Not only was it a fine year for horror movies, but it was also punctuated by a variety of intriguing, interesting, enticing, and downright mesmerizing performances in them.
From scenery-chewing villains to heartbreaking characters of tragedy, here are some of the best horror movie performances of 2023.
Alyssa Sutherland (Ellie in Evil Dead Rise)
The Evil Dead franchise is notable for two things. Ash Williams and Deadites. If one isn’t there, then it sure as hell needs a hefty showing from the other.
Evil Dead Rise features no Ash, so it leans heavily on its Deadite action, and Alyssa Sutherland performs like, well…a woman possessed.
Sutherland’s ”maggot mommy” is a mixture of Evil Dead Deadite old and new. Mischievous wise-cracking is there to a degree but with the nasty streak of Fede Alvarez’s 2013 movie.
Mary Woodvine (The Volunteer in Enys Men)
Enys Men is a difficult watch. Its discordant sound, grainy visuals, and repetitious story beats all serve a worthy purpose, but I can see how people might struggle with it.
Anchoring the increasingly swimmy tale of a remote lighthouse is Mary Woodvine. Her protagonist, known only as The Volunteer, serves as a vessel for our feelings on the strange turn of events depicted on screen whilst going on a narrative voyage of her own.
A lot of her performance has to come from facial expressions, and Woodvine conveys the dismay, worry, and horror of the story beautifully.
Heather Graham (Dr. Elizabeth Derby in Suitable Flesh)
Heather Graham’s expressive face just works wonders with Suitable Flesh. Joe Lynch’s cosmic horror madness works so well because Graham is at the heart of its body-swapping tale and conveys each of her personalities with fluid ease and no small amount of glee.
More Heather Graham in horror movies, please.
Larry Fessenden (Lt Col. Clive Hockstatter in Brooklyn 45)
I really enjoyed Ted Geogahn’s World War II chamber piece because its ensemble of characters pulled the tale in all sorts of fascinating directions, but its catalyst is undoubtedly Lt. Col. Clive Hockstatter played by genre stalwart Larry Fessenden.
Fessenden’s manic, heartbroken turn as a grieving army man sets the supernatural events of Brooklyn 45 in motion, and he continues to play a disturbing part of proceedings throughout.
Mia Goth (Gabi Bauer in Infinity Pool)
Mia Goth is a supreme weirdo, and we should be oh-so grateful she does horror movies. Case in point, her turn as Gabi Bauer in David Cronenberg’s unsettling and surreal latest Infinity Pool.
Goth’s Gabi is enchanting and alluring in a slightly dangerous way at first, but as we delve deeper into the film’s story, she reveals her sadistic, manipulative ways and her frankly deranged glee in tormenting Alexander Skarsgaard.
After the 1-2 punch of X and Pearl, Goth is on her way to becoming a genre icon.
Sophia Wilde (Mia in Talk to Me)
Talk to Me was one of the surprise hits of the year, thrusting its creators, Danny and Michael Phillipou, into the limelight. Its unique take on possession sees it used as a drug. And like any drug, the consequences can be devastating. Which Talk to Me emphatically shows us.
Central to that is the tortured protagonist Mia, played by Sophia Wilde. She enters the story already grieving, and when the possession game appears to offer some closure, she carelessly pursues it, with a horrendous impact on the lives of those around her.
Wilde’s complicated character is believable and sympathetic, and yet that doesn’t stop us from watching in abject horror as she goes down a self-destructive path.
Justin Long (Mayor Henry Waters in It’s a Wonderful Knife)
This was a toss-up between Long and his younger co-stars Jane Widdop and Jess McLeod who delivered a warm-hearted Christmas romance story in the bitter cold of a slasher movie. But Long perhaps best encapsulates what director Tyler MacIntyre and writer Michael Kennedy were going for.
Long’s almost cartoonishly evil Mayor is very much a throwback to the kind of boo-hiss baddie of a certain Frank Capra Christmas classic but with the more obvious murderous edge. Justin Long’s likable qualities convert well to playing utter pricks, and Mayor Henry Waters is a fine example of that.
Kaitlyn Dever (Brynn in No One Will Save You)
Brian Duffield’s follow-up to the superb Spontaneous blends alien invasion with home invasion to tremendous effect. It’s near-wordless, but that doesn’t stop its star from shining bright.
Kaitlyn Dever’s performance as the troubled recluse Brynn relies heavily on movement and expression to convey her character’s somewhat self-imposed isolation. Brynn’s struggles, both internal and external, come across on screen without a word being said, and Dever communicates them with a natural ability.
Joaquin Phoenix (Beau Wassermann in Beau is Afraid)
Ari Aster’s Beau is Afraid hops genres constantly, sometimes to its detriment, but Beau himself is living in a personal horror movie, and as such, Joaquin Phoenix’s performance as the titular character is a notable horror performance.
That’s most readily apparent in the opening, where Aster and Phoenix put on a masterclass in ratcheting up anxiety-ridden uncomfortable tension. Beau utters every word like he believes the world will punish him for it.
Phoenix absolutely delivers on the title’s sentiment because Beau is afraid, always, in so many different and uncomfortably relatable ways.
Judy Reyes (Celie Morales in Birth/Rebirth)
A female-centric modern-day spin on the Frankenstein story, Birth/Rebirth focuses on womanhood and the ability to bring life into this world and the tragedy found within that. Both leads in Laura Moss’ superb horror represent that in quite different ways, to begin with, but common ground unites them in a horrifyingly twisted vision.
Judy Reyes may don the scrubs once more, but her character Celie Morales couldn’t be further removed from that sitcom variant. It’s a tough call to pick between the performances of Reyes and Marin Ireland in Birth/Rebirth, but the tragedy at the center of Celie’s story and the lengths she ends up going to in trying to reverse it make for a heartbreaking and shocking journey.
Amie Donald/Jenna Davis (M3GAN in M3GAN)
Both Amie Donald and Jenna Davis need mentioning in the performance of murderous robot M3GAN because both the physical and vocal performance make the character what it is.
The deadpan line delivery of Davis is as deliciously cutting as the unnerving physical delivery of Donald is deadly.Sure, you could say the film’s always angling to make M3GAN a bonafide modern horror icon, but the attempt wouldn’t have been successful without the two actors involved.
Russell Crowe (Father Gabriele Amorth in The Pope’s Exorcist)
The Pope’s Exorcist is a terrible movie. It’s the most cliche-ridden exorcism/demonic possession nonsense you’ll see wrapped into a single film.
But here comes Father Gabriele Amorth, riding in on his scooter and chugging caffeinated beverages whilst kicking demon arse with a tongue sharper than a butcher’s knife. Russell Crowe drags the film kicking and screaming into relevance with a wonderfully outlandish performance.
It’s the kind of role that feels like it should somehow allow Crowe to make a dozen more of these films. All technically terrible, but used as the perfect scaffolding for Amorth to strut his stuff again and again.