I've mentioned this before, but horror is one of my very favorite genres. And while it doesn't often contain the greatest acting around, there are some obvious exceptions to this rule. This list, as the title may suggest, is by no means an attempt at being objective in any way. These are just my favorites, and when condensed to only 10 total performances, a very small list indeed. Cutting it down to only 30 was tough enough, so you can only imagine how sad it is for me to leave some of these things off. So I guess I'll just toss out a few honorable mentions now, because it would be sad to ignore them completely:
Max Schreck - Nosferatu (1922)Alright, so now that I've gotten this out of the way, here is my actual for real totally legitimate and definitive top 10 that will undoubtedly change by the end of the night (t-minus 20 minutes and counting...). One final thing I want to mention: several of these performances are in a series or have sequels. I am counting those sequels on this list, but just naming the first movie for simplicity. Now to the list.
Bela Lugosi - Dracula (1931)
Linda Blair & Mercedes McCambridge - The Exorcist (1973)
Kathy Bates - Misery (1990)
Bruce Campbell - Bubba Ho-Tep (2002)
10. Claude Rains - The Invisible Man (1933)
Though you only ever see his face in the last final moments of the film, Rains' powerful voice and emotive physical acting are a dominating presence throughout. Without showing his face, he successfully manages to express a variety of complex emotions, flying into tirades about world domination one moment and lamenting the rift that has grown between him and his beloved fiance the next.
9. Jeffrey Combs - Re-Animator (1985)
I'm a sucker for Frankenstein movies, mad scientists, and Jeffrey Combs' manic acting, so it should come as no shock whatsoever that this is one of my favorites. Both an excellent comedic performance and a wonderfully twisted maniac, Dr. Herbert West is one of the best mad scientists in film, and that's a hard claim to back up.
8. Boris Karloff - The Black Cat (1934)
I decided when I started this list not to include more than one performance per actor, and when I go down the list of Karloff's best it wasn't Frankenstein I felt stood out the most. 'The Black Cat' has always been one of my favorite horror movies of the '30s, and a big reason why is Karloff's understated, soft-spoken, and devilish performance as the mysterious leader of a satanic cult. I still quote his "even the phone is dead..." line to this day.
7. Stephen McHattie - Pontypool (2009)
I consider Stephen McHattie one of the greatest and most underrated actors working today, but the one performance in his fantastic career that has gotten almost as much credit as it deserves is his dialogue-heavy basement talk show host Grant Mazzy. Essentially narrating the beginning of a zombie apocalypse, McHattie's increasing intensity and bewilderment carries the film, even through some of its weirder moments.
6. Vincent Price - Witchfinder General (1968)
Picking just one Price performance was probably the most difficult part of making this list, as he has about 5 or 6 movies I could have easily plugged into this spot, but ultimately it's his morally corrupt and evil witch hunter that sticks with me the most. Unlike many of his performances, this one lacks that silly self-awareness, and demonstrates how intimidating and effective he can be with more dramatic material.
5. Jack Nicholson - The Shining (1980)
I almost didn't want to put this on my list, but when I think about the creepiest and most entertaining performances - horror or not - this one always springs to mind. It's not exactly a stretch to see Nicholson play crazy, but he does it so well! He's creepy, iconic, and wonderfully over-the-top.
4. Robert Englund - A Nightmare On Elm Street (1984)
It's very difficult to separate Englund from Freddy and vice-versa, the greatest horror icon of the slasher era. Over the course of this series, Freddy became more and more clownish, but the shocking (and creative) nature of his violent murders still hold up as being some great horror moments. His one-liners are great, and Englund makes this blend of creepy and funny work perfectly.
3. Jose Mojica Marins - At Midnight I'll Take Your Soul (1964)
Writer/director/star of one of the more underrated/underseen horror movies of the '60s (same applies to the 1967 sequel), Marins was so perfectly in tune with this nihilistic madman it almost felt like a horrific extension of himself. Definitely among the most entertainingly evil characters I've ever seen, Coffin Joe's psychotic ramblings and willingness to go to any lengths to achieve his goals allow for some fantastic moments and twisted acting from Marins.
2. Terry O'Quinn - The Stepfather (1987)
I recently posted a top 5 favorite O'Quinn performances list, and obviously this hit #1. As iconic as Freddy is, the performance is nothing compared to the intensity of O'Quinn in this underseen slasher. This is one of the few performances that makes me actively nervous to watch. He's so intense and terrifying, every scene he's in becomes nerve-wracking, as he balances outward cool with psychotic, murderous internal ferocity. It's a passable movie, but one of the best performances I've ever seen.
1. Peter Cushing - The Curse Of Frankenstein (1957)
Well this was bound to happen, now wasn't it? Not only is Peter Cushing my favorite actor, but horror was right in his wheelhouse. Trying to pick just one performance was incredibly difficult, but his various Frankenstein appearances not only gave him some of his best material, but ultimately is what pushed him into his horror-heavy career path. As for the acting, obviously I love what he does here as my all-time favorite mad scientist, a version of Frankenstein that paints the doctor himself as a depraved and murderous genius who will stop at nothing to perform his sick experiments. Disguising his dark tendencies under a calm exterior, Cushing balances his scientific obsession with a charm and suaveness that quickly disintegrates when confronted about his crimes. A truly remarkable performance from an actor I just can't seem to get enough of.