Between a global pandemic that we’re still in the midst of and the increasing library of titles available for streaming, 2021 has been a strange comeback year for the movies. We are blessed once again with the newest films being (somewhat) safe to watch in a movie theater, yet these only make up a fraction of titles being only a click away from us.
Horror has made the most of this unusual year by offering a king-sized buffet of options across all platforms. A great avenue for the profitable genre, yet something that has made a list like this ludicrously hard to research and narrow down. Simply put, there was no shortage of great film performances in horror for 2021. A realistic list would likely be over 50 entries, but the 15 I’ve chosen are ones that I felt put in the extra mile for their respective films.
The 15 performances listed range from arthouse horror to your good ol’ fashioned slashers and I’m not expecting everyone to fancy them the way I do. But in an oddball year of recovery, the work put in by this list of actors would be foolish to ignore and the thought of readers checking even just one of these films out is enough justification for me. It’s been a year of unexpected surprises and here’s to highlighting them with the 15 Best Horror Film Performances of 2021!
15: Melanie Laurent – Oxygen
Single location stories often run the risk of feeling small-scale and insignificant because just how terrifying can one simple room be? Or in the case of Alexandre Aja’s Netflix horror-thriller Oxygen, a single confined space populated by a confused and horrified Melanie Laurent? Oxygen strays from the over-the-top carnage of Aja’s previous efforts in Piranha 3D and High Tension and creates a visceral experience from the simple premise of a woman who wakes up inside a cryogenic chamber that is running out of oxygen. She does not know how she got there nor even who she is. All she knows is that she does not have much time before suffocating.
Laurent, most famous for her role as Shosanna in Quentin Tarantino’s Inglorious Basterds, is a one-woman act in Oxygen, selling the gradually increasing terror and paranoia of someone with seemingly no options for escape. Laurent charms the audience with her sly quips at the gravity of her situation, but it’s never at the expense of the film’s consistently tense tone. Barring flashbacks and some unexpected developments in the second act, she keeps the film grounded and in the moment, making us fear for a nameless person’s safety with such ease. Laurent is the heart of this twisty sci-fi horror-thriller, proving why she remains one of France’s most talented and versatile actresses.
14: Lonnie Chavis – The Boy Behind the Door
An uncomfortable hybrid between a coming-of-age flick and a traditional cat-and-mouse horror ride, The Boy Behind the Door thrives in its simplicity. Two best friends, Bobby and Kevin, are walking home from school when they are kidnapped by an unseen person. Bobby manages to escape from the trunk of a car, but the screams of Kevin from inside a large and looming house are too much for him to ignore. What follows is a nail-biting rescue mission spearheaded by Lonnie Chavis in a star-making horror performance for the Shudder exclusive film.
With Kevin mostly out of sight and the kidnapper’s face not even being revealed for most of the film, all the pressure is on Chavis’s shoulders to carry this film. It’s a task Chavis accomplishes with an impressive mixture of understandable naivety and panicked intensity at having to play the hero of his best friend’s horror story. He immediately endears us to him with the care he shows for Kevin, leading the audience to cheer on someone who doesn’t take the opportunity to save themselves from certain danger because friendship truly is power. The film itself can be riddled with a tad too many horror clichés, but Chavis’s lead performance as the unexpectedly brave Bobby will hopefully only be the beginning for the young star.
13: Roman Griffin Davis – Silent Night
I surely wasn’t expecting Roman Griffin Davis’s next memorable follow-up to his winning performance in Taika Waititi’s Jojo Rabbit to be a festive end-of-the-world doomsday comedy, but here we are. Silent Night mixes the irritating passive-aggressive vibes of faking civility during Christmas dinner with the impending doom of a poisonous gas cloud that is predicted to kill off the population of the world come the next morning. A last minute suicide pill is distributed to citizens of the U.K. and most are happy with taking themselves out without much struggle – except for Roman Griffin Davis’s Arthur, the lone detractor amongst his willing family on an already awkward Christmas night. A dash of doubt and suddenly Davis turns in one of the year’s most empathetic and challenging performances.
