16 Best Horror Movie Performances That Deserved Oscars. Ranked

From Lupita Nyong’o to Bruce Willis, 16 Best Horror Movie Performances the Oscars Should Have Nominated Since 1993
From Lupita Nyong’o to Bruce Willis, 16 Best Horror Movie Performances the Oscars Should Have Nominated Since 1993

Hey Academy, don’t be scared to invite horror performances to the Oscars.

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Horror movies embrace humanity’s fear, but what’s truly frightening is the lack of recognition they get from the Academy Awards. Only six horror movies have been nominated for best picture in the history of the Oscars: “The Exorcist” (1973), “Jaws” (1975), “The Sixth Sense” (1999), “Black Swan” (2010), “Get Out” (2017) and the only winner of the lot, “The Silence of the Lambs” (1991).

Regarding acting, it’s even more challenging to find awards traction. Some horror flicks see adoration only in hindsight, as for the iconic performances from Jamie Lee Curtis and Jack Nicholson in “Halloween” (1978) and “The Shining” (1980), respectively. Other factors, such as violence and graphic imagery, can keep others at a distance. See Belén Rueda in J.A. Bayona’s “The Orphanage” (2007) or Charlotte Gainsbourg in “Antichrist” (2009). To celebrate the spookiest day of the calendar year, Variety ranks the 16 best horror movie performances of the last 30 years (after 1993), the Academy should have recognized.

Read: Variety’s Awards Circuit for the latest Oscars predictions in all categories.

Common obstacles for horror also include poor box-office performance (i.e., “Doctor Sleep” with Ewan McGregor), genre bias (“The Shaun of the Dead” with Simon Pegg), or simply being too weird for voters to partake in (“28 Days Later” with Cillian Murphy, which Pedro Pascal has told Variety he loves).

PEARL, Mia Goth, 2022.  ph: Christopher Moss /© A24 /Courtesy Everett Collection
PEARL, Mia Goth, 2022. ph: Christopher Moss /© A24 /Courtesy Everett Collection

In recent times, fans have already fallen in love with newer entrants such as Mia Goth’s masterful turn in “Pearl,” or either of the new leading ladies from the next iteration of the “Scream” franchise with Melissa Barrera and Jenna Ortega, coming from directing duo Matt Bettinelli-Olpin and Tyler Gillett. There will surely be more worthy additions in the future.

Read Variety’s ranking of the 16 best Oscar-snubbed horror movie performances below, along with a clip of the best scene from each film, demonstrating their worthiness.

Honorable mentions: Joel Edgerton, “It Comes at Night” (2017); Ashley Judd, “Bug” (2006); Barry Keoghan, “The Killing of a Sacred Deer” (2017); Nicolas Cage, “Mandy” (2019); Song Kang-ho, “The Host” (2006); Kathleen Turner, “Serial Mom” (1994)

16. Florence Pugh – ‘Midsommar’ (2019)

Director: Ari Aster

Writer(s): Ari Aster

Distributor: A24

The scene that proves it: “Crowning the May Queen.”

A bloated runtime, disturbing imagery, and other strange and ambitious peccadillos make Ari Aster’s brightly-lit folk horror film a hard pill to swallow, but not its leading lady.

Oscar-nominee Florence Pugh (“Little Women”) takes all the heavy themes and ideas and carries them on her shoulders, with floral crowns and dancing meadows. Under Aster’s version of a Swedish getaway, all hell breaks loose, as well as some acting magic. The movie has since, become a somewhat modern-day respected classic in the eyes of fan enthusiasts everywhere.

15. Elisabeth Moss – ‘The Invisible Man’ (2020)

Director: Leigh Whannell

Writer(s): Leigh Whannell (based on characters and concepts created by H.G. Wells for “The Invisible Man”)

Distributor: Universal Pictures

The scene that proves it: “I found something that can prove what I’m experiencing…”

One of the more recent performances on this list, Elisabeth Moss, has shown anguish beautifully with her Emmy-winning work on Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and even without saying any words, such as the music video for Max Richter’s “On the Nature of Daylight.” But in Leigh Whannel’s suspenseful thriller, with help from a beautiful Benjamin Wallfisch score, Moss executes fear and desperation in her Cecilia Kass, an architect being tormented by her abusive mad scientist boyfriend Adrian (Oliver Jackson-Cohen). During one crucial restaurant scene, with a calculated stare, which is followed by some incredible solo-fight sequences, she proves there’s always a place for science fiction in the awards game (even if the Academy ignores it altogether).

