Eli Roth and Daniel Stamm's The Last Exorcism will arrive in theaters this weekend. Thanks to a generous friend, I was lucky enough to see Stamm's documentary-style horror a little early at the Toronto After Dark Film Festival last week, and as someone who has seen her fair share of horror films over the years, I have to tell you, I was pretty impressed.
The story about a crisis of faith and an exorcism gone wrong is a worthy addition to the genre, and after The Exorcist, this is probably one of the best films I have seen about casting out the big bad -- and that's thanks to the performances of the film's leads: Patrick Fabian and Ashley Bell. The film's structure gives these two actors the task of carrying the film and they do it with style and, more importantly, they create real characters and not just cannon fodder. Maybe it's just me, but that is what makes a horror movie performance great. I might not be a horror expert (well, I know my Argentos from my Fulcis) but what draws me into a horror flick is my caring about what is going to happen to the people on the screen. The basis of a believable (or a sympathetic) character is the responsibility of the actor -- and that brings me to today's Cinematical Seven; great performances in horror. It's unfair, but the horror genre doesn't always get the 'thespian' respect that it deserves. Most people tend to look at horror as something not taken seriously or, in the words of Sydney Prescott, "What's the point they're [horror movies] all the same, some stupid killer stalking some big-breasted girl who can't act who is always running up the stairs when she should be running out the front door, it's insulting." It's a funny line, but it does remind us that there is a bias when it comes to acting in the world of horror. Starring in an scary movie is rarely treated as something 'serious' or 'artistic'. I think we all know that this is not the case. So with that in mind, I would like to remind us all of some performances that went beyond being just 'good for a horror movie' and into the realm of just plain great.
Sissy Spacek as Carrie White in Carrie
Maybe it's because I'm a girl, or maybe it's because I saw this movie at such a young age, but when it comes to heartbreaking horror, Carrie White takes the prize. The story of an abused and bullied telekinetic girl was Spacek's breakthrough performance, and while Spacek has always specialized in fragile and damaged characters, when it's time for Carrie to take revenge she transforms within seconds (and not just because of the pig-blood makeover either). All of her softness and delicacy is replaced with pure rage -- and call me bloodthirsty, but I still get a thrill when Ms. White finally gets a little mean-girl payback.
Jack Nicholson in The Shining
What can I say about Jack Torrance that hasn't already been said? Nicholson is no stranger to acting accolades but I still think that it is his performance as an abusive father and husband under the sway of a cursed vacation spot that remains the highlight of his career.
Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates in Psycho
The moment Perkins signed on the dotted line to play the murderous motel owner, his fate was sealed and he would forever be Norman Bates -- which isn't bad in the grand scheme of things. I always remember reading what Hitchcock said about what was truly scary -- a monster in broad daylight is always worse than the one hiding in the shadows and Perkins was the living embodiment of that idea. The 'Nebbish Killer' was born in this performance and his descendants are still around today; I can't be the only one who saw flashes of Bates in Kevin Spacey's John Doe. But even though most horror fans aren't all that scared of Psycho anymore, I think Mr. Bates and Mother still manage to give audiences' the creeps -- and that staying power is the mark of a great performance.
Peter Lorre as Hans Beckert in M
When it comes to creepy little dudes Peter Lorre is the undisputed king. In Fritz Lang's 1931 film, Lorre played Hans Beckert, a serial killer (and implied pedophile) who is hunted by both the cops and the criminal underworld. It has been said that Lang considered this film his finest work and Lorre's performance is a big part of that. When we first see Beckert he's presented in shadows, but as we slowly get to know our murderer, Lorre creates a character that is equally pathetic and scary (you don't know whether to run for the hills or try to give him a hug) and to this day I still get a bit creeped out when I hear In the Hall of the Mountain King.
Jamie Lee Curtis as Laurie Strode in Halloween
Curtis' performance as the babysitter with a fatal family history is sometimes considered the birth of the 'Scream Queen', which is fine as a pop culture footnote, but it does diminish what Curtis brought to the role. Sure, she spends most of the movie screaming and running from Michael Myers, but some of the best performances are made up of the small things and it's in the moments that she's not even speaking that makes her performance -- nobody could do teen terror like Curtis.
Cillian Murphy as Jim in 28 Days Later
Argue all you want about whether or not Danny Boyle's plague film belongs to the Zombie cannon, but I think that Cillian Murphy's performance as the man who wakes up to the worst day ever deserves all the praise I can give it. Murphy always managed to walk a fine line between portraying the sinister or the sensitive with ease, and it was moments like **spoiler alert** the discovery of his parent's suicide, the death of a fellow survivor or Murphy's reaction to his world's apocalyptic reality that stays with me -- and I'm even willing to overlook the Rambo ending.
Bruce Campbell as Ashley 'Ash' J. Williams in The Evil Dead (I and II )
So most of the performances I have mentioned are firmly rooted in the dramatic, but for my final entry I thought I'd lighten things up a bit ñ you know what they say: "Dying is easy, comedy is hard". In Sam Raimi's 'comedy-horror', Bruce Campbell channels old fashioned movie star style in the midst of a battle with demons released in rural Tennessee. In the middle of vine-rape, amputations, and broad physical comedy, there is still plenty of time to be scared. Thanks to Campbell, it's easy to see why this character is one of the most beloved in the history of scary movies.
Leave your votes for great horror performances in the comments below...