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The all-time greatest horror movie performances

The horror genre is full of bloodsucking vampires, flesh-craved zombies, and all sorts of ghouls, ghosts, and gremlins. But it's also packed with incredible actors and actresses giving performances that surpass almost anything you'll see in your typical hunk of Oscar bait. The horror genre forces actors to reach down deep into their subconscious and draw upon their worst fears and darkest desires. Whether they're playing horrified heroes or psychopathic villains, these talented men and women are often required to travel down into some truly messed-up places. They have to scream, cry, and murder each other, all while convincing us the horror we see onscreen is totally real. (That's especially hard considering when, in real life, they're actually safe and sound, surrounded by cast and crew.) Using all their thespian powers, these actors have given us blood-curdling characters, blood-soaked moments, and some of the greatest performances in horror movie history.

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Roy Scheider as Martin Brody in Jaws (1975)

A great horror movie needs an everyman hero who can guide an audience through a world of slashers, spirits, and psychopaths. For example, there's James Caan in Misery and Daniel Kaluuya in Get Out. But maybe the greatest everyman hero is Martin Brody from Jaws, played to Average Joe perfection by Roy Scheider. True, Jaws features incredible performances from Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss, but while they're busy chewing scenery, Scheider has a much harder job. He's the guy we relate to, the emotional anchor in a film about a supersized shark.

And while he doesn't have any amazing monologues, Scheider does the heavy lifting and makes the movie work. When he's sitting on the beach, keeping an eye on the ocean, he's paranoia personified. And when the camera zooms up on his face, he silently sells his regret, shock, and guilt with a single look. He conveys both sadness and humanity in that simple scene at the dinner table with his son, and when he finally gets his first good glimpse of the shark, he staggers backwards — dazed and confused — like he's seen a Lovecraftian god.

Scheider also shines in his little comic moments. In that scene where Shaw and Dreyfuss are comparing scars (all gained in incredibly manly ways), Scheider pulls up his shirt and sheepishly looks at his appendectomy scar. According to Scheider, that little gesture was totally improvised, but the actor gave director Steven Spielberg a lot of credit for encouraging him to tone down the machismo and play Brody as "Mr. Humble." Thanks to Spielberg's advice, Scheider created a character we truly sympathize with, and we cheer like crazy when he finally makes that shark smile.

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Sissy Spacek as Carrie White in Carrie (1976)

Believe it or not, Sissy Spacek wasn't Brian De Palma's first choice for the role of Carrie White. The director almost went with a different actress before Spacek nailed her audition. What was it about Spacek's tryout that earned her the role? As her husband Jack Wisk told Rolling Stone, "The other girl played Carrie as someone you could hate….Sissy, you felt hope for. You could almost fall in love with Carrie White when she played her, and it made the film twice as effective."

And that's the secret to Spacek's performance. She's so innocent and pure that you desperately want things to go her way. From the opening scene, she's an awkward outsider, harassed by bullies and her psychotic mom. When she experiences her first period and has no clue what's happening, her screams are those of a terrified little girl. She can't make eye contact with anyone, let alone a handsome boy, and while she's technically too old for the part, Spacek channels that high school lack of self-esteem so well that you completely buy that she's a teenager.

But as Carrie grows in her psychic powers, Spacek's performance grows in confidence. She firmly stands up to her mom and even tries to flirt with her prom date. Of course, when everything — like that bucket of blood — comes tumbling down, Spacek flips a switch and turns into a different creature. Her eyes go wide, like they're going to explode from her skull, and she pivots her head like she's a hungry praying mantis. She's like an all-powerful alien among mere mortals. Then, moments later, she's back to a shivering wreck, scared and lonely, making Spacek's performance one of the scariest and saddest in horror movie history.

