Awards season is upon us, and if there's one thing we know for sure, it's that horror movies are about to get snubbed again. Because that's the norm for most major awards shows. In a world where Toni Collette can't get nominated for "Hereditary," Lupita Nyong'o can't get nominated for "Us," and Rebecca Hall can't get nominated for "The Night House," what hope is there for all the other awesome horror movie performances?
So if the Academy is going to ignore the vast majority of great horror genre performances — there are a few exceptions throughout history, but not terribly many — it falls to us to make sure the exceptional work this year doesn't get forgotten. And since it's been an unusually spectacular year for the horror genre, narrowing the great work down to a manageable size is itself a leviathan effort. We don't have space to celebrate every great horror actor, but we couldn't let the year end without celebrating these absolute champions of terror.
These are the performances that blew us away in horror movies in 2022!
Sebastian Stan In 'Fresh'
Mimi Cave's "Fresh" takes a good long while to get to anything overtly terrifying. For its first act it's a very relatable romantic comedy, in which a young woman named Noa (Daisy Edgar-Jones) can't find a romantic connection in the realm of online dating — a sympathetic situation if ever there was one — but finally has a proper "meet cute" with a handsome guy in a grocery store. And for a moment life is great, because this guy is played by Sebastian Stan, and he's exactly the kind of charming hunk you'd want to romance you in the rom-com version of your life.
But when "Fresh" finally kicks in, and Noa finds herself chained up in Steve's basement so he can keep her alive and carve off parts of her body to sell to wealthy cannibals, Stan never turns off the charm. It turns out Steve is an inhuman monster but, weirdly enough, that doesn't mean he loses all his appeal. It's up to Noa to reconnect with and play up her attraction, either to lower his defenses and escape or, more disturbingly, find a long-term role in his cannibalistic hustle.
While "charming" doesn't sound like the trickiest role to play, context is everything. Stan has to make it seem at least somewhat possible that Noa would still be interested in him romantically, even after he's started slicing away, for the film to work. And it works. Stan is just that engaging a performer, somehow balancing his grotesque dehumanization of his victims and his affable rom-com charms.
Sandra Oh In 'Umma'
Iris K. Shim's "Umma" came and went pretty quickly this year, and while this throwback to early PG-13 supernatural thrillers of the 2000s may be relatively short on shocks, it's anchored by an exceptional performance from Sandra Oh.
Oh stars as Amanda, a Korean immigrant who lives in seclusion on a farm with her teenage daughter, played by Fivel Stewart. While they have a close relationship and a successful independent beekeeping business, Amanda's aversion to outsiders and mysterious affliction, which makes her unable to use any electronic devices, is starting to raise red flags with her daughter. And when a mysterious man shows up with the ashes of Oh's estranged, abusive mother, the stage is set for a ghostly possession that threatens to literally turn Amanda into her the person she always feared.
"Umma" uses its creepy story as an effective allegory but the real reason to watch is Sandra Oh, who understands that her character's strengths are held up by her vulnerabilities. And worse, her vulnerabilities are enabled by the coping mechanisms she's developed to combat them. She's terrified and terrifying, and she captures the inner turmoil of "Umma" on a level that the rest of the movie can't quite keep up with.
Ethan Hawke In 'The Black Phone'
Ethan Hawke has been a prolific actor ever since the mid-1980s but until recently he hasn't played a lot of villains. Apparently, we've been missing out. While he also menaced Moon Knight in this year's Marvel television series, Hawke really turned heads as the terrifying kidnapper and child murderer The Grabber, in Scott Derrickson's summer hit "The Black Phone."
In the film, Hawke plays a self-described magician who prowls the streets of Denver, abduction teens and keeping them locked in his basement. His modus operandi, however, is less scrutable than it first appears, and his latest victim finds himself repeatedly tested by the Grabber's bizarre behavior. Were it not for the intervention of the ghosts of the Grabber's previous casualties, he would certainly fall prey to terrible physical violence, stemming from the villain's complex mental illness, which finds his personality — and his malleable mask — repeatedly changing forms.
