Wednesday, October 21, 2009

100 Years of Great Horror Performances

Over at Stale Popcorn, blogger Glenn Dunks posted his picks for the Ten Best Horror Performances of the Decade. At first, I misread it, and thought he was talking about the 10 Best Horror performances in general and berated him for not including some classics. Then I re-read it and apologized to him. Of course, that led to this post.

Horror movies have been around since movies first began. Indeed, one of the first ever movies was Thomas Edison's 1910 version of Frankenstein. Sadly, only stills remain (and rather silly-looking ones at, that), though I did find a YouTube post that purports to be the "full movie."

Still, there were some terrific Horror performances in the Silent era, and perhaps none more memorable than the great Lon Chaney as Eric in the 1925 version of The Phantom of the Opera. Odd that a silent film should be about opera, but then, it's really about the monster living beneath the Paris Opera House, more than opera, itself. I saw the film about 10 years ago in the Princeton University Chapel (which is really more like a small cathedral) with a live organist, and believe me when I tell you that Rupert Julian's film still has the power to create tension and shock after all these years. And Chaney was at the height of his powers as the disfigured genius:

Only six years later, movies had begun to talk and director Tod Browning gave us Hungarian actor Bela Lugosi as Dracula. Reprising the stage role that made him a star, Lugosi gives the performance of a lifetime in a role that would both haunt him and eventually drive him to ruin. Tame by today's standards, Lugosi's charismatic performance had women fainting in the aisles in 1931:

That same year, director James Whale gave us Boris Karloff as the Monster in Frankenstein, a role the vain Lugosi foolishly turned down (but would later assume in the far inferior sequel Frankenstein Meets the Wolfman). Karloff, wearing heavy prosthetics, still manages to convey a sense of pathos in his performance, making the Monster all the more human:

In 1941, Victor Fleming (the same man responsible for The Wizard of Oz), directed Spencer Tracy in Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. Frederick March had been nominated for an Academy Award in the same role 10 years earlier, but it is Tracy's performance (opposite the magnificent Ingrid Bergman) that everyone remembers:

In the 50's, Horror was eclipsed for most part by bad Sci-Fi movies featuring irradiated insects and giant lizards. Still, there were some great performances, including the great Vincent Price as a disfigured wax sculptor in Andre de Toth's 3-D thriller, House of Wax:

Interestingly, Charles Bronson made his film debut in House of Wax as Price's servant, Igor.

Then in 1960, genius Alfred Hitchcock changed movie-going habits with the infamous Psycho. Refusing entry to anyone after the first ten minutes, Hitchcock ensured that audiences would arrive on time for a movie ever after. Of course, it was Anthony Perkins brilliant and disturbing performance as Norman Bates that cemented the film's place in cinematic history:

Who else but Hitch would kill off his leading lady in the first act?

The 70's saw a resurgence of Horror movies, and perhaps none more horrifying than William Friedkin's overrated (though still brilliant) version of William Peter Blatty's The Exorcist. Audiences lined up for blocks; people fainted and ran screaming from theaters and actress Ellen Burstyn was nominated for an Academy Award for her performance as Chris McNeil, a mother at the end of her rope in dealing with a daughter who is apparently possessed by a demon:

When I finally was old enough to see The Exorcist, my first thought after seeing it was "Really? That's what people were so worked up about?" I suppose the film's effectiveness depends on your personal religious beliefs. But Burstyn gives an amazing performance as desperate mother willing to try anything to save her daughter's life.

Later that same decade, Director John Carpenter re-invented the horror movie with a relatively cheap indie movie called Halloween, starring an unknown actress who just happened to be the daughter of Hollywood legends Tony Curtis and Psycho's Janet Leigh, Jamie Lee Curtis. Not only did Halloween start the "slasher" trend of the 1980's, but it rocketed its young star into the annals of Horror History. Her performance is somehow both subtle and over-the-top in a movie that manages to terrify without actually showing a single drop of blood:

In 1982, Carpenter returned with his version of the John Campbell story The Thing, in which hottie Curt Russell gives one his best badass performances as MacCready, the only character we're sure is human (or is he?). Using then state-of-the-art physical FX (courtesy of makeup FX genius Rob Bottin), Carpenter fashioned a film of unparalleled paranoia and gross-out horror, while providing Russell with one of the defining performances of his career:

Some would argue that The Thing is really a Sci-Fi movie, but it's got monsters, gore and loads of tension, everything that makes a great Horror movie great.
Of course, those you who are regular readers will know that for my money, the best performances in a Horror Movie from the 80's belong to Jeff Goldblum and Geena Davis in David Cronenberg's excruciatingly emotional 1986 version of The Fly:

In 1990, director Rob Reiner directed one of the best adaptations of a Stephen King novel, Misery. Kathy Bates deservedly won the Oscar for her performance as deranged fan Annie Wilkes in this story about every celebrity's nightmare:

And now we come to the current decade (which I can't believe is already coming to a close). There ere plenty of Horror movies in the past decade, but none that made so much of an impression as director Sam Raimi's Drag Me to Hell. It features some terrififc performances from several members of its cast, but based solely on the last shot (and I won't spoil it for those who have yet to see it), the best Horror Performance of this decade has to belong to Justin Long as the disbelieving boyfriend of Allison Lohman's cursed Christine. Warning: If you have not seen the movie, do not watch this clip. MAJOR Spoiler:

So. these are my picks. What about yours? You know I love hearing from you.

More terrors, anon.

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