14. John Goodman – ’10 Cloverfield Lane’ (2016)

Director: Dan Trachtenberg

Writer(s): Josh Campbell, Matt Stuecken, Damien Chazelle

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

The scene that proves it: “I accept your apology.”

Cinephiles, I don’t know how to get veteran actor John Goodman his overdue Oscar nomination anymore. “Barton Fink,” “The Big Lebowski,” “Inside Llewyn Davis” and even his paranoid Howard Stambler, the ruler of a bunker closed off from a massive attack going on outside in “10 Cloverfield Lane,” were not enough of a reason for the Academy to check his name off. The creepy and compelling performance in Dan Trachtenberg’s riveting directorial debut, serving as a sequel to the 2008 sci-fi hit, keeps the viewers, and his co-star Mary Elizabeth Winstead, on the edge for the film’s entirety.

13. Bruce Willis – ‘The Sixth Sense’ (1999)

Director: M. Night Shyamalan

Writer(s): M. Night Shyamalan

Distributor: Buena Vista Pictures

The scene that proves it: “I think I’m okay. It just went in and out…”

While everyone will ultimately remember M. Night Shyamalan’s box office juggernaut because of its iconic line — “I see dead people” — and its famous twist ending, none of those elements work unless you have a reliable vessel to steer the audience. That’s where the great Bruce Willis comes in.

While the horror flick nabbed six deserved Oscar noms, including best picture and two supporting mentions for Haley Joel Osment and Toni Collette, Willis’ stoic and touching Malcolm, a child psychiatrist seeking redemption following a tragic encounter, was left off the best actor list. He finds tenderness in Malcolm’s fragility as he attempts to connect with his young patient while making awe-inspiring choices not to give away or oversell the upcoming “wrench.”

Too often, critics and audiences dismissed Willis’ acting ability since he spent much of his career in some unloved projects across film and television. However, revisit his searing work in the action-packed “Die Hard” (1988), his comedic brilliance in “Death Becomes Her” (1992) or his commanding presence in “Pulp Fiction” (1994), and you’ll find more than enough evidence that he was a star we don’t see too often.

12. Keke Palmer — ‘Nope’ (2022)

Director: Jordan Peele

Writer(s): Jordan Peele

Distributor: Universal Pictures

The scene that proves it: “Let’s go baby!”

One of the big surprises of the 2022-2023 Oscars season was seeing Keke Palmer walk away with the New York Film Critics Circle prize for her performance as Emerald Haywood, the UFO-chasing, wise-cracking sister in Jordan Peele’s sci-fi venture. It was well deserved, delivering the best performance in a movie that bubbles with the talents of Oscar-winner Daniel Kaluuya and breakout star Brandon Perea. Often serving as comic relief in the first half, Palmer is given palpable action scenes to chew on before ending the movie with one killer final shot.

And who can resist Emerald and OJ’s handshake on the porch? I’ll remember those 10 seconds forever.

11. Scarlett Johansson – ‘Under the Skin’ (2014)

Director: Jonathan Glazer

Writer(s): Walter Campbell, Jonathan Glazer (based on “Under the Skin” by Michel Faber)

Distributor: A24

The scene that proves it: “Eating cake.”

It’s not just the silence but also the facial complexity that two-time Oscar-nominated star Scarlett Johansson (“Marriage Story” and “Jojo Rabbit”) conveys in Jonathan Glazer’s wicked meditation of what it means to be human. Elevated by nuanced sound design by Johnnie Burn, her physical command of the “alien” vibrates within each realm of the sci-fi drama.