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Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle in The Fly (1986)

The horror genre has a long history of putting talented actors inside impressive prosthetics. Boris Karloff was Frankenstein's monster, Lon Chaney Sr. was the Phantom of the Opera, and in this time-honored tradition, there's Jeff Goldblum as Seth Brundle, a genius who finds himself trapped inside a grotesque body. When the camera opens on Goldblum's quirky researcher, his giant eyes are already bugging out out of his head, but Brundle is far more charming than any arthropod. When he takes reporter Ronnie Quaife (Geena Davis) back to his lab, he's just brimming with geeky charisma, eager to show off his teleportation machine. He's got such a big, goofy grin that you've got to love the guy. 

But after an experiment gone wrong, Brundle quickly devolves into a hideous insect hybrid, and Goldblum takes his character from an affable weirdo to a hyperactive psycho whose voracious appetites are incredibly unnerving. As he begins turning into a fly, Goldblum's entire posture changes. He hunches over, his head involuntarily twitches, and his voice grows garbled and disgusting. Plus, with the man and the insect battling for control, Brundle's humanity is constantly trying to shine through the fly's savage instincts. With Goldblum in control, we feel his passion for Ronnie (they're one of horror's best couples), but we watch in horror as it gives way to darker and scarier obsessions. Perhaps Goldblum's most touching moment is his speech on "insect politics," when he warns Ronnie that soon the monster will be uncontrollable. After scaring her away, he grabs his deformed head and growls in pain, a beast without his beauty. A gut-wrenching performance in a body horror classic, Goldblum will make you wipe your eyes and lose your lunch, and by the end of his experiment, you'll definitely be afraid…very afraid.

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Bruce Campbell as Ash Williams in Evil Dead II (1987)

When people talk about the great comedic stuntmen, they remember Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Chan — actors who rely on movement instead of monologues. But when recalling these physical performers, nobody ever mentions Bruce Campbell. And that's a shame, because Campbell's performance in Evil Dead II is right up there with classics like Modern Times and The Legend of Drunken Master.

Directed by Sam Raimi, this slapstick sequel finds Ash Williams (Campbell) alone in the woods, dealing with demons in a haunted cabin. That sounds like a scary scenario, but we're all having a great time thanks to Campbell's over-the-top antics. The man is the hammy king of exaggerated screams, but his biggest strength is his Looney Tunes physicality. Ash runs down never-ending hallways, bursts through doors, trips over barrels, and wildly spins around in circles. He's slammed against walls, dragged around by monsters, and when he goes insane — surrounded by cackling furniture — the way he bobs up and down like a madman is overblown brilliance at its best.

Of course, Campbell's tour-de-force moment comes when Ash battles his possessed hand. He bashes himself with plates, pulls his own hair, punches himself, and flips himself forward in a painful-looking somersault. (That's actually Campbell doing those moves, using skills he learned as part of an acrobatic comedy troupe.) And filming was hell for Campbell. Whenever Ash was possessed, he had to wear thick contacts that blinded him. He was constantly breathing tobacco smoke, which was pumped through pipes threaded down his body and out the chainsaw to create those fumes. And after Raimi dropped gallons of gore on his face, Campbell was "blowing red snot for…a week." But thanks to Campbell's masochistic dedication, horror fans were treated to a truly groovy performance.

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Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes in Misery (1990)

At the 63rd Academy Awards, Kathy Bates was up against a murderer's row of talent in the Best Actress Category, including Anjelica Huston, Julia Roberts, and Meryl Streep. But Bates took a sledgehammer to the competition and walked away with the Oscar for her performance as Annie Wilkes, the murderous nurse from Misery.

Based on the novel by Stephen King, Misery follows poor Paul Sheldon (James Caan), a romance novelist who wakes up from a car crash and finds himself a prisoner. His legs have been shattered, and his new caretaker — and number one fan — is looming over his bed. At first, Annie is an angel of mercy, dabbing Paul's forehead, caring for his wounds, and caring for his well-being. But it doesn't take long for the monster to emerge, and soon, she's screaming at the top of her lungs, her eyes are bugging out of her head, and she's making childish words like "oogey" and "dirty bird" sound incredibly scary.

