The first, and last, time actress Toni Collette was nominated for an Academy Award, it was for her portrayal of single mother Lynn Sear in M. Night Shyamalan’s horror film The Sixth Sense. She’s earned and won numerous awards accolades, deservedly so, but it was horror that garnered her an Oscar-nomination. With awards season in full swing, now it’s another horror film that’s bringing Oscar buzz for the actress; Hereditary.
As mother Annie Graham, Collette delivers a powerhouse performance that earned massive acclaim upon release. Collette chooses her genre roles carefully, but when she does, it’s always a profound expression of the terrifying facets of motherhood. The Academy would be crazy not to nominate Collette for her uncanny ability to tear apart the scenery the way Ari Aster needed for his feature debut, but at the very least it solidifies her as a fixture of modern horror.
Her first foray into genre fare, The Sixth Sense, found her exploring the exhaustive trials of raising a child alone. A working-class mother in Philadelphia, Lynn Sear struggles to be there for her son emotionally while she’s off ensuring she can support him financially. But boy does she try. Collette imbues Lynn with a layered performance as the mother desperately trying to protect her son, but at a loss as to how. She deftly conveys the ferocity of a mother’s love while bearing the weight of the pressures of filling the role of both father and mother, all the while her socially isolated son is battling demons she can’t see or understand. It all builds into the film’s most emotionally charged scene, in which mother and son tearfully find common ground and understanding as Cole finally opens up about his ghosts. The moment Collette, hands to her heart, breathlessly asks, “Do I make her proud?” is the moment that clinched her Oscar-nomination.
In 2006, Collette would switch gears for the psychological thriller The Night Listener. Based on the novel inspired by the Anthony Godby Johnson suspected hoax, Collette plays the adoptive mother, Donna, of an ailing boy that strikes up a relationship with a radio show host. The further that relationship is explored, the more it seems as though the boy and Donna may be one and the same. This exploration of motherhood is very, very different, and Collette again approaches it with the nuance that she does so well. Donna is both relatable and vulnerable, but with an underling layer of crazy that Collette would harness again later.
Five years after would bring the remake of beloved ‘80s horror comedy Fright Night, one that was received well by critics largely due to the performances. The horror comedy allowed Collette to take a much more lighthearted approach to single-motherhood as Jane Brewster, mom to teen son Charley Brewster (Anton Yelchin). A supporting role meant solely to raise the emotional stakes for the hero, Collette can’t help but make her character feel fully realized even when she only appears in a handful of scenes. Her flirtation with new neighbor Jerry (Colin Farrell) is a wry wink that teens aren’t the only one with raging hormones. It’s matched by her fighting maternal instinct when Jerry reveals his true nature, too.
Collette was given much more to work with in 2015’s Krampus, in a central role that let her have fun with campy humor. As Sarah Engel, Collette delved into what it would mean to be an A-type control freak during a hectic holiday season with family disfunction reaching a boiling point. Of course, there’s also Krampus, evil elves, and dark holiday minions to contend with, and the humor of it all appealed to Collette. It was in Krampus that she really got to stretch out her comedic chops, further demonstrating what a chameleon she can be.
Even being familiar with Collette’s work, especially in horror, none of it really prepares for what she brings to Hereditary. Even if its horror ultimately doesn’t work for you, it’s hard not to feel Annie’s grief on a visceral level. It’s not just grief, either, but pure terror, dread, love, desperation, and every emotion in between. Collette plays a mother so very against the concept of what motherhood should or is expected to be. In a cast of tremendous performances, that Collette’s is a standout is no small feat. She reels you in, makes you invest in her character’s story, and then chills you to the bone. An irony, considering horror terrifies the actress.
Lynn Sear, Donna, Jane Brewster, Sarah Engel, and Annie Graham may be all connected by motherhood, but they’re each such widely different characters that could have only been brought to life by a skilled actress like Collette. She explores the complexities of being a mother and the catharsis that horror can bring in a nuanced way that few actors possess. Horror is often ignored by the Academy, but she’s made it difficult to overlook Hereditary. It’s fitting, considering how it will bring her full circle to her role in The Sixth Sense. More than just a scream queen, she’s become the matriarch of modern horror.