In researching this list, I made two realizations: most horror films don't bother with supporting casts; the supporters are often ghosts and monsters and supernatural forces (the other humans tend not to listen). And also, there are more great performances by women in horror films. Consider just the list of women who were nominated for -- or won -- Oscars for horror films: Patty McCormack, Janet Leigh, Ruth Gordon, Linda Blair, Ellen Burstyn, Sissy Spacek, Piper Laurie, Sigourney Weaver, Kathy Bates, Jodie Foster, Juliette Lewis, Toni Collette, etc. Perhaps women are more intuitively in touch with the supernatural. Either way, I think I came up with a pretty good list:
1. Maria Ouspenskaya in The Wolf Man (1941)
Her name's a mouthful, but once you learn to say it, you'll never forget it. She was born in 1876, which put her at about 65 when The Wolf Man was made. She was a theater actor, before the movies were invented, she became an acting teacher and she received two Oscar nominations prior to this role. She plays Maleva (what a great name!), the old gypsy woman, and mother to Bela (Bela Lugosi), who possesses the knowledge of all things werewolf. With eyes like obsidian, her line readings are quiet, mysterious, intelligent, and though she's practically half the size of star Lon Chaney Jr., she towers over him.
2. Christina Ricci in Addams Family Values (1993)
Every once in a while the movie gods smile down and create something wonderful, like the moment that young Ricci walked into the "Addams Family" auditions, hoping for the role of Wednesday. The resulting movie, released in 1991, wasn't very good, but the sequel was much improved and Ricci was so good in both that she clearly announced the beginning of a fascinating career full of brave, unusual choices. With her round, pale face, huge eyes and tiny mouth shaped like a talon, she was scary and funny and just a little bit odd, and when she grew older, she took on a dangerous kind of sexiness. She could be the direct genre descendant of Elsa Lanchester or Barbara Steele.
3. (tie) Boris Karloff and Charles Laughton in The Old Dark House (1932)
Have two more different actors ever appeared so seamlessly in the same movie? Karloff was, at the time, a phenomenon, a mysterious, nearly silent shape-shifter identified in the credits only by his last name. (His eight movies released in 1932 also included Scarface, The Mummy and The Mask of Fu Manchu.) Whereas Laughton was a larger-than-life stage actor, and one of the screen's most delightful scenery chewers. Actually, for the purposes of this list, I could name just about anyone in this amazing ensemble cast, guided by director James Whale and shaped into one of my all-time favorite movies. Gloria Stewart would go on to earn an Oscar nomination a mere 65 years later for Titanic; Ernest Thesiger gives the movie a bit of gay camp (the line "have a potato" was never so funny); Eva Moore is its most deadpan comedienne; and future Oscar winner Melvyn Douglas is the dashing romantic lead.
4. Donald Pleasance in Halloween (1978)
Any acting teacher might tell you to look at Pleasance in this film as an example of what not to do, and Academy voters might laugh when Pleasance lets loose with lines like "he's gone from here.... the evil is gone!" But he's partly the reason that we believe so deeply in the all-powerful, supernatural evil of Michael Myers. Listen to his voice (very British and authoritative) and look at his eyes. This isn't camp. This is a guy who knows what he's doing. He has seen something that no one else has ever seen. He's awake, while all the rest of us poor, deluded, naïve souls are still asleep.
5. Kirsten Dunst in Interview with the Vampire (1994)
Here was another example of the movie gods at work. It's as if Anne Rice wrote her first vampire book, safe in the knowledge that Dunst would eventually be there to help make it flesh. The idea of an aged vampire trapped in a child's body had been done before, in Near Dark (1987), but that character was angry, creepy and obnoxious. Dunst's Claudia is sad and haunted and far more affecting. Sometimes people talk about "old souls," and I think Dunst has one. She has shown so much worldly wisdom, patience and sadness in this and in her subsequent roles -- even in the dumb teen comedies -- that we still have much to learn from her.
6. Lon Chaney Jr. in Spider Baby (1964)
Chaney has top billing in this amazing, unforgettable Jack Hill horror-comedy, but he's really a "supporting actor," taking a back seat to the lunacy around him. He plays Bruno, the chauffeur to a family of strange mutants; they become more and more animal-like as they grow older, eventually turning into monsters. He has long since resigned himself to being a kind of caretaker, helping clean up "accidents" and generally protecting the family -- two teenage girls (Beverly Washburn and Jill Banner) and a creepy older boy (Sid Haig) -- as if they were his own brood. David Thomson recently called Chaney the "saddest of all actors," which is why I think I like him so much and why I think this is his best performance -- especially here, toward the end of his life and tormented by alcoholism. The film never fails to move me in those final scenes as Bruno, finally realizing that this can't go on, unveils his "wonderful surprise" for the girls and for himself.
7. Marcia Gay Harden in The Mist (2007)
Harden has slowly transformed from the sexy femme fatale of Miller's Crossing to something slightly more opaque and versatile. She received a deserved Oscar nomination for her performance as a sad, indecisive, slightly dim wife in Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, and here in The Mist, she's just the opposite, a truly frightening fire-and-brimstone religious nut whose fervor manages to convert a store full of trapped townspeople. At times you want to slug her, but she's the focal point -- the black hole? -- of all the movie's energy. She could be mirroring things that are going on in real life, which is what most great horror movies do. (Interestingly, Harden also appeared in another halfway decent horror movie the same year, The Invisible.)
There were so many others hovering close to the cut-off point: Willem Dafoe in Shadow of the Vampire (2000), Juliette Lewis in Cape Fear (1992), Samuel L. Jackson in 1408 (2007), most of the cast of The Exorcist (1973), Scatman Crothers in The Shining (1980), Piper Laurie in Carrie (1976), Dennis Hopper in Land of the Dead (2005), Margot Kidder in Black Christmas (1974) and more.
Anyone I forgot?