10 Great Horror Movie Supporting Performances

These performers contributed as much as the leads did to classic genre flicks

Horror fans love to discuss our favorite lead characters, monsters, and final survivors.  We dedicate a lot of time to sharing our love for the Freddys, the Van Helsings, the Laurie Strodes; but these don’t make up the whole picture.  Much of the rich texture of the genre is provided by gifted actors giving fantastic performances in a variety of supporting roles.  Here’s a little tribute to ten of those performances that so enriched our favorite movies.

Renfield 2

Dracula (1931)

Dwight Frye as Renfield

"Aren't you drinking?" It seemed like such a harmless question...

“Aren’t you drinking?” It seemed like such a harmless question…

As enchanting as Bela Lugosi’s deliberate delivery and hypnotic stare may be, as bold and impressive as Edward Van Sloan is as Van Helsing, Dwight Frye’s Renfield manages to absolutely dominate nearly every scene in which he appears.  From the Transylvania-set first act, in which his mild-mannered nature offsets the eerie atmosphere around him to marvelous mildly comic effect, on to the later stages, when he moves between cackling madness and frighteningly intense lucidity, Frye manages a broad performance that is at the same time always rooted in genuine emotion and clear motivation.  It is one of the definitive horror performances of all time, and, alongside Karl Freund’s cinematography, quite possibly the best aspect of the entire movie.

 

Pretorius 2The Bride of Frankenstein (1935)

Ernest Thesiger as Dr. Pretorius

"Oh, hello.  I thought I was alone."

“Oh, hello. I thought I was alone.”

In the midst of this movie’s wealth of impassioned, often hysterical performances, Thesiger brings a very different kind of madness: calmer, more calculating and sardonic.  He may be the craziest of the lot, but he’s also the most in control.  His smooth, confident delivery, his probing stare and his skeletal grin are at once chilling and enticing; he’s the perfect devil, the one force strangely charismatic enough to break Henry Frankenstein’s resolve, pull him away from his wife and his recovery and tempt him back to the path of promethean sin.

 

MalevaThe Wolf Man (1941)

Maria Ouspenskaya as Maleva

"You are not frightened, are you, Sir John?"

“You are not frightened, are you, Sir John?”

Surrounded by the blustering arrogance of modern civilization, Maleva represents the magic of the old world.  She sees that science and reason, law and order – the constructs by which society tries to control natural forces – are impotent in the face of the forces that shape our destinies.  It is the sad resolve of Ouspenskaya’s performance that allows Larry Talbot (Lon Chaney, Jr.) – and, by extension, cynical contemporary audiences – to believe that this curse may not all be in his head, that even a man who is pure in heart… well, you know how it goes.

 

MeinsterThe Brides of Dracula (1960)

Martita Hunt as Baroness Meinster

"Who is it that is not afraid?"

“Who is it that is not afraid?”

The villain of this movie is the young Baron Meinster (David Peel), who represents a kind of childish, venal evil, frightening most of all for its pathetic, desperate neediness.  It is his mother, the hard and controlling Baroness, who represents the strength that he lacks.  She blames herself for his fall into evil, and she has hidden and protected him.  At first, she seems to be the true villain of the movie, cold, secretive and cruel.  Later, it is her fear that lets us know how great a threat her son truly is.  Finally, her own infection with vampirism is met with a mournful nobility.  Hunt gives a complex performance, the most effective in the movie – no small achievement when one is playing opposite Peter Cushing.

 

MildredA Hatchet for the Honeymoon (1970)

Laura Betti as Mildred Harrington

No quote here.  It's her silent presence that's so effective.

No quote here. It’s her silent presence that’s so effective.

After winning a Volpi Cup at the Venice Film Festival for her performance in Pier Paolo Passolini’s Teorema (1968), Betti promptly decided that her next career goal was to work with Italy’s master of horror, Mario Bava.  For context, imagine if, immediately after winning her Oscar for Sophie’s Choice (1982), Maryl Streep had promptly called up Wes Craven and said, “We simply must work together!”  To accommodate Betti, Bava had the script for Hatchet re-written to enlarge the role of Mildred, the frustrated, hardened wife of serial killer John Harrington.  While the character dies half-way through the movie, Bava kept her around by introducing a new plot element: her ghostly visage haunting John.  We never know for sure if Mildred’s apparition is supernatural, or a manifestation of John’s madness, and this ambiguity does much to enrich what would otherwise have been a fairly generic – if stylishly staged and photographed – post-Psycho thriller.

 

Sheriff Brackett 1Halloween (1978)

Charles Cypers as Sheriff Leigh Brackett

"Goodbye, girls."

“Goodbye, girls.”