10. Wes Craven – ‘Wes Craven’s New Nightmare’ (1994)

Director: Wes Craven

Writer(s): Wes Craven (based on characters created by Craven)

Distributor: New Line Cinema

The scene that proves it: “Whether or not you will be willing to play Nancy one last time.”

“Wait, you’re including a directing horror master like Wes Craven on an acting snub list?,” said any social media horror enthusiast. You’re damn right I am.

One of my favorite things to celebrate in cinema is a “one-scene wonder,” a tour-de-force performance by an actor that becomes synonymous with the movie for all time. Who would have ever Freddy Krueger creator Craven would do that within his own created franchise, especially in the seventh installment of the universe, marking his return to the directing chair after his 1984 classic? The legend clearly understood the assignment.

If you have time, watch what he achieves with his “Nightmare” muse, Heather Langenkamp, in his 1994 spinoff meta-thriller, where he plays himself, explaining to his lead actress how to defeat the entity that has crossed over to the real world. It’s a short but utterly poised and subtle revelation.

9. Emily Blunt – ‘A Quiet Place’ (2018)

Director: John Krasinski

Writer(s): Bryan Woods, Scott Beck, John Krasinski

Distributor: Paramount Pictures

The scene that proves it: “Beau’s death.”

Emily Blunt is one of two actors in history to win a SAG Award and failed to follow it up with an Oscar nomination (the other is Idris Elba for “Beasts of No Nation”).

Her physicality as Evelyn, a pregnant mother fighting relentlessly to keep her family safe and silent from aural-triggering monsters, has the audience tip-toeing through its wicked tale full of exposed nails and giving birth in a bathtub. However, it’s the devastating look and the fall to the floor as she watches the impending death of her son Beau that shatters our hearts into pieces.

With multiple snubs for “Edge of Tomorrow” (2014), “The Devil Wears Prada” (2006), “Mary Poppins Returns” (2018), “Sicario” (2015) and “Looper” (2012), the British sensation is still waiting for her Academy moment. Perhaps “Oppenheimer” can help her out?

8. Taylor Russell — ‘Bones and All’ (2022)

Director: Luca Guadgnino

Writer(s): David Kajganich (based on “Bones & All” by Camille DeAngelis)

Distributor: MGM/United Artists Releasing

The scene that proves it: “Why do you say your name like you’re two different people?”

The young and talented Taylor Russell has taken a bite of the Hollywood industry, but we’re hungry for more. Beginning with her breakout (and Oscar-snubbed) turn in “Waves” (2019), she does it again as a young cannibal woman exploring the world in search of people like herself in Luca Guaganino’s surprisingly affecting drama. While many found it difficult to bypass the gore and guts, the body horror road trip flick finds its stride thanks to Russell’s emotionally moving portrayal. And in a movie that reunites Timothée Chalamet and his “Call Me by Your Name” director, that is no small feat.

7. Betty Gabriel – ‘Get Out’ (2017)

Director: Jordan Peele

Writer(s): Jordan Peele

Distributor: Universal Pictures

The scene that proves it: “No, no, no…”

There was so much to admire with Jordan Peele’s directorial debut, which nabbed major noms for best picture, director, lead actor (Daniel Kaluuya) and original screenplay (which it ultimately won). At the risk of being greedy, though, the Academy left a Betty Gabriel-sized hole in the best supporting actress category. As Georgina, a housemaid who challenges Denzel Washington in the “tear-dropping Olympics,” Gabriel’s terrifying and outstanding work deserved some more love from the Actors Branch.

Ready for her next major film project whenever Hollywood is ready.

6. Essie Davis – ‘The Babadook’ (2014)

6. Essie Davis – ‘The Babadook’ (2014)
6. Essie Davis – ‘The Babadook’ (2014)

Director: Jennifer Kent

Writer(s): Jennifer Kent (based on the short film “Monster” by Kent)

Distributor: IFC Films

The scene that proves it: “Under the covers.”

Intense is an understatement when describing Essie Davis’ massive undertaking in the horrifying modern classic, “The Babadook.”

