Happy New Year, horror lovers! Last month, Joey shared his top ten favorite scary movies released last year, with Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett’s legacyquel Scream coming out on top. At the risk of getting a little too end-of-year-list crazy, I’d like to share my own horror-related “rankings,” this time focused on the acting that best complimented, or sometimes elevated, the horror offerings from 2022. This is partially to confront my own awards season bugbears; the Oscars have demonstrated for over a decade now that they are not interested in recognizing nomination–worthy performances in the genre. So if nothing else, today’s installment will work as a counterbalance to that.
To get this out of the way, I was not able to see The Pale Blue Eye, The Mean One, The Eternal Daughter, Nanny, My Best Friend’s Exorcism, the American Goodnight Mommy remake, The Invitation, Orphan: First Kill, Speak No Evil, Bodies Bodies Bodies, Fresh, Dark Glasses, or The Legend of La Llorona in time for publishing, and have no interest in seeing either Fall, Jeepers Creepers: Reborn, Terrifier 2, Halloween Ends, or Prey for the Devil. So if you’d like to go to bat for any of the performances in those movies in the comments, please let me know and I will do my best to make time for… well, at least that first batch.
I want to also offer a sort-of Honorable Mention to Sheri Moon Zombie’s delightfully charming and funny performance in The Munsters, her husband’s pretty explicit horror-themed love letter to her, that I couldn’t bring myself to consider a performance in a “true” horror movie.
A few others who came close but didn’t ultimately make the cut include:
- David Arquette in Scream
- Sosie Bacon in Smile
- Jessie Buckley in Men
- Georgina Campbell in Barbarian
- Jarvis Cocker’s voice in The House
- Jessica Harper in Bones and All
- Daniel Kaluuya, Keke Palmer, and Steven Yeun in Nope
- Amber Midthunder in Prey
- Brittany Snow and Mia Goth in X
And with that, here are my top five favorite performances from horror movies released in 2022:
5) Ethan Hawke in The Black Phone
It is very difficult for an actor – any actor – to come up with a new angle on the Serial Killer Character™. Watch enough episodes of Criminal Minds and it’s pretty apparent that there are only about three or four variations most performers fall back on these days. So imagine my deeply rattled surprise at Ethan Hawke finding a unique way to bring “The Grabber” to life in Scott Derrickson’s The Black Phone. Rather than outward menace or intellectual sliminess or trying to evoke pity from us, Hawke set out to dig as far as he could into just being singularly cringey and unpleasant to watch.
From the incessant rising and falling patterns of his grating vocal tics to his constantly fidgeting hands, his empty eyes being most of what we see of his face behind a probably-too-sophisticated-mask-for-a-guy-like-him-in-the-late-70’s-but-whatever, every single acting choice he made seemed perfectly calibrated to set me on edge and make me desperately wish for The Grabber to go away whenever he showed up. Which, to Derrickson and C. Robert Cargill’s credit, was relatively rare considering his omnipresent threat throughout the movie. For sheer novelty alone, what Hawke manages to do with such an overdone character type is remarkable.
4) Jamie Clayton in Hellraiser
Though it did manage to achieve the modest distinction of “best in the series since Hellbound: Hellraiser II,” Joey and I both agreed that David Bruckner’s reboot still felt a bit deflating relative to its potential… with one major exception. Jamie Clayton, filling in Doug Bradley’s enormous shoes as the iconic Hell Priest (aka “Pinhead”), did an exquisite job of capturing the spirit of the character while making it totally her own. Whereas Bradley was callous and imposing, Clayton interprets her Cenobite with a more seductive, outwardly sadistic sense of joy in the nightmarish “pleasures” she can offer to her unwitting subjects while maintaining her predecessor’s disconcertingly stiff body language for a memorably inhuman creation. Her performance was the only element of the film that felt truly at peace with merging modern sensibilities with the classic iconography of the series.
