Well, it’s time to continue the list of the scariest performances in film history. If you haven’t already read part 1, you can do that here. Which performance chills, scares and unnerves the viewer more than any other? Let’s find out.
5. Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh
Film: No Country for Old Men
No Country for Old Men may not be a horror film, but it is unquestionably one of the most suspenseful films ever made. In a way, Anton Chigurh is something of a horror monster though, in the way he is a seemingly-unstoppable killer. Unlike someone like Michael Myers (Halloween sequels not withstanding), we get hints of why Chigurh kills, but they serve to make his character even more frightening. He seems to feel a debt to kill, almost as if he’s utterly powerless. He is merely the harbinger of death.
I’ve talked about the gas station scene extensively here, but that is far from the only scene that makes Chigurh chilling. Take the scene with Carson Wells (Woody Harrelson), the kind of roguish anti-hero who would normally be the one to take down the villain. Chigurh almost immediately corners him and has a conversation with him at gunpoint. The moment the telephone rings is one of the scariest moments in the whole film, because Wells knows his time is up.
In a later scene, Carla Jean Moss (Kelly Macdonald) finds herself face to face with Chigurh. She tries to talk him down, but he says the coin toss is the best he can do. He doesn’t seem to get enjoyment out of what he’s doing, but he seems to malfunction when Carla Jean refuses to call it. It’s like he knows nothing else at all.
4. Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes
Yeah, you knew this one was coming. Rob Reiner’s Misery, based on the Stephen King novel of the same name, is one that preys on our fears of claustrophobia, obsession, and much more. When author and totally-not-Stephen King-avatar Paul Sheldon (James Caan) is almost killed in a car accident, he’s taken in by the seemingly-kind Annie Wilkes, who calls herself Paul’s number one fan.
The scariest thing about a character like Annie Wilkes is she feels like someone who could totally exist in the real world. She’s so obsessed with her favorite character, Misery Chastain, that she treats her like a real person. She punishes Paul for killing her off and forces him to bring her back in a new novel.
Bates plays a woman who can switch between overly sweet and affectionate to psychotic at the drop of a hat, and yet it doesn’t feel like either of these is a facade. These Jekyll-and-Hyde qualities are both equal parts of her personality, and we never know which is going to show up. The scariest moment, of course, is the infamous hobbling scene, where Annie breaks Paul’s ankles with a sledgehammer, a punishment for trying to escape. What makes Bates so scary in this scene is how laid back she is about it all, like it’s just another medical procedure. She’s not manically laughing, and the score is just a classical-sounding piano, but the contrast creates one of horror’s most iconic moments.
3. Max Schreck as Count Orlok
Dracula has been adapted countless times, and while many portrayals focus more on the seductive side of the character (Bela Lugosi, Gary Oldman), others are still not afraid to portray him as a monster (Christopher Lee). That said, there is no portrayal quite as monstrous as Max Schreck in F.W. Murnau’s classic Nosferatu.
Just look at that makeup. The movie is almost 100 years old, and yet the creepy look of the character still holds up. Nosferatu isn’t really a close adaptation of Dracula, displaying Orlok as the carrier of a plague and having an entirely different ending. These changes lead to some of the film’s most iconic moments though—Orlok on the boat and the stair-climbing sequence.
Count Orlok doesn’t even move like a human, just sort of appearing in rooms, which makes him all the more ghastly. Even without being able to hear his voice (or perhaps because of it), Orlok is one of the scariest characters of all time.
2. Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance
Film: The Shining
It took me a few viewings of The Shining to realize that the main character is not Jack Torrance, but rather the Overlook Hotel itself. Torrance has no control over the hotel turning him evil. It’s happened before with a previous caretaker, and it’s destined to happen again.
Unlike the Jack Torrance of Stephen King’s novel, Nicholson’s Torrance is clearly unhinged from the beginning. As the Overlook begins to take over, he starts seeing the ghosts, eventually going crazy enough to be willing to kill his family. Sure, most of his scenes have been parodied endlessly, but they still work wonderfully in the context of the film. The film’s scariest moment comes when Dick Halloran (Scatman Crothers) comes in to rescue the family, and Jack runs out of the shadows and sticks an ax in him.
By the time he is chasing his son through the hedge maze, he is barely human anymore, bleating like some mad animal. It is complete and absolute madness, and while it comes off perhaps as over-the-top at first, it becomes more and more horrifying on re-watches. He’s completely lost himself to forces outside of his control.
And the #1 scariest performance of all time…
1. Marlon Brando as Col. Walter Kurtz
Film: Apocalypse Now
As much as I love horror films, you’d be hard pressed to find a film that scares and unsettles me more than Apocalypse Now. The whole film plays like a nightmare, and it gets progressively darker and unnerving as Willard (Martin Sheen) and crew get closer to Col. Kurtz in Cambodia.
Apocalypse Now builds up Col. Kurtz for the first two acts of the film, letting Willard and the audience gradually try to unfold the mystery. We hear audio of Kurtz saying terrifying things about a snail on a straight razor, and we see the military say how crazy he’s gone, but the fact that we don’t meet him until almost two hours into the movie is a big risk. If the buildup doesn’t pay off, it’s going to be a big letdown, but of course director Francis Ford Coppola gives us one of the most memorable characters in film history.
We’re expecting a mad man and an evil man, and we get one, but perhaps not as mad or evil as we expect… or want. His actions make him scary sure, particularly killing Chef and presenting Willard with the severed head, but it’s what Kurtz represents that’s even scarier. The military who now wants him dead had a hand in driving him to this. Kurtz was one of the most decorated men in the military, but then he snapped. Does Kurtz show that even the best of us could be driven to this kind of madness if we see enough hell in the world?
While all the other performances on this list are terrifying, it’s not very likely that any of us will ever be driven to the point of being blood-sucking vampires, insane hotel caretakers, or murderous traveling preachers. However, Kurtz could be any of us. He’s clearly intelligent, as he reads T.S. Elliot and obviously understands that Willard is there to kill him. In fact, Kurtz is so shell-shocked and tired that he wants Willard to go through with it. Personally, I even think Kurtz kills Chef just to rile Willard up enough to murder him. The scene where Willard does brutally slaughter Kurtz is one of the most horrifying in all of film. His words “The horror, the horror” will stick with Willard and audiences long after the film has ended.