grief, trauma, pain and loss all jockey for thematic position in a genre. But few performances have encapsulated all of those so beautifully or devastatingly as that of Juan Ramón López in Tigers Are Not Afraid, a feat made even more impressive by his young age. Issa López’s stunning debut follows a group of orphans in Mexico City torn asunder by the drug war. López plays ringleader Shine with a fierce, prickly intensity, a half-feral boy forced into being the adult of his little group. His gripping performance is devastating not because he purposely shows an abundance of vulnerability, but because he doesn’t. López excels in the scenes fueled by Shine’s desperate bravado, a boy playing a man who knows he’s in over his head but has no other choice. It’s a haunting, challenging performance, one you keep thinking about long after the end credits roll.
10. Narges Rashidi – ‘Under the Shadow’ (2016)
As with Collette and Davis before her, Narges Rashidi’s character of Shideh in Babak Anvari’s film Under the Shadow isn’t one that’s overtly sympathetic or easy to love. There’s more to Anvari’s film than simple scares; it’s as much a character study of a rebellious and independent-minded woman living under the oppressive regime of Sharia law in 1980s Iran as it is a horror movie. Rashidi plays Shideh as a woman slowly breaking apart, not from the demons within as with others on the list but from the pressures without. Rashidi excels as a woman struggling to bear up under the unbearable constraints of a fanatical society, the internalized fears she’s not a good mother, and the increasingly sinister presence of a malevolent force that has crept into their lives. It’s a visceral, unsettled performance that flirts with ambiguity and Rashidi juggles her response to both oppressive forces – patriarchal extremity and the supernatural – with a deftness that makes you take notice.
11. Dan Stevens – ‘The Guest’ (2014)
There’s always something uniquely entertaining when a previously typecast pretty boy or buttoned-up leading man tackles a role that is wholly different. It’s the tension of Can he pull this off? Will I buy him in this role? Both were certainly questions we found ourselves asking just prior to Downton Abbey star Dan Stevens’ antagonistic turn in Adam Wingard’s cleverly constructed The Guest. We needn’t have worried. Stevens’ performance of manipulative ex-soldier, David, is firmly in the modern horror movie hall of fame. David ingrates himself with the family of a fallen comrade, ostensibly to support them. But his charming “Aw, shucks” good ol’ boy demeanor slowly gives way to one that’s far more sinister and controlling. There’s nothing of Downton Abbey‘s romantic, humble Matthew Crawley here. David is utterly terrifying in his cold ruthlessness, approaching quick violence with the dispassionate logic of a true sociopath but with just enough of a wink at the camera to inject the performance with a streak of darkest humor. That Stevens wasn’t a huge star after this movie confirms what this movie revealed: Stevens is one of those lauded character actors trapped in a leading man’s body. It’s only a matter of time before he gets the Oscar nomination to match.
12. John Boyega – ‘Attack the Block’ (2011)
Sometimes, an actor lands like a comet into a feature debut and you just know they’re going to be big. So it went for a baby-faced John Boyega whose turn as Moses in Joe Cornish’s Attack the Block announced to the world Boyega had arrived. Moses, the teenage leader of a gang of street hoodlums in a rundown London neighborhood, is determined to protect their block from an alien invasion. It’s a performance that compels you to pay attention every time he’s on the screen. Attack the Block touches upon class issues and gentrification, and Moses is both fierce and fiercely vulnerable as a teenage “hoodie” thug who lashes out and engages in petty crime as life has offered him little else. Boyega plays Moses with an outwardly tough, steely reserve that is a mask to hide the surprising depths and emotional layers that Moses possesses. That you believe it when he rises to the occasion as an unlikely hero and the makeshift general of their little army is a testament to Boyega’s boundless charisma and commanding screen presence. It’s easy to see why he got the Star Wars nod shortly after.
13. Florence Pugh – ‘Midsommar’ (2019)
We started this list with a performance in an Ari Aster movie so it feels fitting we end it with one. Florence Pugh has had a meteoric rise in Hollywood the last few years and audiences who didn’t know her before Midsommar most certainly knew her after. Sure, Midsommar is about a creepy Swedish cult performing ritualistic human sacrifice, but it’s really about Pugh’s Dani putting herself back together again after the violent and tragic murder-suicide of her entire family. It’s a role few actresses would be brave enough to take on, but Pugh leans all the way into the grief and rage and panic and hopelessness in a performance for the ages – which is really saying something considering Pugh is only 24. The scene of Dani letting out all her grief in moaning, shrieking sobs is destined to be one dissected in acting classes to teach aspiring actors how to mine one’s pain and channel it into a performance. Pugh is unflinchingly honest and devastated in a role that has no emotional boundaries, a ritualistic cleansing that forces you to get comfortable with brutally raw emotion. It’s a shame other performances on this list weren’t nominated for Oscars but it’s a flat-out crime that Pugh wasn’t.
What horror performances would you add to the list?