The mark of a memorable acting performance is decided by a number of different factors. How well can you display the intended emotion of the scene? Were the strengths of your performance tailored to make the audience scared? Depressed? Joyful? How about a jack of all trades performance that accomplished all of the above and more?
Horror is a genre that has the luxury of spanning different tones and subgenres – a messy melting pot chock-full of quality on-screen performances. The kind of work demonstrative of the strengths present in even some of horror’s weakest offerings. 2022 brought us a wealth of work in the field of horror that is near-impossible to recognize on a single list.
From some of the year’s biggest blockbusters to smaller streaming darlings, horror has continued to deliver top-notch entertainment and the onscreen talent are deserving of thanks. As the divide between the fate of theaters and the thriving trend of streaming grows bolder, this list is here to remind us that there is always quality work to be found. We should embrace the wealth of options available to us. You never know what you may miss by doing otherwise.
Without further ado, here are the top 15 horror film performances of 2022.
15: Joseph Winter – Deadstream
Internet fame motivates even the most seemingly unassuming people to degrade themselves in the hopes of stardom. Such is the case with Shawn, a disgraced YouTuber whose career has hit the skids thanks to his prank-style videos causing real-life harm and controversy. His way to avoid “cancellation” and boost his numbers is to livestream himself staying in the US’s most allegedly haunted house for an entire night. You can all see where this is heading, can’t you?
Shawn emits the kind of dead-behind-the-eyes YouTuber energy that is reminiscent of the likes of JayStation, but Shawn’s actor – co-director and co-writer Joseph Winter – injects a unique everyman charisma to an otherwise irritating protagonist. Watching him try so desperately to keep his internet persona intact in the face of being chased by demons is hilariously endearing, pathetic as it may be. Winters understands the volatile and shallow nature of Shawn and his hysterical clashing against the grungy aesthetic of the house turns an already-solid horror-comedy into a potential cult classic. Keep Joseph and Vanessa Winter on your radar beyond 2022.
14: Laura Galán – Piggy
Although Piggy isn’t a major reinvention of the classic slasher, it does present us with an interesting psychological quarrel – what if you had control over the fates of your tormenters? Laura Galán’s Sarah is faced with this dilemma at the start of the grisly Spanish horror-thriller when she bears witness to her three bullies being kidnapped by a serial killer. The name-calling and attempted drowning by them still fresh in her mind, Sarah opts to keep her mouth shut as the town begins to speculate on the girls’ fates.
Galán plays Sarah with a timid naivety that descends into pure self-torment as the guilt of her silence grows. A girl of few words, Laura carries the film’s emotional core through the strength of her physicality. Piggy is Laura Galán’s showcase, demonstrating an immense talent for the screen despite her limited acting resumé. Sarah’s gradual loss of innocence becomes frightening to watch under Laura’s powerhouse performance guiding us through her fear of being found out and the temptation to embrace the hatred built up by the torment of her bullies. Though Piggy may lack the non-stop thrills of the usual slasher, Laura helps make up for it in the depths of her psychological ride through her own personal hell.
13: Ethan Hawke – The Black Phone
From a starring role in Disney’s Moon Knight to brief, but memorable appearances in The Northman and Glass Onion, Ethan Hawke has had a busy and thriving 2022. The sheer versatility of the man’s extensive filmography is deserving enough of praise, but returning under the eye of director Scott Derrickson has brought out the macabre side of his creative drive with The Black Phone. Playing the role of The Grabber, serial kidnapper and murderer of children, Hawke’s trademark growl of a voice is amplified behind the various masks he wears to intimidate Finny, his latest victim.
Hawke’s portrayal of The Grabber is a mixture of playful and cold-blooded, speaking with the emotional vulnerability of a child while self-aware enough to understand and revel in his actions. Half of his time in the movie is just spent at a doorway talking and it’s still a terrifyingly convincing portrait of a monstrous man that is giddy to have power over his victims. Hawke’s eyes sometimes do the talking behind his masks and they often convey unspeakable visions of pain that make him that much more disturbed. His mixture of casual everyman and John Wayne Gacy is a toxic concoction that makes for one of this year’s most memorable villains.
