As Halloween draws near and we all break out our favorite horror movies, it’s only appropriate to take a look at the all-time scariest performances. I am not limiting this to horror films, as often times terrifying characters lie in dramas as well. These are the characters that creep you out on screen, but continue to get under your skin long after the movie has ended.
10. Bob Gunton as Warden Norton
Film: The Shawshank Redemption
This one may seem an odd choice, as Norton keeps a cool demeanor throughout the film’s first two acts, and characters like Bogs (Mark Rolston) and Captain Hadley (Clancy Brown) are more openly unhinged, but Gunton plays the prison warden as a man who is just one step away from snapping. He’s such a control freak that if one piece moves out of place, everything will fall apart. Samuel Norton may seem to be a strict but good man at first, but it’s pretty obvious after a while that he is hiding behind religion (literally, as the safe with all his illegal paperwork hides behind a Bible verse stitching).
Upon discovering that Andy is innocent of the crime that put him away, Norton has the man who knows the truth killed and Andy put in solitary confinement for a month. After the month is over, he threatens him in his “Nothing stops” monologue, without once raising his voice, and coldly gives him another month in solitary. It is clear this is a man who will stop at absolutely nothing to stay in control. When things start to turn against him, he does finally snap and it’s clear he has been falling apart for a very long time.
Bob Gunton owns every scene he is in, playing Norton as someone who doesn’t flinch as he watches Captain Hadley beat up a prisoner under his orders. His final scene is one of the most memorable in a film brimming with memorable scenes. He’s not unlike Nurse Ratched in One Flew over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but I find him immeasurably scarier, because at least Ratched has some justification—McMurphy is a convicted rapist. Her methods are awful, sure, but they are at least understandable. Norton learns that Andy is innocent and continues to treat him the same way, showing that it has nothing to do with him being a criminal and everything to do with Norton being a control freak.
9. Jonathan Scott-Taylor as Damien Thorn
Film: Damien: Omen II
In the first Omen film, the evil was felt constantly, but was only occasionally seen in the character of Damien. Harvey Spencer Stephens only had a few lines (He was originally not to speak at all), which of course made Robert Thorn having to kill him all the harder. By the sequel, though, Damien is coming into his own as the Antichrist, and Jonathan Scott-Taylor gives a flawless performance.
There is horror enough in viewing a character trying to accept whether he is doomed to be the Antichrist predicted in prophecy, but once he does accept his fate is when it gets really scary. In what should have been the film’s climax, Damien discovers that his cousin Mark (Lucas Donat) knows the truth about him. Damien offers him an equal place of power, but when Mark refuses, Damien uses his telekinetic powers to murder him. It’s his ultimate descent into evil, and it is a terrifying scene. Scott-Taylor shows us the pained and the evil sides of Damien, without chewing the scenery or having any stereotypically evil qualities (except a British accent, I suppose).
My only complaint about this performance, as I detailed here, is that it is not the crux of the film. It’s even called Damien: Omen II, but for so much of the story, the focus isn’t even on Damien. Still, the brilliance from Scott-Taylor makes even the most ridiculous parts of the film worth watching.
8. Heath Ledger as The Joker
Film: The Dark Knight
When Christopher Nolan attempted to turn Batman into a dark, realistic crime thriller, everyone wondered how he would make The Joker work. Sure, Jack Nicholson’s portrayal worked in the Tim Burton film, but that was sort of a colorful fantastical film noir that was clearly not in the real world. It would take a work of genius to make this character work, and that genius was Heath Ledger.
I think the scariest aspect of the character is that voice, which shows him as both threatening and incredibly unhinged. His unpredictable delivery, pausing at seemingly random times, shows how unpredictable his actions are. Unlike Norton in Shawshank doing everything to hide behind a mask of composure, The Joker wears his madness on his sleeve. He scares people by telling various stories of facial disfigurement, all of them horrific, and perhaps none of them true.
The Joker unquestionably gets enjoyment out of corrupting a city and making people suffer, and his plan goes through fully even though he gets captured. He’s completely destroyed Harvey Dent, the city’s idea of a perfect, law-abiding hero and sent Batman on the run. He feels a creepy camaraderie with Batman, that they are two halves of the same whole. Without the one, the other is nothing… and for those who have seen The Dark Knight Rises, it looks like he was right.
7. Robert Mitchum as Harry Powell
Film: The Night of the Hunter
I’ve talked about this film at length here and here, and it’s one that owes a whole lot to its lead actor. Laughton’s direction is phenomenal, but it’s Robert Mitchum’s performance as traveling preacher/serial killer Harry Powell. Dressed in all black and speaking in a deep, rich voice, Mitchum plays a character constantly switching between his charming, affable side and his psychotic, murderous one.
Unlike Warden Norton who hides behind religion, Powell actually believes his murders are God’s will. He rides his horse and loudly sings “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms,” entirely apathetic about making his presence known. He’s a seemingly unstoppable force, and he won’t let the matter of a few thousand dollars go. He will pursue John and Pearl until they have given up the money or they are dead. When the children hide out in the barn, John asks if Powell ever sleeps, the same question we’re pondering. We’re constantly in the shoes of the children going through this nightmarish scenario, constantly on the run from pure evil.
6. Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth
Film: Blue Velvet
Sometimes an over-the-top performance makes a film less scary (See 1990’s It), and sometimes it makes a film terrifying. Is Blue Velvet a horror movie? A mystery? Psychological romance? Sort of all of them and none of them… it’s really weird, but it’s still one of David Lynch’s most coherent movies. I actually have to admit that I don’t really care for this film (that’s an article for another time), with the major exception of Dennis Hopper’s performance as Frank Booth.
Frank Booth bursts onto the scene, crying out like a child and huffing a mysterious gas that gives him his “power.” We know he’s pure evil, but he has a past. He tells Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) “You’re like me,” but we never know how exactly they’re alike. Like Jeffrey, did Frank start his descent by trying to do good in an evil world? Is he just saying this to torment Jeffrey? Like The Joker, his past is a mystery, and that makes him scarier.
Between the constant swearing, over-the-top nature, and especially the scene where he kisses Jeffrey, Frank Booth could have gone down as one of the most unintentionally hilarious villains of all time, but somehow Dennis Hopper makes it work. The seemingly-goofy parts of his character just make him that much scarier. You will also never listen to Roy Orbison’s “In Dreams” the same way ever again.