Hawke doesn't make it easy to empathize with his child murderer character. That would have been a miscalculation. But he does make it easy to understand that his evil stems from a place of genuine pain. There are times when the Grabber seems held hostage by his own behavior, an incredibly elaborate pattern he's trapped in with his own victims. He's frightened but also pathetic, and somehow that seems to make him all the more dangerous. A truly fascinating, frightening horror villain.
Nicholas Hoult In 'The Menu'
Anya Taylor-Joy and Ralph Fiennes are the stars of Mark Mylod's delectable horror comedy "The Menu," but Nicholas Hoult is its sniveling mascot.
The film stars Taylor-Joy as a young woman invited by a snooty foodie, played by Hoult, to be his date at an illustrious and exclusive restaurant on a remote island. But the celebrated chef isn't interested in feeding his guests. He wants to use his food to tell a story, and this time it's a violent morality tale in which all of his customers are about to learn valuable lessons.
Fiennes is wonderfully funny and biting as an artist who resents his appreciators, but it's Hoult who represents the absolute worst kind of fan. Selfish and needy, stuck-up and insecure, his character, Tyler, thinks he's better than everyone else because he can recognize genius, even though he understands none of it and his taste is highly questionable. Hoult's handsome features do little to disguise his twisted, Peter Lorre-esque performance, the latest in a long line of intriguingly weird performances from one of the best character actors of his generation.
You don't love to hate Tyler. You just hate him. But he's still captivating anyway. You know there's absolutely no way this tasteless and condescending creep isn't going to get his comeuppance before the end of "The Menu," and thanks to Hoult's fearlessly unlikable performance, you can't wait.
Julia Stiles In 'Orphan: First Kill'
It was a bit of a surprise when the 2009 thriller "Orphan" turned out to be a mean-spirited minor classic of the horror genre, and it was even more surprising when, 13 years later, the prequel wound up being great too. Once again, Isabelle Fuhrman plays "Esther," who — and spoiler alert for the first movie, although this prequel already assumes you know all the twists — looks like a little girl but is actually an adult con artist and murderer. She ingratiates herself into well-meaning families, earns their trust, then betrays and destroys them.
But although Fuhrman is great, as always, she's not the scene-stealer in "Orphan: First Kill." The film co-stars Julia Stiles as the matriarch of a well-to-do family, who seems suspicious of Esther when the film's antihero impersonates their long-missing daughter. While at first reminiscent of Vera Farmiga's role in the original, the film swiftly shifts in a whole new direction, with Stiles suddenly on the center stage in a weird and exciting turn.
Watching Julia Stiles, who hasn't headlined many projects since the mid-2000s, absolutely dominate "Orphan: First Kill" harkens back to films like "What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?", in which Bette Davis and Joan Crawford, former first ladies of Hollywood, shifted gears into eccentric horror territory, evoking peals of laughter and shrieks of fright from an appreciative audience. It's a fabulous return to form for Stiles. If this is a preview of the next phase of her career, keep it coming.
Michael Wincott In 'Nope'
There are a cavalcade of great performances in Jordan Peele's "Nope," but it would be rude to all the other horror actors in the world to single out every single one of this film's stars in such a banner year for the genre. (Okay, okay, there will be one more. Stick around.)
But perhaps one of the most unexpected standout performances of the year came from Michael Wincott, the gravel-voiced character actor who became a genre icon after a string of memorable villain roles in the 1990s. Wincott played the despicable Top Dollar in Alex Proyas' "The Crow," the weaselly Guy of Gisbourne in "Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves," and the swashbuckling Rochefort in Disney's "The Three Musketeers."
