Michael and I continue treading through our respective lists on horror movies with a brief fork in interests, but related enough that we’ll double teaming both lists at yah anyway. As a guy who grew up to really really love the monsters we see in celluloid, literature, and beyond (I think I remember at one point wanting to grow up to be Godzilla), it seemed quite easy to lean on to the idea of taking ten of my favorite movie characters in horror cinema and giving them a toss down the ol’ list treatment describing what exactly about their integration within the story, the design, and overall world of the movie makes me really fond of them so much.
Michael being the thespian that he is (no shit, he’s fucking funny) elected instead to lean on the accomplishments of many actors and actresses throughout horror movie history and how they themselves brought out the best (or sometimes the very worst) of their characters. As such we got two such lists with two different intentions:
Mike’s Top Ten Favorite Horror Movie Performances
STinG’s Top Ten Favorite Horror Movie Characters
Same shtick as usual, STinG in blue, Mike in red.
And we’ll start with Mike’s list so heeeeeeeeere’s Johnny!
MIKE’S TOP TEN HORROR PERFORMANCES
SPECIAL MENTION to Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet who would have ranked #1 on the list had I decided on considering Blue Velvet a horror film.
Totes magotes Hopper stole the entire town with his performance and Frank Booth is among my favorite characters in cinema. And I think Naomi Watts’ performance in Mulholland Dr. is remarkably demanding and multi-layered in ways that would put her worth a mention, not to have hijacked your honorable mention.
10. Donald Pleasance as Dr. Loomis in Halloween (1978, dir. John Carpenter)
Most people only remember Jamie Lee Curtis in John Carpenter’s classic, but the guilt-ridden Dr. Loomis, played by the late great Donald Pleasance, is the real heart and soul of the film. Despite his less than stellar work in the mostly horrendous sequels, his monologue in the original Halloween about looking into the eyes of a killer delivered to Sheriff Brackett always gives me chills.
9. Jason Miller as Father Damian Karras in The Exorcist (1973, dir. William Friedkin)
In a film filled with wonderful performances, Jason Miller is the stand-out as the young priest tasked with the impossible. Whether he’s humorously bullshitting with Lee J. Cobb or dealing with the guilt of his mother’s death, Miller creates an incredibly sympathetic and relatable character.
Personally I never had much reaction to Miller in The Exorcist, but that’s generally because everything I like and respond to within that movie comes solely from Ellen Burstyn’s Chris MacNeil trying to find out what’s up with her daughter Regan and everything else is just… stuff I watch in the middle of it (it doesn’t help that at points it seems Chris and Karras’ stories get tangled up in the editing of the film – and for a central character Father Merrin is outright out of the picture until the last 15 minutes like the movie forgot about him). I’m totally setting myself up for a lynching by saying I don’t love The Exorcist.
I think I’ve already spent enough time praising how brilliantly physical he is in Evil Dead II and how charmingly sarcastic he is in Army of Darkness over the past week… but fuck it, lemme do it again! Bruce Campbell is the real MVP!
Perhaps this isn’t the most complex performance, but Bruce Campbell delivers some of the greatest screen charisma I’ve ever seen in the second and third of the Evil Dead series. While Raimi’s effects are wonderfully twisted and entertaining, Campbell’s Ash is the glue that holds it all together. He’s the funny badass every viewer wants to be.
7. Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance in The Shining (1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
You really want to know how great and versatile performances in Kubrick’s films are, just compare the stare shots of all the characters and in Nicholson’s performance you will get icy real quick.
Some say this performance was too over-the-top (look to the goddamn awful Shelley Duvall for that) but I think it’s perfectly in-tune with the tone of the picture. It’s not a particularly realistic and grounded portrait of a man on the edge of a mental breakdown, it’s the type of riveting and exaggerated performance you’d see in some grand opera. Nicholson is so unhinged as Jack Torrance, you have absolutely no idea what he’s going to do next.
The performance Nicholson was born for and the reason why I’m not as crazy of him as an actor anymore is how every single performance I see from him since ‘89 is using beats and notes that he already did better and more effectively in The Shining and Batman. I’ll also note that I love Shelley Duvall’s performance too.