Arthur is quick to question why everyone is so keen on giving up, regularly offering fleeting moments of cathartic logic on a night of deep insecurities and lies coming out in the open. Deep into the night and with the cloud looming ever closer, Davis gets more chances to show off his dramatic chops with an increasingly emotional turn as a boy desperate for a tinge of hope. Davis outright steals the movie once he becomes fully confrontational to his parents, standing out among a talented and committed ensemble that aren’t given the emotional core Art is. Davis is the beating heart of an otherwise grim Christmas horror-dramedy that I hope becomes a niche Christmas tradition in the future.
12: Yahya Abdul-Mateen II – Candyman
It should be stated that Tony Todd’s iconic performance as Candyman can never truly be replicated. Todd’s signature shadowy whisper of a voice combined with his menacing, yet alluring presence was sorely missed in Nia DaCosta’s adaptation of Candyman. It leaves a noticeable void lingering in every shot of this movie, but what we missed with Tony Todd was replaced by a bold imagining of the Candyman legend led by the always great Yahya Abdul Mateen II. Mateen plays Anthony McCoy, a visual artist attempting to incorporate Black trauma into his art when he comes across the legend of Candyman and forms an uncomfortably intimate connection with it.
Abdul-Mateen II plays both sides of the fence beautifully in Candyman; Anthony is flawed and sympathetic as an artist in way over his head, making his descent into a paranoid and increasingly unstable mess so much more heart wrenching. Mateen can sell insanity, but there’s glimmers of humanity beautifully sprinkled in his tragedy that more than make up for the film’s faults. The best thing Mateen could do was separate himself from the aura of Todd’s interpretation while keeping in line with the mythology of Candyman and damned if Morpheus 2021 doesn’t do exactly that.
11: Jeremy Thomas – Antlers
One of the many cinematic victims of Covid-19, Antlers’ heavily delayed release slowly shifted it away from the public conscience, leading to a muted opening weekend. A true shame not just for the cast and crew who clearly went above and beyond to make this one of the best looking films of the year, but for its main star Jeremy Thomas as well. Playing a boy who is hiding a terrible family secret that is responsible for some strange murders in a small town, Thomas soars as the soft-spoken boy at the heart of it all and his inner conflict dealing with the severity of a fractured home life is the real core of Antlers.
Thomas gets relatively little dialogue compared to his adult co-stars, but his grim silence and understated performance speaks volumes to Thomas’s natural talent as an actor. Even when the story becomes too complicated for its own good, Thomas sells the terror of his horrific family situation uncomfortably well. Of course it doesn’t hurt that he is given the most narrative depth as opposed to everybody else who unfortunately cannot save the missteps in their own character writing. Thomas is the real star of Antlers and for the many who may still be on the fence about the movie itself, his performance gives the film a fighting chance at the very least.
10: Emily Rudd – Fear Street: 1978
One of the breakout hits of 2021, Fear Street is a trilogy that is solid throughout with an emotionally compelling story woven into the three films. 1994 offered an intriguing beginning to the series, but the bleak heartbreak of 1978 was what solidified the series as a genuinely brutal horror-comedy. Emily Rudd’s star-making turn as Cindy Berman is owed massive thanks for that. Playing one of the teenagers who is unfortunately present during the Camp Nightwing massacre of 1978, the live action pick for One Piece’s Nami puts in the work as the uptight and rule-abiding sister to the rebellious and angsty Ziggy, creating one of the most interesting slasher movie protagonists in recent memory.