12: Wi Ha-joon – Midnight
As inescapable the shadow of Netflix’s mega-hit series Squid Game may have become over the course of 2021 and 2, its success has brought about many positives. One positive that seems to have gone under-the-radar for wider Western audiences is the versatile talents of South Korean actor Wi Ha-joon (Detective Jun-ho in Squid Game). While he showed what good he can do under the role of a straight-laced heroic protagonist, his work in films like Gonjiam: Haunted Asylum and this year’s Midnight proved that his ace in the hole may lie in the darker side of morality.
Midnight in particular is a showcase of Ha-joon’s natural ability to play the charismatic killer, this one being on the hunt for a deaf woman who witnesses one of his attempted killings in progress. The formula of the classic cat-and-mouse thriller edges harder into straight horror with Ha-joon’s horrifying performance – quick to flash a charming smile while decorated in spills of blood on his suit. Think Mike Flanagan’s Hush, but set through the dark streets of South Korea at night. Midnight is a simple movie and Ha-joon’s performance is simple enough on the surface, but his sheer manic energy and relentless commitment to the hunt is a sight to behold and avoid at all costs in real life.
11: Jamie Clayton – Hellraiser
It’s a tall and often thankless task to recapture the energy and atmosphere of the original without seeming like a shameless void of a copycat. Jamie Clayton had such pressure in building her own interpretation of The Priest for David Bruckner’s 2022 reimagining of Hellraiser after years of sequels divided the fanbase. Bruckner’s turn at the bat was also a source of division, with the film’s stray from the original’s more erotic tone being a major point of debate within the fandom. However you may feel of the film’s direction, one major positive in its favor is the spellbinding work Clayton put in as The Priest.
Taking on a more present and screen-friendly role than Doug Bradley’s take, Clayton’s portrayal is indicative of Clive Barker’s original vision with The Priest displayed as an androgynous being. Jamie Clayton’s larger role gives way for her Priest to convey a larger sense of their intelligence and ice-cold demeanor, one that Clayton pulls off seemingly effortlessly. Her mere presence is spine-chilling under the extensive makeup, a bleak beauty that commands attention at every opportunity. Jamie Clayton had her work cut out for her, but the results are a lean, mean, and even tender performance at times that can be quick to disarm us before the wrath of the Cenobites rains down.
10: Lauren LaVera – Terrifier 2
Don’t let the inevitable trappings of the horror genre fool you; the art of perfecting The Final Girl is difficult and underappreciated. Without the writing and acting to compliment each other, it is far too easy to dive into the pitfalls of your main protagonist and slated Final Girl feeling forced and artificial. A box to be checked off on the list of Horror Tropes We Must Follow. For a long and comically bloody slasher like Damien Leone’s Terrifier 2, the blockbuster runtime makes way for a worthy Final Girl in the form of Lauren LaVera’s Sienna Shaw.
It was going to be an arduous task to find someone who could believably stand up to The King of the Quadruple Tap, Art the Clown, and Sienna somehow steps up the plate thanks to LaVera’s fearless Final Girl performance. Playing the role of a distanced, grieving girl with outstanding results, LaVera’s acting is refreshingly down-to-Earth for such an infamous slasher. Her eventual transformation into badass clown destroyer would not be nearly as convincing without her talent for subtle AND bombastic drama to back her up.
A great Final Girl not only has something to fight for, but a willingness to go through hell to achieve her goal and a key quality to Lavera’s performance is suffering. We watch her get brutalized and thrown every which way by a killer clown who we know will not leave you alive if given even a second of an opening. But Sienna’s raw intensity and steel resolve is showcased beautifully and however you feel about Terrifier 2 as a whole, Lauren LaVera’s work should not be disputed as anything other than an absolute delight to watch.
9: Rachel Sennott – Bodies Bodies Bodies
I doubt this was anybody’s intention, but Rachel Sennott has become the unofficial queen of disastrous social gatherings. First came the simmering awkwardness of Shiva Baby and now in 2022, we have the boiling pot of messy friendships, dark secrets, and a potential killer on the loose in the horror-comedy Bodies, Bodies, Bodies. A body turns up early in Halina Reijn’s Gen Z horror-comedy whodunit and that opens the floodgates for a paranoid group of fake friends to start laying the blame on each other for the deed.
Despite each character operating on a similar plane of fake woke and fragile egos, there is just something irresistible about Rachel Sennott’s Alice, a vapid podcaster whose night of alcohol and drug use have turned her into a ball of paranoid energy. Sennott’s portrayal of a woman speeding down the steep descent of sanity is way funnier than the situation suggests. Her waves of hysteria as the bodies pile up somehow balances genuine dramatic emotion with some of the funniest line deliveries of the year as a whole.