6. Essie Davis as Amelia in The Babadook (2014, dir. Jennifer Kent)
Speaking of grounded and realistic portraits of humans on the edge of a mental breakdown, look no further than the marvelous Essie Davis in Jennifer Kent’s brilliant and unsettling mental illness allegory, The Babadook. If you ever wanted to strangle your misbehaved child, you’ll love or hate The Babadook but will instantly relate to Essie Davis’ wholly empathetic performance.
Never had a child. But the scariest thing about the Babadook is how easily I could get on her side the more and more tyrannical Davis became to his son. It’s totally like a psychological downfall that nevertheless makes sense (which isn’t to say her son isn’t also great at playing somebody just as crazy and shattered as Davis and he is of course wholly innocent and undeserving of what he hears).
The Academy really missed the mark not nominating her in the Leading Actress category last year.
5. Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho (1960, dir. Alfred Hitchcock)
Before Buster and Lucille, there was Norman Bates and his mother. You could make a sound argument that the Arrested Development mama’s boy type situation is creepier than what Alfred Hitchcock crafted in 1960, but you’d not be taking into consideration Perkins’ creepy, incredibly effective and surprisingly minimalist portrayal of a boy incapable of functioning without a parental figure.
You know how easy it is to tell how good Perkins is in this role? Watch the remake alongside the original. Vince Vaughn doesn’t necessarily do anything “wrong” in his performance (I think all I like him in is Swingers and that’s it), but he’s stale potatoes next to Perkins having a jolty, effeminite swing to his posture in this film.
Perkins would later make I’m Dangerous Tonight, and no one would give a shit.
4. Tim Curry as It in It (1990, dir. Tommy Lee Wallace)
Do people even think of the story alone without Tim Curry at this point? He’s totally that movie’s entire effect, it’s all caught in his gleeful monstrous presence.
I’m a huge fan of Stephen King’s Godfather-esque horror epic It so naturally I hate Tommy Lee Wallace’s suitable for primetime celluloid miscarriage. All of the best scenes were omitted and/or changed and focus shifted away from the villain being the town’s sins and prejudices to some giant spider horseshit. Even the acting was cheesy and over-the-top, with the exception of Tim Curry. It’s a tragedy Curry put so much effort into creating such an iconic and beautifully realized monster for such a bullshit movie. In the audio commentary on the TV movie, the actors who played the adults spend the whole time jerking each other off and briefly mention that Curry is a “great…performer.” Fuck those guys, they’re the REAL clowns for not realizing how much better of an actor Curry is than them. All respect to John Ritter, may be the only exception.
3. Sissy Spacek as Carrie White in Carrie (1976, dir. Brian De Palma)
It’s maybe the best sign of anything when I’m kind of not fond of Carrie itself as a movie, but I totally have to hold Sissy Spacek’s performance as one of the all-time finest turns in horror cinema.
If you’ve ever been teased or bullied you instantly identify with Carrie White. This is not necessarily because of how the character is written but because of the earnest intensity Spacek imbues her with. Also, who wouldn’t want the power to pulverize their tormentors?
Part of that is just because she just looks the part of someone who is easily bullied, with her pale complexion and mawkishness to her. But also an internal commentary when Spacek is able to also build an emotional shell all around her, an inability to grow out of the way people mock her, it’s simply because she thinks the world is bigger than her rather than not trying to be a woman like everybody else. And we think it’s bigger than her too. And then she breaks that. Violently. In the end.
Yet for as violently crazy as she becomes, you never stop sympathizing with her even if you can’t exactly root for her. Spacek is one of the best actresses we have left, and if you ask me, she could out-act Meryl Streep any goddamn day of the week.
1 and 2 (respectively). Jodie Foster as Clarice Starling and Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991, dir. Jonathan Demme)
The most iconic movie monster of all time is of course a human being.
You remember how much screentime Hannibal had in the whole movie? 11 minutes. I swear you answered with a larger number, but it was 11 minutes. And those 11 minutes are among the unforgettable moments in the whole movie because Hopkins controls the audience with just his eyeline and controlled manner of speech.
