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The Top 16 Oscar-Worthy Horror Performances

It’s a sad, sad fact, but we all know it. The Academy has no love for genre films. When it comes to the Oscars, you’re far more likely to win an acting award for playing a blind dude with no feet, or a lesbian Holocaust survivor, then you are for even the finest dramatic performance in a horror movie. Sure, there have been a few notable exceptions over the years–Fredrich March in Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, Anthony Hopkins in The Silence of the Lambs–but for the most part, the greatest actors in the history of fright flicks have gone largely unrewarded by Oscar. And so, we take a look this time at 16 of the greatest dramatic performances ever seen in horror. The ones who deserved an Oscar (or at least a nomination), but didn’t get one…

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The Top 16 Oscar-Worthy Horror Performances

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16. Kevin McCarthy, Invasion of the Body Snatchers

A classic B-movie leading man, McCarthy was a cut above the usual fare when he starred in the original Invasion. No one who’s seen this movie will likely ever forget the sense of genuine urgency and panic he brought to the role. His final scenes in particular are unforgettable.

15. Robin Williams, One Hour Photo

In what world does Mork nab an Oscar for Good Will Hunting, and gets not so much as a peep for this completely daring, out-of-character performance? Yeah, we all know he was great in Good Morning Vietnam, Dead Poets Society, etc., but come on! He took a chance playing this psychopathic part, and man did it pay off.

14. Marcia Gay Harden, The Mist

As an extremely hatable religious zealot, this fine actress should’ve been a shoe-in for a Supporting nod. And we wager she would’ve been given a nom for this part, had it not been in a Stephen King movie… The Academy needs to get over this bias–a great actor is a great actor, period.

13. Nicole Kidman, The Others

Another mainstream actress who has gotten much recognition for her straight dramatic parts, but just because this flick had to do with ghosts, it gets shuffled under the rug. Kidman is really great here as a protective mother who doesn’t realize that she and her children are already dead…

12. Jeff Goldblum, The Fly

This is the kind of role an actor drools for, and Goldblum certainly did a lot of drooling–acid, to be precise. In Cronenberg’s classic horror remake, he plays a man who is literally falling apart–and does so with the utmost pathos and believability.

11. Gary Oldman, Bram Stoker’s Dracula

Sure to be the most controversial choice on the list. There are many who feel that Oldman was an overbearing ham in the role of the Count. Nevertheless, despite the detractors, Oldman in the opinion of many others gave a stunning, nuanced performance that brought new life to one of the genre’s oldest parts.

10. John Lithgow, The Twilight Zone: The Movie

Although this was only one of the segments in the Twilight Zone movie, it’s also the one that everyone still talks about to this day. Lithgow, a fine actor in both dramatic and comedic roles, is perfect here as the harried, desperate passenger who suffers a nightmare at 20,000 feet. The kind of role Supporting Actor was created for.

9. Gregory Peck, The Omen

A man who achieved great recognition outside the genre, Peck was one of the finest actors of the 1950s-1970s. No wonder he brought so much power and credibility to the role of Damien Thorn’s adoptive father. This belongs right up there with the likes of Gentleman’s Agreement, To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick and Cape Fear as one of Peck’s finest performances.

8. Sam Rockwell, Moon

Yes, he was that good. If you haven’t checked this movie out yet, you need to–pronto. I’ll be waiting come February to see if the Academy does the right thing and nominates Rockwell for his eye-opening work in this deeply enjoyable piece of horror/science fiction.

7. Sigourney Weaver, Alien

Quite possibly the finest lead female performance in the history of horror films. Sigourney came out of nowhere and rocketed to superstardom thanks to her genre-challenging action/horror turn as Ripley, the desperate survivor of the Nostromo who must do battle with an unstoppable killing machine.

6. Dwight Frye, Dracula

One of the greatest character actors of his era, Frye literally stole the show as Renfield in Universal’s Dracula. His early scenes with Bela Lugosi are the best parts of the movie. He is mesmerizing whenever he’s on screen, and takes to his part with a gusto that is rarely matched.

5. Robert Shaw, Jaws

“Farewell and adieu to ye fair Spanish ladies…” Jaws got a Best Picture nomination, but none of the actors were similarly recognized. And although Roy Scheider and Richard Dreyfuss are excellent as well, let’s be honest–this is Shaw’s movie. With Quint, Shaw gives us one of film’s most charismatic icons.

4. Boris Karloff, Frankenstein

Without saying a single word, Karloff pulls off one of the most emotional charged and intense performances you’ll ever see. This should be required viewing for acting students everywhere. And what a difference from the stone-like, lumbering behemoth the Monster would become in later installments!

3. Kare Hedebrant & Lina Leandersson, Let the Right One in

A director dreams of getting out of child actors what Tomas Alfredson got out of these two for his coming-of-age instant vampire classic. These two are absolute magic on-screen, delivering nuanced performances most actors four times their age can’t pull off.

2. Anthony Perkins, Psycho

Alfred Hitchcock had a reputation for inspiring great work from his actors. He certainly did that with Perkins, whose ultra-nervous, calculating, yet sympathetic Norman Bates is one of film’s more unforgettable characters. Perkins is a revelation here, yet inexplicably, only Janet Leigh was nominated in the acting categories.

And finally, the most Oscar-worthy horror performance of all….

1. Jack Nicholson, The Shining

Nominated 12 times for his acting, and winning three times, Jack is one of the most celebrated thespians of the past 40 years. And yet, what is perhaps his most identifiable and indelible performance of all went completely ignored. Robert DeNiro nabbed the award this year for Raging Bull, and I can’t argue with that one–but not even a nomination for Nicholson? Unforgivable.

For more news and opinions on the world of horror, including an exclusive interview with ROTLD’s Jewel Shepard, a review of the original House on Haunted Hill, and the Top 10 Horror Movie Posters of All Time, check out Brian’s daily blog, The Vault of Horror, at

And for a unique look at the feminine side of fear, including a sound ridiculing of Twilight fans, and “How to Survive a Zombie Attack” from daycare kids’ point of view, check Brittney-Jade’s blog, Day of the Woman, at




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