I have no idea if we’re going to see future installments of this continuity, and if they do, I hope they don’t lean in so hard in being About Something and invest a little more in transgressive sexuality and outré body horror, but no matter what they do, Clayton’s new terrifying dom-mommy absolutely has to be part of its future.
3) *Tie* Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet in Bones and All
Speaking of almost-but-not-quite-great horror movies with a thematic angle that doesn’t track all that well if you think about it too much, Bones and All almost certainly wouldn’t have worked at all had it not been for its two lead performers selling their romance as hard as they did. Taylor Russell and Timothée Chalamet have been consistently strong performers for a while, but there’s something especially inspiring about them investing such raw, unabashed sincerity and sensual chemistry together that keeps this grotty road movie engaging even as it meanders and drags at times.
I acknowledge that I’m cheating a bit by including both of them at #3, but I also believe their performances are reliant on each other to a degree that I don’t believe would apply to them in isolation. Without Chalamet, Russell’s take on Maren would probably come off too muted and adrift to hold our interest. Without Russell, Chalamet’s more fervid expressions of youthful swagger hiding deep angst as Lee wouldn’t be able to sustain itself across an entire feature. But together, their interdependence feels like something worth believing in, even as you can’t shake the fact that they’re outcasts from society for a very good reason.
2) Rebecca Hall in Resurrection
I’ve been singling out a lot of the “hunters” and “chasers” in my rankings so far, but that doesn’t mean we were wanting for commendable performances of those being hunted and chased, many of whom I cited earlier among my Honorable Mentions. None, however, quite matched Rebecca Hall’s shell of steely resolve cracking under the pressure of Resurrection. The film itself is yet another tiresome entry in the “Elevated Horror” subgenre that predictably falls apart near the end. Hall, however, manages to keep up the wobbly narrative’s intrigue and suspense much longer than it “earns,” especially since her terrified on the inside/unflappable on the outside balancing act changes depending on who she’s sharing her scenes with (and she’s in nearly every scene).
Recall the awkward jump cut from what looks like the start of an argument between Margaret and her daughter Abbie to much later in the evening, with the two of them in front of the TV. Normally that poor editing choice would throw us off, but Hall’s paranoia giving way to the subtlest pangs of doubt over her possible overreaction in that silent medium shot pull us back in, and remind us that she’s one of the most consistently reliable and frustratingly underrated performers working today.
1) Mia Goth in Pearl
If there was one work of horror film acting most deserving of year-end awards, only one that I will put forward as a tour-de-force right up there with the current top contenders for Best Lead Actress, Mia Goth rises to the occasion in Pearl, a prequel movie that’s still hard to believe even exists.
In fairness, director Ti West hands this movie to her on a silver platter. Pearl is a gold mine of a character for any performer to sink their teeth into, but even with that in mind, Goth goes above and beyond to sketch a fascinating psychological profile of a villainous protagonist in an otherwise unabashedly tongue-in-cheek B-movie shocker. Goth does not play her as a poor normal woman pushed into a murderous rage, but someone who, from the jump, suffers a profound disconnect from other human beings experiencing those loose societal banisters that kept her sociopathy in check crumbling around her. Throughout the film, she desperately tries to force herself to be a more considerate and empathetic person as a means of breaking out of the current drudgery of her existence. But, in a movie warping reality through the artifice of classic cinema, Goth makes the ingenious decision to convey those efforts to come off like a more relatable person by just imitating what she sees in those movies. She evokes our sympathy because Pearl wants to but somehow can’t express herself in a way that isn’t destructive. Goth continues to add layers of artifice on genuineness on artifice, until it all culminates in a knockout climactic seven-minute monologue from her that… look, I’m not a fan of discussing acting through the lens of “Oscar clips,” but if I was, the Academy could cut five to ten seconds from any moment of that scene of hers and it would knock the wind out of everyone in the Dolby Theatre.
Let me know what you think the best performances in horror were last year in the comments.