As Amelia, a troubled widow learning the truth about her son’s belief in a monster from his children’s book, Davis nestles deep into the underlying themes of grief and loneliness and how she’s struggling with those feelings. And yes, this is all embedded into the roots and soul of one of the scariest films of the 2010s.

Davis’ character is etched into our psyche, making the heart race with her interpretation of motherhood and the spirit buried deep inside us. C’mon Oscar, she was more than worthy.

5. Matthew Lillard – ‘Scream’ (1996)

Director: Wes Craven

Writer(s): Kevin Williamson

Distributor: Dimension Films

The scene that proves it: “My Mom and Dad are going to be so mad at me.”

If you think the Academy is afraid of horror films, you should see how they laugh in the face of outstanding comedies. When you blend the two, there’s almost no hope of recognition, which explains the omission of Matthew Lillard’s scene-stealing Stu in Craven’s meta classic. The same could be said for his co-star Neve Campbell, who created Sidney Prescott from the ground up.

The classic is a tipping point in film history for the genre as it transitions from one type of film creation to another. That’s also echoed in what performers could achieve in the genre with lively characters full of wit and danger.

Can we find a way to bring him back in the next “Scream” movie, please?

4. Nicole Kidman – ‘The Others’ (2001)

Director: Alejandro Amenábar

Writer(s): Alejandro Amenábar

Distributor: Miramax

The scene that proves it: “This house is ours.”

Nicole Kidman was an Oscar nominee for the jukebox musical “Moulin Rouge,” which was the same year as her turn as Grace Stewart, a mother who receives visitors in more ways than one, in Alejandro Amenábar’s gothic drama. The Academy has a rule against double-nominating an actor in the same category, which explains her absence, but I believe she deserved two of the slots that year. Alongside an equally deserving supporting turn from Fionnula Flanagan, her omission highlights the case to amend the rule.

3. Christian Bale – ‘American Psycho’ (2000)

Director: Mary Harron

Writer(s): Mary Harron, Guinevere Turner (based on “American Psycho” by Bret Easton Ellis)

Distributor: Lionsgate

The scene that proves it: “Hip to be Square”

Christian Bale won an Oscar for playing the drug-addicted brother in “The Fighter” (2010), but 10 years prior, it was criminal to see his murderous and music-loving Patrick Bateman get ignored completely.

The internet and message boards have said enough about the cult classic “American Psycho,” but it’s worth pointing out its style and magnanimous turn from Bale, both of which still resonate. It’s also one of the entries on the list that generates debate on whether or not it’s a horror picture or not. Debate away, but his commitment to the mind of a serial killer is both charismatic and downright disturbing.

2. Toni Collette – ‘Hereditary’ (2018)

Director: Ari Aster

Writer(s): Ari Aster

Distributor: A24

The scene that proves it: “I’m your mother.”

Toni Collette. Toni Collette. Toni Collette. With the crazy statistic of having only one Oscar nomination to her credit for “The Sixth Sense” (1999), the question is when will she nab her long overdue second?

It should have been for her masterclass delivery as a grieving mother and miniatures artist in Ari Aster’s jaw-dropping supernatural mindbender. From her unhinged speech at the dinner table, to her jaw-dropping delivery to her son in his bedroom, she knocks it clear out of the park.

1. Lupita Nyong’o – ‘Us’ (2019)

Director: Jordan Peele

Writer(s): Jordan Peele

Distributor: Universal Pictures

The scene that proves it: “Once upon a time…”

Jordan Peele’s debut “Get Out” was so beloved that when the criminally ignored “Us” came two years later, the early release date had the film fighting for any recognition. Oscar-winner Lupita Nyong’o (“12 Years a Slave”) takes on the extreme difficulty of playing two distinctive roles, each with its sheer sense of brilliance. Despite Golden Globe, Critics Choice and SAG attention, her win-worthy performance came up short for a nomination.

The movie is elevated by its luxurious camera work and ingenious music, firmly holding onto its creepy and mysterious narrative unraveling. But it’s Nyong’o’s Adelaide Wilson and her doppelganger Red that shows her full capability of leading (and elevating) her own feature film. Dynamic and terrifying, she’s a force to be reckoned with in the mystery thriller.

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