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Overlooked Performances in Horror

There are many reasons audiences love to watch horror movies. Whether it is the attraction of an auteur director such as John Carpenter or just a compulsive need to add up the body count, each audience member has his or her own reason for loving the genre. For others, one main attraction is to watch the abilities of an actor or actress to succeed in truly bringing a particular character to life; the ability to successfully evoke empathy from the audience or strike fear into their hearts with each villainous act committed. While it can sometimes be enjoyable to watch poor acting in a film for comedic purposes, more often than not bad acting can really take away from the overall film. Compiled here is a list of actors and actresses that gave strong performances that might be overlooked by contemporary audiences simply because of the time the film was released or a lack of notice from mainstream critics. However, if one considers strong acting an essential part of a successful horror film, then these are performances that should not be missed.

Sarah Polley in Dawn of the Dead

Dawn of the Dead received mixed reviews when compared to the original film. However, Sarah Polley’s portrayal of Ana is one that should not be overlooked. The audience starts with her and follows her through her initially relentless encounter with the undead. The middle of the film is sprinkled with tense moments leading finally to an intense climax grounded the entire time by Polley’s performance. Polley’s Ana is overworked yet always manages to remain somewhat optimistic. Yet, she does not allow that to become confused with naivety. She handles each situation with logic and is only shown to breakdown once. This breakdown occurs only when alone. She stands up for what she believes is right and when faced with loss, yet again, at the end of the film allows only a single tear to fall. Polley’s performance is so strong one forgets easily that she is acting. She never becomes a caricature of a horror movie hero but becomes a hero in her own quiet way.

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Macaulay Culkin in The Good Son

A film that came out during the height of the child actor’s popularity as a comedian, The Good Son showed quite a different side to Macaulay Culkin. An unnervingly strong performance of a child that is truly evil. While Elijah Wood does an excellent job as Culkin’s foil, it is Culkin’s portrayal of Henry that was truly overlooked. Perhaps it is the theme of the film that many of the critics found problematic regarding the idea of such an evil child. Scenes in which Culkin is shown trying to kill his sister or creating a serious highway accident definitely should give pause. However, being that it is just a film, one cannot deny the truly flawless performance that Culkin delivered; a performance that truly separated him from his other roles at the time.

Macaulay-Culkin-The-Good-Son-SmokePatricia Arquette in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors

Patricia Arquette has come a long way from her first role in A Nightmare on Elm Street 3: Dream Warriors, yet right from the beginning there was no denying her talent. From her opening scene as a sleep deprived teenager to her final moments in which she is cradling a dying Nancy in her arms, Arquette delivers an authentic performance. She never seems lost within the fantasy moments or special effects of the film. Her acting keeps her rooted to the role and the audience can feel her screams down to their bones.

Patricia-Arquette-Nightmare-Nancys-DeathKeifer Sutherland in The Lost Boys

In The Lost Boys, Keifer Sutherland portrays the vampire, David. Sutherland was at the start of his career, yet his performance definitely has the making of the star he would become. Every moment he is on screen, the audience cannot take their eyes away. Unless, of course, it is to cover them in fear. It is the portrayal of true innocence lost. He is, at times menacing, and at others, truly frightening. Yet, there are moments, such as finale, where the audience can easily see the child within. Another moment where tears fall down his face from pain is when the audience can see that the innocence has completely given way to true evil and revenge. Sutherland truly delivers a star performance in the film.

Keifer Sutherland in the movie "The Lost Boys".Catherine Hicks in Child’s Play

The Child’s Play franchise catapulted Chucky as an iconic figure in the horror genre. With each following film, the franchise becomes centered on Chucky’s humorous efforts as a murderous doll. However, the original Child’s Play plays out as a serious film that, from a critical standpoint, did well. While Chucky is a definite scene stealer in the film, it is Hicks’ performance that stands out. The actress plays a single mother trying to provide for her young son and finding herself in one desperate situation after another. She is realistic in her confrontations with her son and is relentless in trying to defend the young boy’s sanity.