Rachel is the perfect mixture of sassy and genuinely sympathetic if not empathetic even as she turns on her former friends in a heartbeat. Petty hate is the common theme of Bodies Bodies Bodies, but the way Sennott is so convincingly hung up on dunking on someone solely due to their upper-middle class upbringing is just the kind of unlikable joy I live for.
8: Annie Hardy – Dashcam
Okay, I am well aware that this may be the hottest take on this list, at least judging by the overall mixed reaction to Dashcam, Rob Savage’s follow-up to his smash pandemic hit Host. Much of the reaction is based around Annie Hardy’s character, an obnoxious indie musician whose purpose seems to be to make everybody’s lives a miserable hell. Annie’s outright refusal to change for the better even as her livestream gets invaded by an unusual mutant straight out of an X-Men comic is absolutely grating and seemingly designed to flip off audiences. She is certainly one of the most unlikeable horror protagonists of the past several years, bar none.
And I freaking adored every moment of her presence.
Horror is a genre that allows filmmakers to experiment and flip the structure of film on its head, whether it be through a change in narrative style, the mixing of subgenres, or in the case of Dashcam, the sheer commitment to Annie Hardy being a void of good taste. Since the film is framed through Annie’s never-ending livestream, we are never free from her POV and front and center to her utterly immature reaction to the night’s mayhem. People are killed left and right and Annie will find a way to sneak another dick or fart joke and in a lesser movie, this would kill the tension just as dead.
But man, Annie Hardy deserves all the props for arguably the most thankless performance of the year. It takes serious guts to look at a role that is already annoying on paper and injecting it with “friend who never moved out of their hometown” energy. Annie keeping the same prick vibes as her life is in danger is downright admirable, if we’re being real. Her wildly OTT performance compliments the chaotic tone of Dashcam and while it may not win over many potential newcomers to the genre, you can’t say it isn’t a memorable offering for horror this year.
7: Scott Haze – What Josiah Saw
There’s always a debate festering in the depths of the internet concerning what counts as true horror these days. Does horror have to be chained to a specific set of subgenres and if so, how much does it take for a psychological drama to turn into straight horror? It’s a complicated debate with an even more complicated answer, but Scott Haze floats in the middle of the spectrum in the Gothic horror-drama, What Josiah Saw.
A multi-chapter story focused on a trio of siblings as they navigate the realities of adulthood after shared traumatic childhoods does not immediately scream horror. But the complex work displayed in the story with Scott Haze’s character, Thomas Graham, is a thing of grim beauty. The only sibling to have stayed back home with their domineering father, Thomas is the most socially stunted of the group and Haze captures his lonely naivety to a tee.
With the emotional fragility of a boy, Haze’s performance is an all-too-real window into the longstanding effects of child abuse and is nothing short of heart-wrenching. Even then, Haze’s subtle changes throughout the story come incredibly natural to him and I can easily see the character coming off as hokey and try-hard under a lesser actor and script. But Vincent Grashaw’s stunningly realized script fully comes to life under Scott Haze’s watchful and thoughtful eye. Haze is why this story of lifelong torment becomes the stuff of nightmares.
6: Keke Palmer – Nope
By this point, Jordan Peele has established himself not only as one of the modern masters of horror, but one of few actual “director stars” in the business. The kind of filmmaker that can pack an entire theater solely off of their name, a la Christopher Nolan, Quentin Tarantino, etc. But one thing I’ve noticed that people don‘t generally pick up on is that Peele may be one of the most reliable actor’s directors working today. Each film has contained the kind of acting that is a dream showcase for any actor looking to prove to the world how much they can do.
In the case of Nope, Keke Palmer is one of the latest to enter that field as Emerald Haywood, one of the co-owners of a family ranch that trains horses for film and television productions. While her soft-spoken brother actively maintains the ranch, Em has ventured off into the world of acting, singing, and directing; and who better than Palmer to fit the layered and oftentimes hilarious role? Em is the source of comedy and wit between the two siblings and Keke knocks it out of the park in both departments.
