The best horror movies are about people. As easy as it is to judge the genre based on what film has the most memorable deaths, the most jump scares, or the most terrifying masked killer, the scariest films are the ones where the characters feel lifted from a reality that is somewhat familiar. When a viewer finds empathy or familiarity within a character and can imagine they exist outside of the story, they’re more willing to invest in the chilling story at hand.
It doesn’t matter what a character’s role is, or how long they’re on screen; whether we’re talking about a murderous killer, a humorous side character, or the final girl that makes it to the closing credits; a compelling character in a horror film reminds the viewer that what they’re witnessing had emotional stakes. It’s not enough to just watch something frightening — we must be invested in the people who are involved.
Great characters require great performances, and even if acting in horror films is often deemed “lesser” than more prestigious fare, it is no less challenging or rewarding. Check out some of these terrific performances in horror films by Dallas actors who brought these scary stories to life.
Jack Nance, Eraserhead
David Lynch’s 1977 classic Eraserhead was a landmark achievement in experimental horror filmmaking. Lynch’s debut film combined gross body horror, surreal sequences, and a brittle sense of humor to tell the story of Henry Spencer (Jack Nance), a skittish factory worker who is forced into a somewhat unhappy marriage when his wife gives birth to a deformed child. Left to care for this new being, Spencer wrestles with his own fears about fatherhood as he tries to ignore the advances from his seductive neighbor.
Reportedly inspired by Lynch’s own anxieties about fatherhood, Eraserhead places the viewer right in Spencer’s shoes as he goes from one excruciating experience to another, including one of the most uncomfortable family dinners in film history. Nance’s characterization of this sad sack never feels like a parody, but he’s still able to find the humor in Spencer’s awkward body language. Nance and Lynch enjoyed working together so much that they went on to collaborate on Blue Velvet, Wild at Heart, Lost Highway and Twin Peaks.
Amy Acker, Cabin in the Woods
Cabin in the Woods is a film that requires a good deal of audience investment, because by its very nature it is about how viewers consume horror films. While it starts out like any other horror film — five college students representing different cliques embark on a drunken vacation in the woods — it becomes clear that there are exterior forces at play planning their every move. In fact, it is revealed that a secret facility guides them into making the same exact decisions that characters in a horror movie would make.
Amy Acker plays Wendy Lin, one of the technicians in this underground facility, and her performance exemplifies just how smart the film’s satire is. Wendy watches these events unfold with the same bored indifference that any viewer would, and she’s able to comment on how tired these clichés are as she performs her job. One of the funniest aspects of Cabin in the Woods is how the villainous facility is treated like just another workplace, and Acker does a great job at bringing that sense of normalcy to the fantastical environment.
Scoot McNairy, The Rover
The Rover was released only six years ago, but in that time it’s grown to become spookily pertinent to today’s climate, making it even scarier in retrospect. The dystopian thriller takes place in the years after a global shutdown and economic collapse where humanity had turned on itself and succumbed to its worst impulses. Sound familiar? The story sets off when a mysterious stranger, Eric (Guy Pearce), is robbed of his possessions and sets off on a path of vengeance.
Scoot McNairy is brilliant as Henry, the gang leader who leaves his own brother Reynolds (Robert Pattinson) to die at the hands of Eric. McNairy doesn’t play it like he’s an over the top villain from Mad Max or Escape From New York, but rather a selfish and cowardly man who is willing to cut corners in order to get ahead. If the idea of someone revealing their own inherent cruelty during an apocalyptic crisis sounds unrealistic, then it might be worth checking out the news.
Deborah Sue Voorhees, Friday the 13th: A New Beginning
There have been a lot of Friday the 13th movies, but the fifth entry in the saga stands as one of the sleaziest, raunchiest and bleakest. The film takes former child hero Tommy Jarvis (John Shepard), who's been traumatized by his battle with Jason Voorhees, and places him in a psychiatric halfway house with a group of disturbed young people. Of course, it wouldn’t be a Friday the 13th movie if they didn’t start having sex while being picked off by a masked killer.
Deborah Sue Voorhees shares a last name with the famous cinematic slasher, which gave her confidence when she auditioned to play Tina, a lovesick girl who is one of the first to get killed. If the earlier Friday the 13th films tried to gain the audience’s interest by crafting sympathetic characters that eventually meet their doom, A New Beginning changes things up by depicting a group of generally despicable characters who meet their bitter end. Deborah Sue Voorhees certainly gives us a memorable character with Tina, whose gruesome end is neither unexpected nor particularly tragic.
Keep the Dallas Observer Free... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we would like to keep it that way. Offering our readers free access to incisive coverage of local news, food and culture. Producing stories on everything from political scandals to the hottest new bands, with gutsy reporting, stylish writing, and staffers who've won everything from the Society of Professional Journalists' Sigma Delta Chi feature-writing award to the Casey Medal for Meritorious Journalism. But with local journalism's existence under siege and advertising revenue setbacks having a larger impact, it is important now more than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" membership program, allowing us to keep covering Dallas with no paywalls.