One of the key aspects of Halloween’s fright factor is the sense that this shouldn’t be happening here, that Haddonfield ought to be safe from this kind of horror.  The youth of Haddonfield are in peril because of the failure of adults to protect their children; they are so sure of the safety of their innocuous, conservative town that they have no vigilance.  As the town’s Sheriff, and father of one of the victims, Cyphers brings a condescending confidence to his early scenes, a certainty that his world is under control, that nothing really bad could happen to his town, his family.  But, as events progress, he must face that there are threats to his stable little world, that he is not prepared for the real dangers in his world.  It is a grounded, naturalistic performance, a perfect voice normative of authority with the teens, and a point of view through which the audience can take in the seemingly hyperbolic – but actually entirely accurate – warnings of Dr. Loomis (Donald Pleasence).

 

JackInvasion of the Body Snatchers (1978)

Jeff Goldblum as Jack Bellicec

"It's a pink flower, honey."

“It’s a pink flower, honey.”

In a story about people robbed of their basic humanity, their charms, their insecurity, their quirks, all of their nuance, there is no more human presence than Jeff Goldblum’s anxious, excitable, ever-so-quirky writer, Jack Belicec.  In the midst of so many calm, staid performances, Goldblum and Veronica Cartwright (as his wife, Nancy) are the only truly lively people, the personifications of the essential feelings of which people are being robbed – both by the aliens, and by the grim cynicism of modern life.  And when Bellicec is robbed of this exuberant humanity, when Goldblum plays the cold and calculating Jack-doppelganger, we are made to understand how truly dire the situation has become.

 

Lesh 1Poltergeist (1982)

Beatrice Straight as Dr. Lesh

"Now, some people die, but they don't know they're gone."

“Now, some people die, but they don’t know they’re gone.”

You probably figured that if I discussed Poltergeist, I’d focusing on Zelda Rubinstein.  As iconic as Rubinstein’s Tangina may be, though, that’s really down to Rubinstein’s charisma, not her acting ability. It is Straight who provides the film’s most nuanced performance, as the outsider who chooses to remain to support the Freeling family, even when she realizes her knowledge and experience are powerless in the face of the supernatural forces they are confronting, simply because she cares.  Straight must manage the balancing act of showing concern, love, fear, and absolute amazement all at once, and she excels throughout.  Tangina may get the glory, but Dr. Lesh is the rock to which the Freelings cling.

 

Marge Thompson 2A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984)

Ronee Blakley as Marge Thompson

"But that's just not reality, Nancy."

“But that’s just not reality, Nancy.”

Fred Krueger (Robert Englund) returns to Elm Street that the sins of the parents might be visited upon their children.  The collective sin of these parents is not their vigilantism, but their decision to shelter their children from the truth about their community.  Of those parents, the one we get to know the best is Marge, mother of Nancy (Heather Langenkamp).  Marge is a woman completely broken by the secrets she keeps (not just her role in Krueger’s death, but, as revealed in deleted scenes, also the loss of her firstborn child), an alcoholic and a coward.  And yet, we cannot blame her for wanting to protect Nancy from these truths; she does not want her daughter to be broken, too.  At first glance, the parents of Elm Street are despicable frauds and hypocrites, but Marge feels the weight of her sins, and it is she who comes to understand that children must be allowed to face the darkness in order to finally emerge into the light.

 

DammersThe Frighteners (1996)

Jeffrey Combs as Agent Milton Dammers

"My body is a roadmap of pain."

“My body is a roadmap of pain.”

There’s almost no end to the praise that genre fans could heap upon Jeffrey Combs, but even in a career full of brilliant character performances, his twitchy, anal-retentive, bitchy Agent Dammers is a stand-out.  Convinced that he alone can see the truth of every situation, Dammers is at once arrogant and cowardly, neurotically desperate to gain command of every situation but rendered continually impotent by his own fears.  Combs is tense, his demeanor one of smug, affected confidence and fragile self-control, periodically broken by outbursts of intense, deranged obsession.  He is all that is dangerous about knowledge without understanding, authority without wisdom.  And he is very, very funny.

 

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2 Comments on this post.

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  • Josh Millican
    26 November 2014 at 6:29 pm - Reply

    Great list! Some of my favorite supporting roles/actors are; Evil Ed (Stephen Geoffreys) from Fight Night, Trash (Linnea Quigley) from Return of the Living Dead, Mademoiselle (Catherine Begin) from Martyrs, and the hitchhiker (Edwin Neal) from the original Texas Chainsaw Massacre.

    • Evan A. Baker
      26 November 2014 at 7:02 pm - Reply

      Excellent choices, Josh! I almost included Evil Ed on this list. As for Return of the Living Dead, at some point I plan to include it in a “best horror ensembles” list.

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