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Top 10 Scariest Film Performances

VO: Matthew Wende WRITTEN BY: Thomas O'Connor

These performances are guaranteed to give you nightmares. For this list we’re looking at the most memorably frightening and unnerving performances in film history. Our list includes roles from “It” (2017), “Psycho” (1960), “A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984), “The Shining” (1980), and more! Join WatchMojo as we count down our picks for the Top 10 Scariest Film Performances.

Check out the voting page for this list and add your picks: https://www.WatchMojo.comsuggest/Top+10+Scariest+Film+Performances. Special thanks to our user KyGuy711 for suggesting this idea!

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Script written by Thomas O'Connor

Top 10 Scariest Film Performances


These performances are guaranteed to give us nightmares. Welcome to WatchMojo.com and today we’re counting down our picks for the Top 10 Scariest Film Performances.

For this list, we’re looking at the most memorably frightening and unnerving performances in film history, with a focus on the acting itself, rather than on frightening characters who owe most of their scariness to make-up and special effects. Of course, makeup and effects can make a scary performance even better, as you’ll soon see.

#10: Robert Patrick as The T-1000

“Terminator 2: Judgement Day” (1991)
Sometimes a performance can be terrifying for how understated it is, and this is one such time. While other actors can give us the chills with an air of menace or danger, Robert Patrick’s “T2” villain sets us on edge for being cold, emotionless, and robotic, appropriate for a character made of liquid metal. There’s just something disconcerting about seeing Patrick shrug off shotgun blasts or run full-tilt after a speeding car with a completely neutral expression on his face. Absolutely nothing phases the character, and somehow that’s scarier than if he reacted in recognizably human ways. And did we mention that having knives for hands is terrifying enough?

#9: Malcolm McDowell as Alex DeLarge

“A Clockwork Orange” (1971)
On the opposite end of the spectrum, here’s a performance that’s all about reveling in pain and anarchy. The leader of a gang of terrifying ruffians in a not-too-distant future version of London, this character positively glows with sinister, evil energy whether he’s engaged in cold-blooded murder or just enjoying a glass of milk. McDowell takes a fairly simple character, one with no moral compass to speak of and a penchant for brutal acts of violence, and makes him both terrifying and plausible. After all, sociopaths like this exist in our world, and frankly we can’t think of anything more scary than the random cruelty of regular ol’ humans.

#8: Javier Bardem as Anton Chigurh

“No Country for Old Men” (2007)
And speaking of normal humans with warped or non-existent moral compasses, we still get the willies when we think back to Bardem’s performance as this ice-cold hitman. What makes this performance so terrifying are the little hints of sadistic pleasure that occasionally break the surface of his calm, cool demeanor, to say nothing of how violence could erupt forth from him at any moment. Every scene is a waiting game of “when will he snap,” and it keeps us on edge every single time. Playing out like a middle ground between our last two entries, this performance takes the best elements of both and blends them together to terrifying effect.

#7: Robert Englund as Freddy Krueger

“A Nightmare on Elm Street” (1984)
From human horrors to supernatural spookiness, this iconic horror performance works wonderfully in concert with makeup and special effects to craft a legacy that lives on in horror to this day. While the character may have become campy and silly in later installments, Robert Englund’s first outing as the razor-fingered boogeyman makes us scared to go to sleep even now. From the deep, spooky voice to the evil glint in his eyes that contains just the right mixture of demented glee and ruthless edge, he’s both magnetic and monstrous. With a terrifying visage bolstering an even scarier performance, this really is the stuff nightmares are made of.

#6: Bill Skarsgård as Pennywise

“It” (2017)
By far the most recent entry on our list, this new take on a nightmarish horror villain first brought to life by Tim Curry Xref had us hiding behind our seats. What works here isn’t just Skarsgård’s all-in approach and impossibly creepy smile, but the little touches of something not quite human to remind you that this isn’t just a serial killer or run-of-the-mill psycho, but an inhuman entity from parts unknown. Everything about this performance is creepy, from his walk to minor facial ticks, and let’s not forget his dance moves. If this character feeds on fear, then he’s in for a full buffet.

#5: Jack Nicholson as Jack Torrance

“The Shining” (1980)
Even before Jack Nicholson goes off the deep end in this fantastic performance, there’s eerie hints of something dark and violent lurking just below the surface of this devoted family man. This is what makes his eventual descent into axe-swinging lunacy that much more credible and believable; the implication that Jack’s time in the Overlook Hotel simply awakens something that was already there, just waiting to be let out. Of course, his performance after going insane still gives us the heebie-jeebies, but without that essential ground work laid beforehand, it wouldn’t be nearly as effective at getting us running for the nearest snowmobile.

#4: Anthony Perkins as Norman Bates

“Psycho” (1960)
One of the most iconic and trendsetting horror performances of all time, this legendary turn from Anthony Perkins worked alongside Hitchcock’s stellar direction and that famous score to make “Psycho” one of the greatest horror films of all time. At once sinister and sympathetic, Perkins comes across as a man in mortal terror of his own dark side, less of a calculating killer and more like someone helpless to turn back the tide of murderous intent lurking beneath his soft-spoken demeanor. It’s almost enough to make us feel sorry for him… almost. This performance set the bar for virtually every horror film performance since, and it’s plain as day to see why.

#3: Kathy Bates as Annie Wilkes

“Misery” (1990)
We’re all fans of something, but very few of us approach the levels of obsession brought to life in this squirm inducing performance, in which Kathy Bates plays a woman who keeps her favorite author hostage following a car accident. Switching back and forth from sweet and perky to screaming and psychotic at the drop of a hat, this performance keeps anyone brave enough to watch the notoriously unsettling movie permanently on-edge, even when the sledge hammers aren’t flying and the bones aren’t breaking. It just goes to show that if you mix sweetness with scariness, the results can be unsettling in the extreme.

#2: Anthony Hopkins as Dr. Hannibal Lecter

“The Silence of the Lambs” (1991)
The role that made Anthony Hopkins one of the most respected actors of his generation, this performance is nothing short of legendary. Delivering his lines in the same soothing voice you’d use to read someone a bedtime story, Hopkins can get under the skin of just about anyone. With the cunning and guile of a serpent and the murderous evil of any slasher villain, Hopkins’ performance became the template for depictions of evil and deviousness in movies for years after, inspiring countless imitators. But none could ever reach the same heights as the performance that inspired them, and we’re honestly thankful for that.

Before we reveal our top pick, have a look at some of our honorable mentions.

Tony Todd as The Candyman/Daniel Robitaille
“Candyman” (1992)

Dennis Hopper as Frank Booth
“Blue Velvet” (1986)

Gary Oldman as Count Dracula
“Bram Stoker’s Dracula” (1992)

#1: Linda Blair as Regan MacNeil

“The Exorcist” (1973)
The most iconic depiction of innocence corrupted ever put to celluloid, Linda Blair’s role as a young girl possessed by a demonic entity is the stuff of film legend. Breaking taboos left, right, and center, and pushing every boundary of how children can be depicted in film, Blair’s go-for-broke performance had audience members fleeing from the theatre in tears, cementing the film as a bonafide horror sensation. Performing the role was so intense and traumatic that Blair even felt the psychological repercussions for years after, and we can only guess at what it must have been like for the 13-year-old actress at the time.
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