There is never a dull moment with Keke’s Em, effortlessly stealing almost every scene by way of Em’s determination to use a potential UFO sighting as a ticket to further fame and fortune. Palmer radiates charm as the ball of energy that lightens up Nope’s tone and her triumphant performance by film’s end proves that the multi-faceted actress is a modern star destined for greatness. If we’re being honest, Keke’s opening monologue was enough for a top 10 position as is, but the raw power of her survival wit in the finale seals her position as one of the brightest aspects of Jordan Peele’s latest.
5: Rory Kinnear – Men
Alex Garland’s Men is…many things. Trippy, off-kilter, weird, a dive into social horror that borders on becoming cosmic in its exploration of men’s abuse of power over women, and so much more. Garland’s work has typically touched on the strange and cosmic in his previous features, but some felt that he may have bitten off more than he could chew with Men. But what does work in spades is Rory Kinnear’s star-making showcase as the title…people?
While Jessie Buckley expectedly provides amazing work as a woman taking a personal sabbatical after a personal tragedy, Kinnear takes advantage of advanced deepfake technology (and great VFX work of course) in performing the role of literally almost every man intimidating and possibly stalking her. Whether it be the bartender at the local bar, a passive-aggressive priest, or a mysterious boy, Kinnear’s smirking face is plastered all over the place in one of the most ingenuous acting choices ever made in a horror film.
Armed with a toothy smile and an unnerving glare, Kinnear’s performance is definitive uncanny valley territory, a slimy charisma that is literally peppered throughout every lush frame of Men. His antagonistic pushback against Buckley’s sanity is both a strong representation of the kind of power men have and often abuse towards women and an unironically outstanding feature length demo reel for the storied theatre actor. If you can’t connect to Men’s story, stay for the greatness (and creepiness) of Rory Kinnear.
4: Maika Monroe – Watcher
We have been gifted with quality scream queens over the course of 2022 in mainstream hits like Scream 5 and Smile and smaller breakouts like the previously mentioned Terrifier 2. In between those quality offerings, V/H/S/ 94 standout Chloe Okuno (responsible for the nightmare fuel that is Raatma in the ‘Storm Drain’ short) offered a heaping pile of realistic nightmare fuel in the form of her incredible Hitchcockian horror-thriller Watcher. Combining the tropes of the classic Hitchcock mystery with a dash of disturbing violence and a legitimate best of the year performance from Maika Monroe, an underrated gem in the world of horror.
Playing a woman recently moved to Bucharest, Romania with her boyfriend, she is left with nothing to do but lounge around the apartment and brush up on her Romanian. In the meantime, reports of a serial killer echo through her head as she notices that a shadowy figure across the street always seems to be watching her. Watcher plays with our emotions through Maika Monroe’s Julia being the American foreigner completely lost in the crowd of Romanian small talk around her. Monroe’s mannerisms are cold, distant, and weary of every social interaction.
While her performance enters loud and showboat territory in the third act, the real strengths lie in Monroe’s tender and restrained moments of drama. The bits where she can do nothing but nod as her Romanian guests and boyfriend chat away in a language she can barely understand. Maika’s face tells the story of a woman completely alone in a new way of life and her bouts of depression are stark and painfully reminiscent of real life. It’s enough of a struggle and by adding a stalker into the mix, Maika Monroe is thrown obstacle after obstacle in Watcher. But with a single wave, the aftermath allows her to shine in a hidden gem of a scream queen performance.
3: Justin Long – Barbarian
Horror didn’t stop at giving us solid scream queens in 2022. The early fall made way for an experienced actor to come back into a genre in which he has given much of his career-best work. Enter Justin Long, the man whose eyes hauntingly closed the finale of Jeepers Creepers and Drag Me To Hell and whose entire anatomy was experimented on and violated in Kevin Smith’s Tusk. Now he gets to add Whitest Kids U’ Know alum Zach Cregger’s slick grindhouse-lite horror flick Barbarian and runs away with the entire movie in the process.
Justin Long has been cast as the doughy-eyed heartthrob for much of his filmography and for an actor as charming as him, it is an easy and sensible casting choice. But Barbarian demonstrates Long’s fortitude for against-type performances with a rousing, skeevy, and gut-busting turn as a TV actor mired in sexual assault allegations. Not stopping at the bad publicity, Long’s demeanor is one of cocky, unearned swagger and a deeply selfish outlook as his only motivation to survive the allegations and a festering incest mutant in the dungeon of his Airbnb.