Catherine-Hicks-Childs-Play-SonJeff Goldblum in The Fly

The remake of The Fly was a film from the horror genre that did well critically. It even won an Academy Award for Best Make-Up. However, the Academy failed to recognize Jeff Goldblum’s performance with even a nomination. The Saturn Awards did honor him with a deserved award for Best Actor. However, it was still a disappointment to see such an amazing performance be overlooked simply because it belonged to the horror genre. Goldblum’s performance as Seth Brundle showed a character ranging from eccentricity through to anger and even love. The audience is left with a conflicting series of emotions that only a truly talented actor could evoke.

Jeff-Goldblum-The-Fly-ChangingTerry O’Quinn in The Stepfather

In the original The Stepfather, Terry O’Quinn provides audiences with a truly creepy performance in which his duplicitous acting skills are tested. A reveal of each layer in his performance finds the audience discovering something more horrific. O’Quinn starts with a surface of being like the perfect 1950’s sitcom father while underneath being a compulsive perfectionist. Beneath that compulsion is someone willing to kill to achieve this perfection. As his performance goes on, each layer is removed leading to a terrifying conclusion. The audience is left to wonder how far one will go to achieve the American Dream. The original film and O’Quinn’s performance might be overlooked by current audiences due to the 2009 remake, however any horror fan will not want to miss what O’Quinn originally achieved.

Terry-O-Quinn-Stepfather-SuitDee Wallace in Cujo

As Donna Trenton from Stephen King’s novel of the same name, Dee Wallace portrays a bored housewife oppressed by all the men in her life in one way or another. Her entrapment by a rabid male dog is a metaphor for the oppression by all the other men in her life. Wallace’s performance in this film takes her character from a horrified waif to a warrior ready to do battle. To be able to successfully carry a film in which almost the entire second half takes place in the small space of a car is no easy feat. She naturally demonstrates the ultimate frustration of her oppression when she has done everything she can to keep her son alive only to have him call out for his father. At that moment, Wallace exudes a temporarily loss of sanity and screams out “Alright, I’ll get your daddy!” Her true moment to shine comes when she stands up to Cujo and with a battle cry goads the dog on with a “Come on, then!” All of the elements of Wallace’s performance in Cujo have come together in that moment and she has provided audiences with a character of great strength.

Dee-Wallace-Cujo-Bat-EndDonald Pleasence in Halloween

As the determined Doctor Loomis, Donald Pleasence remained a constant in the Halloween franchise until his passing in 1995. Pleasence had a career spanning many decades but fans of the horror genre should never forget the ominous and constant Doctor Loomis. While no matter how creative the producers of the Halloween franchise got with bringing back Michael Myers from the dead, Pleasence’s performance never wavered in each passing film. However, it is his role in the original Halloween that should never be forgotten or overlooked by fans of the horror genre. While the Halloween films to follow after his death had some great moments, there was always something missing after Donald Pleasence was gone.

Donald-Pleasence-Halloween-GunKathy Bates in Dolores Claiborne

While Ms. Bates did have a deserved Oscar win for another Stephen King adaptation with her role in Misery, her performance as the titular character in Dolores Claiborne is one of true excellence. She plays a woman charged twice with murder; once the murder of her husband many years before and in present time, of her employer. In the film, Bates shows the struggles of the lower-class working woman in one period in her thirties and the second in her sixties. While providing comedy with her one-liners served to put anyone in their place, she also demonstrates pure dramatic emotion ranging from anger, betrayal, sadness, and defeat. Ultimately, she struggles through every situation life and those around her throw at her until she gains the respect of her estranged daughter, Selena (Jennifer Jason-Leigh). To not even be nominated for this role is nothing short of bewildering and it is a performance that should definitely not be overlooked by fans of the horror genre.

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Written by Justin Steele
Justin Steele is a graduate of Bowling Green State University. His focus was the representation of women and minorities in contemporary media. In addition to writing, he hosts the 411popCulture channel on YouTube. He enjoys Rep Theatre and once performed on Broadway. He currently resides in Cleveland, Ohio with his 15-year-old cat. He is a die-hard horror fan with a particular affinity for slasher films.
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