Anthony Hopkins may only get a few minutes of screentime, but he completely owns it. Hopkins create such a complex character that is both detestable and likeable at the same time. This is the work of a seasoned professional. Seasoned, just like Salim’s liver, with a side of fava beans and nice Chianti.
As good as Hopkins was, though, Jodie Foster is the reason that The Silence of the Lambs works. One of the strongest female characters ever to grace the cinema, Clarice Starling doesn’t let her disadvantages being a woman from a lower class background effect her, but at the same time she understands them.
Essentially the movie has to be about Clarice seeing into the spectrum of evil between Hannibal and Buffalo Bill and trying to get out clean as she can (something Thomas Harris ruined in the literary sequel, but I honestly don’t like any of the Hannibal novels anyway). So it’s entirely understandable that a strong lead would have to be given to Clarice before any other character. That Foster takes hold of that given-ability to be the sole humanity in the film from her assignment onward and yet allows Clarice to be quavering and struggling and brave as a hot mess all at once is the proper amount of overtness against Hopkins’ subtlety and anything less would have made this just another cannibal feature.
Her monologues, delivered flawlessly by Foster, about losing her father and the lambs at night always make me tear up.
Nice and clean and so now we move on to my own list and… shit, I could swear I had a liver there, but whatever… now we move on to…
STinG’s Top Ten Horror Movie Characters
It’s not necessarily an honorable mention, but The Mystery Man from Lost Highway was on the shortlist and I haaaaad to give it a mention just because before I got cutting it down to ten, Mike had simply one hilarious thing to say about him:
He did get away with killing his wife.
10. The Phantom Erik as portrayed by Robert Englund in The Phantom of the Opera (1989, dir. Menahem Golan)
Props to Lon Chaney’s turn obviously. It’s superior without even needing to say it.
Chaney was a class act.
But this Phantom gets me a bit happier, even if the movie and performance aren’t worth much, because it is a movie that interrupts the romanticizing of the phantom (thanks for that Webber and eat a dick!) to just transform him into more than just a villain but a slasher outright. A slasher played by Robert Englund himself of all folks. And channeling Freddy Krueger in the most obvious fashion for just a quick buck. So I guess it’s more from the world he lives in than the actual character himself, but hey, for everything else…
9. The Xenomorph Alien (1979, designed by H.R. Giger)
Yeah this thing is the worst thing ever. You’re fucked any way you look at it. So phallic too.
Fucking rape monster is what it is. I can’t say it any better than Ash, so I wont. I’ll just put the scene where he describes the beast.
8. The Thing (1982, dir. John Carpenter)
Less physically terrifying than the Xenomorph, but this might have the edge because it goes by a little more undetected.
When your body is messing with you so much that you don’t know if you’re you anymore, but just a copy of a copy. Making The Thing potentially more paranoid of itself than anyone else on edge in that base and in the name of survival (and invasion too, one insists, since it is an alien monster). The Thing ain’t got no chill.
7. Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) in Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992, dir. David Lynch)
It’s one thing to have her mystique present post-humously throughout the actual tv show, but meeting the real thing and finding out how wild and human and, well, alive she was when she was, well… a-… breathing… It’s one of the most refreshing portrayals of sexually open women in film without any judgment at all. At the same time, knowing what we know going in and seeing what happened in her life that put her in a state of mind is all the more atrocious and shocking, causing a lot more sympathy for Laura than she ever seemed to have in Twin Peaks.
Never seen the movie, but I’m a huge fan of the show. She’s the good girl next door but also the bad girl but also the girl that realizes she’s fucked up mentally yet the girl who is stupid enough to get her ass killed and mean enough to demean her boyfriend for crying during sex yet nice enough to want to bed James. Damn girl, make up your mind!
Mike, I was in such a good fucking mood before you mentioned Hurley, fuck you.
6. Ash Williams (Bruce Campbell) in Evil Dead II (1987, dir. Sam Raimi)
Such a great character, I think I enjoy him a tad more in Evil Dead II though.