Long’s douchey performance is a comedic marvel full of pitch perfect line deliveries of the most inane bits of script to grace our screens this year. His nonchalant attitude in taking a tape measure and stepping ass backwards into a Resident Evil basement can only work with a performance as unapologetically dismissive and arrogant as Long’s. Combined with moments of self-reflection bringing out the drama actor in Long, his wild performance fits the insanity of Barbarian like a glove and I don’t hesitate in saying it may be his best performance to date.
2: Daniel Kaluuya – Nope
When Get Out first premiered in 2017, Jordan Peele wasn’t the only horror breakout coming out of the Oscar-winning modern classic. Daniel Kaluuya left his mark with a rare acting nomination for a horror movie, well-deserved after his quietly powerful turn as Chris Washington. In the years since then, he has gone from Oscar nominee to winner and now that we’re at Peele’s third feature, Kaluuya is coming in as a more seasoned vet. And somehow, Kaluuya outshines his own self in the process.
Keke Palmer was great for giving Nope a sense of humor and her performance gains a bunch of heart by the end, but Kaluuya’s O.J. Haywood is the emotional core throughout. While Em is busy with her own career, O.J.’s priorities lie with the family ranch and horses and you feel the weight of pressure building on his shoulders. He’s lowkey, not a lightning bolt of charisma and sass like his sister, and the beauty of Kaluuya’s performance is focused on the tender atmosphere he projects in every shot.
O.J. says so much with just the right look on his face and while his performance takes some cues from his Get Out work, Kaluuya enters Nope with a stronger determination to ward off the film’s main threat. Watching Kaluuya stare a beast straight out of Evangelion in the eye with no ounce of fear shown is not only a wicked power move, but a testament to Kaluuya’s ability to speak volumes without saying a word. While Judas and the Black Messiah was a display of Kaluuya’s theatrical abilities, Nope only further solidifies his knack for nuanced storytelling and I’ll gladly take more.
Especially if they involve him taking on another Peele monstrosity.
1: Mia Goth – Pearl/X
Call it a cheat if you want, but this was the only way to end the list that made sense. It could’ve gotten monotonous to see Mia Goth occupy three different spots on this list, not taking into account the stellar work we’ve seen from others in 2022. But for the Ti West slasher double feature, the performances are so wild, outside the box, and closely connected that a compilation was inevitable. Mia Goth is the chameleonic MVP of horror this year thanks to her pulling triple duty in vastly different, but equally marvelous performances.
Mia Goth was already impressing with her dual performances in X as Maxine, the young and ambitious firecracker/adult film actress with dreams of stardom and Pearl, the withered and elderly woman who wants to rip it all away from her and her cast and crew. X’s exploration of sexuality and our alienation with it as we grow older and Goth’s dual role encapsulates that theme perfectly. Goth embraces her youthful beauty as Maxine with a fiery energy that is all but gone when she switches to Pearl, trudging through her home in a state of bitter loneliness that soon turns deadly.
Goth’s complete understanding of her characters bleeds its way to the prequel, now depicting a young Pearl with a similar desire for fame and glory, but a strikingly different attitude. Pearl is naïve and full of wonder before the combination of her dull home life and being rejected of the life she feels she needs. Mia Goth portrays her inner struggle with a painful and terrifyingly real performance, a distortion of the usual coming-of-age fairy tale. Goth’s young Pearl is a ticking time bomb and watching the screws slowly come undone with her at the helm is the kind of experience I almost wish to never see again.
Yet Mia Goth remains elegant and captivating in her molding of three (well technically two) different characters that gives vibes of Rory Kinnear from earlier in the list. But Goth goes the extra mile by presenting these characters as small wheels helping to drive this off-the-wall tragedy spanning 60 years. And she does so with pure pained emotion (complete with one of the best one-take monologues possibly ever) that only enhances her haunting takes on older Pearl and the vulgar reincarnation that is Maxine.
I’m almost apprehensive on how Ti West’s upcoming sequel MaXXXine may change things, given how well X and Pearl work as one incredibly long horror epic. We can only speculate until the movie finally comes out, but until then, we have Mia Goth’s unparalleled work to marvel at. The monologue, the slow dance bathed in blood, the determination to not accept a life she does not deserve, everything. Mia Goth truly is a star and certified scream queen.