But despite his villainous imprimatur, and despite his relative absence from high-profile projects over the last decade, Peele cast Wincott as a brilliant cinematographer in "Nope," who's called in to photograph uncanny phenomena and, potentially, put his stamp on cinematic history. With just a few scenes Wincott's intensity gives Antlers Holst a dignity that makes even a verbatim read of the ridiculous lyrics from "The Purple People Eater" a sense of genuine depth and power.
It's a stunning bit of casting, which capitalizes on Wincott's career while giving him a wholly unique role within his filmography. And Wincott, true to form, completely nails it.
Amber Midthunder In 'Prey'
Another shockingly great horror prequel, "Prey" takes the "Predator" franchise back to its root — and then back again a few more centuries — with a period piece in which a big game hunter from outer space runs rampant throughout the Great Plains. Along the way he slaughters just about every human being he runs into, and wrestles a grizzly bear to death. It seems as though nothing can stop this rampaging death machine from beyond the stars.
But "Prey" isn't just a badass action movie and it isn't just a monster flick. It's framed first and foremost as a dramatic coming-of-age tale for Naru, a young Comanche woman who wants to be taken seriously as a warrior. Stymied by expectations from her family and culture, and by her own sometimes self-destructive stubbornness, she tries to embark on a hunt of her own, only to find herself outclassed by an opponent who also rips her fellow Comanche hunters to shreds.
Amber Midthunder's portrayal of Naru is extraordinarily rich and inspiring. She carries the majority of the film completely on her charismatic shoulders, conveying complex storytelling opposite no other characters except for her loyal dog, Sarii. We watch her learn through observation and experimentation and see her evolve in both understanding and — frankly — badassery. She learns to fight smart, not just hard, and earns her status as one of the great hunters in the whole "Predator" franchise. It's her movie. The monster is only visiting.
Harry Melling In The Pale Blue Eye
Christian Bale plays a retired detective called to West Point in 1830 to investigate the mysterious murder and mutilation of one of the cadets. But he isn't without assistance. One of the other West Point cadets is a remarkably clever and sensitive young man, with a panache for ghoulish imagination. His name is Edgar Allan Poe, and he wants to help find the killer in Scott Cooper's macabre whodunnit.
Harry Melling isn't the first actor play Edgar Allan Poe. He isn't even the first actor to play Poe in a fictional whodunnit, where the crimes are eerily familiar to fans of his gruesome works. But Cooper's film is classier than most, and it's anchored by Melling's exquisite portrayal of the word famous author. His Poe is young, romantic and relatively naive, intrigued by morbidity but inexperienced with its practical application. He's just a hair on the side of larger than life, so well spoken and wide-eyed he stands out in every scene, even when he's doing nothing more than sitting at a table and listening to everyone else talk.
It's an exceptional performance, the kind movie star careers are based on, taking a character with unusual qualities and making them absolutely captivating. Melling may very well giving the best cinematic depiction of Edgar Allan Poe to date, although to be fair, films like "The Raven" and "Raven's Hollow" weren't much competition.
Anna Cobb In 'We're All Going To The World's Fair'
Casey sits in front of her webcam and says "I want to go to the world's fair" three times in a row. She cuts herself and wipes the blood off on the camera. Then, she promises to document whatever changes.
Jane Schoenbrun's "We're All Going to the World's Fair" appears, at skin level, to be a low-budget body horror picture about a teenager who embarks on an interactive creepypasta and finds herself being taken over by a strange new identity. On that level, it would be creepy, but what Schoenbrun and their star, Anna Cobb, are after is something more modern and ambitious. Casey isn't being taken over by a new horrifying delusion or paranormal creature. They are exploring — through the language of amateur horror filmmaking and confessional YouTubing — a genuine coming-of-age trans experience, even though not everybody, even in Casey's own world, understands that.
Cobb's performance evokes the sort of naturalism usually associated with neorealism, so genuine it borders on ethereal. The journey Casey takes has horrifying elements, including thoughts of violence, destruction of childhood totems, and dramatic shifts in personality, but their path is so fascinating and raw that the ultimate takeaway is inspiration, not fear. It's a breakout performance if ever there was one, in a breakout film if ever there was one.