Bates is fantastic at switching back and forth from sweet and starstruck to psychopathic. When Caan's character begs her for medicine, there's genuine concern in her face. But when he refuses to burn his prized manuscript, the way she casually flicks lighter fluid all over his bed is seriously upsetting. When she's happy, she spins around the room like a little girl or throws kisses like a twitterpated teen. When she's angry, her eyes go completely dead before she turns into a raging storm. Of course, Bates' big scene comes when she pulls out that hammer. She's so straightforward, so matter-of-fact about breaking legs, and when she ends the scene with "God, I love you," it's no wonder she won the Oscar. The Academy was too scared to give it to anyone else.

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Anthony Hopkins as Hannibal Lecter in The Silence of the Lambs (1991)

Before we talk about everybody's favorite cannibal, we've got to say that Jodie Foster is the heart and soul of The Silence of the Lambs. There's a reason she won the Best Actress Oscar for her turn as Clarice Starling, an ambitious FBI trainee hoping to prove herself in a world of men. With anyone else in the lead, Jonathan Demme's thriller would fall apart. So we definitely want to give Foster props, but come on, Anthony Hopkins steals the spotlight every time he steps onscreen.  

From the moment he enters the frame, standing perfectly straight at mock attention, Hopkins is electric as Hannibal Lecter, the sophisticated serial killer with a taste for fine wine and human flesh. When he stares into the camera with his icy blue eyes, you can feel Starling's discomfort. You're looking right into the soul — if he has one — of a psychopath who sees you as nothing more than a thought experiment…or lunch. As Lecter needles and prods Starling, trying to exploit her subconscious, Hopkins seems to be having fun. He's playing evil incarnate, a man who enjoys torturing others, whether he's skinning faces or prying into Starling's past. And he does it all with such glee that you can't help but root for the guy when he makes his big jailbreak, even as you're watching through your fingers.

Hopkins is so captivating that he won the Best Actor Oscar for less than 20 minutes of screen time. The man definitely left his mark on horrified moviegoers who couldn't forget how he mocked Clarice's past, tormented a grieving mother, and bashed a cop to death before basking in his handiwork. And with that psycho stare and eerily charming accent, Hopkins will continue sending shivers down spines for decades to come.

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Sheryl Lee as Laura Palmer in Twin Peak: Fire Walk With Me (1992)

Directed by David Lynch, Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me is the dark, black heart of the entire Twin Peaks franchise. While the first two seasons focused on the lovably quirky Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), the movie tells the story of the tortured and traumatized Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee). And while the series was more about solving supernatural mysteries, Fire Walk With Me is more concerned with legitimately horrific topics like abuse, incest, and rape.

And unlike the series, where Laura's specter is always lurking in the background, the homecoming queen is front and center here, with Lee playing Laura as a deeply troubled girl, a victim of abuse at the hands of her possessed father (Ray Wise), who might be okay with the demon's desires. As a result, Lee's high school hero is a teenager battling with genuine trauma. When she's alone, her face aches with pain. When she's with friends, she's constantly juggling multiple lives and lies. She's the heartthrob and the hooker, sweet and sultry, switching personalities with a backwards snap of her fingers.

Lee is devastating here, one moment childishly giggling, the next callously cruel. But whether she's taunting a lover or defending a friend, Laura is always afraid. Lee plays her as a girl who's given up all hope. Every day is a dark one when Leland is around. There are scenes when she desperately tries to avoid him, and there are moments when she stares at her tormentor with her mouth hanging open in a deafening silent scream. Speaking of screaming, when Laura discovers the identity of her rapist, her wail of terror will absolutely gut you. Nobody can scream like Sheryl Lee, and her performance as a victimized teen struggling against the darkness might be the most disturbing thing that David Lynch ever directed.

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Heather as Heather Donahue in The Blair Witch Project (1999)

Filmed for a mere $60,000, The Blair Witch Project scared up almost $250 million at the box office and revolutionized the horror genre. But like all uber-popular movies (e.g. Titanic), audiences eventually turned on Blair Witch and its lead actress, Heather Donahue. Somehow, she even "won" a Razzie for Worst Actress.

