Sure, Anthony Hopkins won Best Actor for Silence of the Lambs (even though he actually appears in less than twenty minutes of the film), but more often than not, AMPAS ignores the performances of actors in horror movies. Truth be told, by most standards, modern horror movies are usually pretty bad. Ridiculous plots, hackneyed dialog and ham-fisted acting abound. Though occasionally, a bright moment shines through. Here then, are my picks for Best Performance by an Actor in a Horror Movie:
Lon Chaney for The Phantom of the Opera:
In 1925, the film industry was still in its infancy and one of it's biggest stars was the incomparable Lon Chaney, known as "The Man of a Thousand Faces." Chaney would go to great lengths and endure actual pain to create some of his remarkable makeup effects. And none was so effective as his version of Erik, the disfigured genius who haunts the Paris Opera and loves it's newest star, Christine. Even without the use of his voice, Chaney manages to convey the extraordinary pain of unrequited love and the societal ostracism of the disfigured. A truly moving performance.
Peter Lorre for M:
In 1931, German Expressionist Fritz Lang (Metropolis) made what may well be his most controversial film, M. It is the story of a schizophrenic child-murderer Hans Beckert (Lorre) and the Berlin Police's efforts to catch him. Eventually the Mob, intimidated and angered by the increased police activity, put a hit out on the killer and manage to mark him with the titular "M" on his shoulder, so that he can be tracked and caught. An unpleasant subject and a most unpleasant character, Beckert is made human by Lorre's terrifically tortured performance. Lorre would later go on to fame in American films such as Arsenic and Old Lace and Casablanca, but it is M (only his third film) which forever cemented Lorre's acting acumen.
Jeff Goldblum for The Fly:
Not posting a clip here, because it would be the same one I used for Geena Davis. Goldblum, a decidedly quirky actor who appeared in minor roles in such films as Buckaroo Banzai and The Big Chill, finally came into his own in Cronenberg's amazing film. At the peak of his physical prowess and surrounded by an amazing supporting cast, Goldblum imbues inventor Seth Brundle with an endearing humanity that enables the viewer to be both sympathetic to and horrified by his plight.
Vincent Price for Theatre of Blood:
Price, a classically trained actor who found a niche for himself in horror films in the 50's and 60's, never really got the recognition he deserved. In Theatre of Blood he plays Edward Lionheart, a Shakespearean actor constantly derided by critics as a ham. After he loses out on yet another Critics Circle award, Lionheart commits suicide in front of the critics, by leaping from their penthouse party into the Thames. Soon thereafter, the critics start turning up dead, killed in the manners described in any number of Shakespeare's plays. Surrounded by a veritable "Who's Who" of British character actors (including an often-disguised Diana Rigg as Lionheart's daughter and Price's future second wife, Coral Browne), Price is a wonder in this tale of depravity and revenge. Added bonus: the number of literary and theatrical jokes in this movie are almost countless. A stage production of the film recently played in London, though I have always thought the material was ripe for a musical adaptation.
David Naughton for An American Werewolf in London:
Naughton, best known for a series of Dr. Pepper commercials in the late 70's, plays David Kesslar, an American student bitten by a werewolf on the Scottish moors while back-packing with his friend, Jack (Griffin Dunne). Chosen by director John Landis mostly because "he had to look good naked" (and boy, does he look good naked), Naughton's performance as the both physically and psychologically tortured David is helped along by makeup FX genius Rick Baker's amazing transformation scene, wherein we get to see the pain of turning into a werewolf firsthand. And the scene where David calls home to talk to his family always brings a lump to my throat.
Keith Gordon for Christine:
Gordon, previously known as the vengeful son from Brian DePalma's Dressed to Kill, is just amazing here as young nerd Arnie Cunningham who buys the titular evil car in director John Carpenter's adaption of the Stephen King novel. Gordon's transformation from mousy nerd to possessed cool killer is nothing short of amazing, and hardly serviced by the above clip.
Willem Dafoe for Shadow of the Vampire:
Released in 1922, Nosferatu was director F.W. Murnau's unauthorized version of Dracula and almost never saw the light of day, thanks to a lawsuit brought by Stoker's widow. Actor Max Schreck (a name later parodied in Tim Burton's Batman Returns) plays Count Orloff, a thinly disguised version of Count Dracula. Schreck wore prosthetic ears, fangs and fingers and terrorized audiences world-wide. This 2001 movie tells the tale of that movie's filming, but supposes that Schreck was an actual vampire. Dafoe, known for playing quirky and ecclectic characters in films ranging from The Last Temptation of Christ to Wild at Heart and Spider Man, plays Schreck as a chilling and horrifying beast who preys on fellow crew and cast members without regard for their importance to the production, much to Murnau's (the always amazing John Malkovitch) dismay.
Jason Miller for The Exorcist:
How does one write about what is possibly the single most overrated horror movie of all time (see my previous entry on overrated movies) without mentioning the extraordinary performance of Jason Miller as the tortured priest, Father Karras? In doubt of his faith and feeling exceptional guilt over committing his mother to an old-age home, Miller's Karras is a man on the verge. As both a priest and a psychiatrist, Karras is forced to confront his own personal demons while assisting with the exorcism of young Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair). His final act of faith (allowing the demon to posses him in order to free the child) is both moving and horrific. Miller should have gone on to greater work. Sadly, the late actor was reduced to accepting small TV roles and parts in Z grade horror films before his untimely death in 2001
And the Best Performance by an Actor in Horror Movie goes to:
Jeff Goldblum in The Fly. Both protagonist and antagonist, Goldblum's Seth Brundle manages to be both sympathetic and horrific in David Cronenberg's allegorical tale of AIDS, cancer and science gone wrong. Like many of Cronenberg's characters, Brundle is a victim of his own genius, trapped in situation he had no idea might be possible - horrified and fascinated at the same time. This is the only horror movie that can elicit tears from me, every time I see it. Devastating.