Keke Palmer In 'Nope'
Jordan Peel's "Nope," again, features a plethora of fantastic performances. We've already singled out the great Michael Wincott, and Steven Yuen creates an incredible character with a fascinating backstory as well. Daniel Kaluuya speaks volumes with relative silence, an atypically quiet and thoughtful hero for genre cinema of this particular stripe.
But when all is said and done, "Nope" is Keke Palmer's film.
Bursting into the film with a spectacularly rehearsed monologue about her family history and animal safety, and her various side hustles, Palmer's energy crackles from the get-go. And as the story progresses we find that it's not a veneer. She really is that magnetic, but that doesn't mean that's all there is to her.
Peele's intricate screenplay reveals great depths to her relationships, and subtly reveals the extent to which her family means to her. An apparent flub in that first monologue is, if you pay attention, the direct result of her carefully following in her father's footsteps, to the point that it never occurs to her to update his words when the context changes.
Palmer gives the ultimate "movie star" performance of 2022, grabbing our attention and never letting go, but never settling for mere charisma. There is thought and sensitivity behind every creative decision Palmer makes, crafting a character who — just like the rest of "Nope" — only gets more interesting with repeated viewings.
Rebecca Hall In 'Resurrection'
Rebecca Hall is one of the best actors working today, and "Resurrection" is one of her best performances. Certainly, it's one of her strangest. Written and directed by Andrew Semans, Hall stars as Margaret, a single mother who confidently balances work, family, and a relatively healthy sex life with a married co-worker. She's absolutely riveting as a woman whose life is well put together, and then she happens to spy a man, played by Tim Roth, across the room and we see her confidence shatter.
"Resurrection" is the story of a woman who put an unthinkably abusive marriage behind her and rebuilt her life from scratch, and how the sudden reappearance of her abuser causes her to fall back on patterns that threaten to destroy her. The specific circumstances of Margaret's trauma are so bizarre that simply explaining her backstory without losing the audience is a feat of incredible performing prowess, and Hall manages to do so in a single unbroken take, in one of the year's two absolutely jaw-dropping monologues.
Nobody unravels quite like Rebecca Hall — if you don't believe that, watch her breathtakingly tragic leading role in Antonio Campos's "Christine" and get back to me — and no movie has caused her to spiral out as weirdly as "Resurrection." She's matched perfectly by Tim Roth, who eerily reveals all her buttons and then pushes them, but she's the one keeping Semans' film grounded and shocking, even when you can't believe your ears.
Mia Goth In 'X' And 'Pearl'
Mia Goth gave the best performance in a horror movie in 2022. The question is, which one? Goth starred in Ti West's "X" as Maxine Minx, a pornographic actress making her bid for superstardom with a starring role in an adult film, set at an isolated farmhouse. She also co-starred in "X" as Pearl, an elderly woman whose stifled sexual desires and lifetime of regret lead her to commit horrible acts of violence against Maxine's fellow filmmakers.
But while "X" features an impressive double performance, the genius of Goth's work didn't become fully apparent until the prequel, "Pearl," which came out this same year. Set in the 1910s, we watch Goth play young Pearl as a teenager with dreams of Hollywood stardom, or at least getting out of her oppressive and repressive home life. Her efforts to achieve her dreams within her very limited circumstances are damn near noble, it seems. She may not be able to completely dampen her libido the way her parents and conservative culture want her to, but at least she's resisted her urges to kill to commit murder. And while that doesn't last, kudos for effort at least.
To watch "Pearl" is to watch Mia Goth burst at the seams, sew herself back together, and get back to bursting. Her character is violent and horrifying but her story is relatable and human, and Goth. Her monologue towards the end of the film — the other great single-take monologue of the year — is a testament to Goth's talent for introspection, and the final shot proves that she's a wunderkind at both tragedy and camp.
Read this next: The 15 Best Final Girls In Horror Movies Ranked