Honestly, though, the Blair Witch backlash was completely misplaced. Not only is the movie a bona fide classic, but Donahue's performance is completely on point. Playing a student filmmaker (named Heather), Donahue starts off as a pretentious, excited, and confident kid…until she gets hopelessly lost in the woods. She tries to stay cool and collected, but as she encounters rock piles and stick figures, you can hear her voice start to crack. The bravado is vanishing, replaced by uncertainty, and as her facade crumbles, you can hear the dread creeping in.

Soon enough, her tough girl persona is totally gone, replaced by frightened desperation. What follows is a painfully honest portrayal of true fear, with Donahue screaming, gasping, and whispering to herself in pure fright. Her famous apology scene is as raw as it gets, with snot pouring from her nose and tears welling from her eyes as she realizes she's going to die. And when she runs into that creepy cabin, screaming "Mike!" again and again, you know that's what actual panic feels like. It's all the more impressive when you realize the film only took eight days to shoot and that Donahue was improvising almost all of it. She was able to convey so much fright — even from behind the camera — that whoever gave her that Razzie needs to make their own apology video.

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Simon Pegg as Shaun in Shaun of the Dead (2004)

When it comes to horror-comedy, you won't find a performance more hilarious and heartbreaking than Simon Pegg's turn as the titular slacker in Shaun of the Dead. A childlike 30-something with a dead-end job, Shaun's a slacker who lacks ambition and responsibility. But when the undead start staggering down the street, he's forced to grow up and formulate a plan to keep his loved ones safe. 

Of course, just because you're surrounded by zombies, that doesn't mean you have to be 100 percent serious. Everything Pegg does is hilarious, from checking to see if the coast is clear to the cocky way he tries to jump a fence (and quickly recovers). He's so concerned while trying to pick albums to hurl at advancing cannibals, and his look of open-mouthed shock after killing his first zombie — complete with mug of tea in hand — is bloody hysterical. And there's no denying his chemistry with co-star Nick Frost. The two clearly enjoy working together, and their joy is more infectious than a zombie's bite.

Of course, Shaun of the Dead is way more than a simple laughfest, and when things get grim, Pegg pulls on the heartstrings. After his girlfriend breaks up with him, Pegg completely sells the heartbreak. When he's forced to shoot a zombified loved one, he's filled with genuine sorrow and pain. And his final scene with Frost will rip your heart right out. But despite the heavy duty drama, Pegg constantly finds ways to sell the emotions while injecting a little bit of humor. Blending tragedy and comedy might be the trickiest feat an actor can pull, but Pegg never falters, killing zombies with a cricket bat and audiences with laughter. How's that for a slice of fried gold?

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Essie Davis as Amelia in The Babadook (2014)

Directed by Jennifer Kent, The Babadook freaked out both Stephen King and William Friedkin, and while Kent is masterful behind the camera, the movie works so well thanks to the ragged and exasperated performance from Essie Davis as Amelia. It's an incredibly tricky role to play, as Amelia is guilty of the ultimate sin: she's a mom who kind of hates her kid. No doubt Amelia loves her monster of a son (a totally terrifying Noah Wiseman) and would die for him…but she might also kill him if he doesn't stop screaming.

That's the treacherous tightrope Davis has to walk. Audiences need to sympathize with this single mom — she lost her husband in a car wreck as he was driving her to the hospital to give birth — before she morphs into a complete monster. And with Davis in the role, we can totally feel how she's been worn down by everything the world has thrown her way. She looks absolutely exhausted. Putting up with this kid has taken years off her life. He's figuratively and literally suffocating her. On top of all that, she's constantly living in the shadow of her husband's death and its connection to her boy's birth, unable and unwilling to move on.

It only gets worse when a disturbing pop-up book appears on her doorstep. Soon, a top hat-wearing demon shows up, and Amelia's anger starts creeping out. Her struggles and sadness give way to malice and hate, and her performance becomes an even scarier version of what Jack Nicholson did in The Shining. Davis completely wins us over by the time she snaps, so we're hoping her character can defeat her demons as she hunts her own son. And her final rage-filled scream against the grief and darkness of the Babadook cements her as one of horror's most complicated yet sympathetic heroes.