Army of Darkness is where he gets really cool and badass, but Evil Dead II is where he’s off the walls with his duty to carry the film by himself in a creepy demonic cabin. The same psychological deterioration that comes from murdering his friends now crafts him into a clown, the same physical torments that race to break his soul and his bones at once make him a cartoon and it’s all the better for it.
He’s just a guy so deep in the shithouse he stopped caring.
5. Jack Torrance as portrayed by Jack Nicholson in The Shining (1980, dir. Stanley Kubrick)
If Nell Lance is a broken victim of ghosts, Jack is bad man trying really hard not be bad and the ghosts are just bringing out the dormant violence in him. There is one hundred percent no doubt that there was always this evil and malice living in Torrance and when he goes full on madman by the end, it’s just liking getting back on a bike. No wonder Stephen King hates this version of a man he originally crafted a story of redemption for in his novel. Kubrick’s Torrance has no chance for redemption, doesn’t care for it, and makes his restraint and sobriety feel more like a obligatory nuisance than anything.
Yeah he’s a real asshole. Narcissistic in a way only an unsuccessful writer can be plus he’s a self-pitying drunk. He gleefully talks about cannibalism with his son and is physically abusive. I hate this character, but from a storytelling perspective this is the best choice for a guy being influenced by murderous spirits.
4. Rosemary Woodhouse as portrayed by Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby (1968, dir. Roman Polanski)
Need to see this, I really dig Polanski but would hate to be dug into by Polanski.
Frighteningly naive to the point that we’re really sorry she’s going through all that she’s going through, domesticated to a regressive point that she’ll listen to each and every person in the movie despite it being almost immediately obvious that nobody is up to no good. Even her husband, the person she puts the most trust in, is maybe the biggest scumbag in Polanski’s entire career (at least Noah Cross KNOWS he’s pure evil). That crashing of her world, which we see through her eyes, that reality that her life is being controlled with friends that have no interest at all in her mental or physical well-being, that manipulation is maybe the worst thing to happen to Rosemary in a movie where she is literally raped by Satan. And then the ending beat of the movie happens and oh my god, this movie ends on a very depressing and chilling note that we should have expected.
3. Nell Lance as portrayed by Julie Harris in The Haunting (1963, dir. Robert Wise)
What makes ghost stories really great is when their victims are psychologically broken and Nell Lance may be the most broken of them all. She’s never had any chance to live a real life and the first chance she has to moving on from her mother’s death, she just willingly lets herself become a deeper part of the madness of Hill House, all while trying and failing to flirt with half of the cast in the most awkward fashion. She’s just perfect for ghosts to take control of.
Unfortunately, I haven’t seen this. Is this the Liam Neeson character from that awesome Zeta-Jones picture?
Different movie. The Liam Neeson movie, which I’ve only seen parts of, is a 1999 remake of this one.
2. Count Orlok as portrayed by Max Shreck in Nosferatu (1922, dir. F.W. Murnau)
Never seen this one either.
Just looking at him, though, what an ugly, offsetting repulsive thing. What a gigantic rat of a creature. His very presence is stiff and gaping, like a moving shadow or abyss, adding dread from his otherworldly demonic appearance that we never feel sorry for. I’d never ever want to be in the same room as him, he’s disgusting. Isn’t it great?
My dad was Nosferatu for Halloween one year though. I remember the makeup irritated his skin.
The single greatest arc of monster yet, a sympathetic yet menacing mass of existence with his large brow and his sullen eyes… The look alone is iconic for its simplicity, but the fact that the true shading comes in how he struggles to be a person – speech, friendship, love, and all the other things he hunts for and is denied – is exactly the sort of thing that makes us sometimes root for the monsters.
Poor guy just wanted to play flowers. Karloff was one of the greats, and played a gangster in the original Scarface. Imagine that, Don Frankenstein.
Considering how late it is, I won’t bombard you with a lengthy denouement about our discussion, but only invite you guys to join in… what are your favorite horror movie characters? What performances in horror cinema stand out most to you? Mike and I totally wanna know so that we can mock YOUR opinions too, so feel free to comment! Thanks for reading!