We are used to seeing the archetype of the “good girl” in slashers, but Rudd injects a sense of longing into Cindy; she’s the preppy do-gooder that has damaged her relationships with her friends and family as a result. Rudd portrays a girl desperate to cling on to a sense of normalcy and completely envelops herself in Cindy, making it all the nerve-wracking to see her run for her life from her possessed ax-wielding boyfriend. Her performance isn’t as showy as some of the others in the Fear Street series, but her wonderful sense of drama with a keen knack for comedic timing catapulted her from the supporting sidelines to one of the strongest horror surprises of 2021.
9: Diana Rigg – Last Night in Soho
For Edgar Wright’s latest horror effort, it was difficult to choose my favorite for the whole show. Thomasin McKenzie anchors the insanity of Last Night in Soho’s time travel/sixth sense ghost story even when it narratively derails and Anya Taylor-Joy’s dark and empathetic turn as the aspiring singer McKenzie’s Ellie finds a kindred spirit in makes for a harrowing and well-done dynamic between the duo. Great work from both women, but Last Night in Soho’s MVP comes in the form of the late, great Diana Rigg of Game of Thrones and 1960s Avengers fame with her performance as Ms. Collins, the owner of the bedsit where Ellie begins to travel back to the dark underbelly of the 1960s at night.
Collins remains of the few characters sympathetic to Ellie in the film and Rigg plays her with such an air of mystery, sharing Ellie’s love for the allure of the 60s while mostly keeping in the shadows from people. But Rigg comes and outright steals the film’s second act, turning in a tense and sinister performance that is played with a sense of alarming casualness. Rigg gradually becomes an intimidating presence elevated by her stone-cold demeanor hiding years of trauma and pain. Whatever faults pop up in Last Night in Soho (and there are quite a few) are balanced with Rigg’s sneak attack of a performance.
8: Cillian Murphy – A Quiet Place: Part Two
A Quiet Place was a riveting directorial debut for John Krasinski that gambled big time with an ending that was a blatant cliffhanger and teaser for a sequel that may have never come had the film failed. But through that and Covid delaying the film to this year, Part Two proves itself to be a worthwhile sequel that brings the Abbott family back, this time going on a dangerous expedition away from home. Along the way, they encounter Emmett, an old acquaintance from before the creatures first attacked, surviving on his own. A shell of his former self, it was the kind of role that Cillian Murphy was born to play.
Murphy’s performance as Emmett would be if you took his shaken and war-torn character from Dunkirk, fused him with his lost and confused self from 28 Days Later and stuck him in a world destroyed by an alien apocalypse. Emmett looks out for himself and did not hesitate to leave people to their doom during the early days of the attack. Murphy’s affinity for characters riddled with PTSD plays in strong contrast to Krasinski’s Lee from the first film, offering a new dynamic that adds a new depth to the world of A Quiet Place. A film just as much about Emmett overcoming his trauma as it is about the Abbott family and Murphy’s subtle intensity runs away with the entire movie in the process.
7: Morfydd Clark – Saint Maud
A24 has become something of an icon for fans of artsy and niche horror and though the fandom can seem a bit overwhelming at first, the distribution company’s following is not without reason. A24 is the home for smaller auteur directors getting a chance to prove themselves and Rose Glass is the latest example with her brilliant psychological horror film, Saint Maud. Starring Morfydd Clark as Katie, a Roman Catholic woman who works as a private nurse, Saint Maud functions as a riveting character study of a woman grappling with her newfound faith as she becomes attached to a wealthy atheist patient whom she feels obligated to save.
Not an exciting premise, but Clark’s wildfire performance is the rare double whammy of entertaining and compelling. Katie wrestling with the duality of her faith and the stubborn beliefs of her patient lead her down an unhinged path that Clark plays to perfection. There is a genuine sense of realism to how Clark carries herself onscreen, even down to her demeanor when walking down a street. You’d think small touches like that wouldn’t be entertaining, but Clark’s bursts of feistiness compliment her naturalistic performance and gives Saint Maud a unique brand of dark energy. A frightening showcase for the Swedish actress who lifts Saint Maud above the majority of the horror field in the 2020s.
6: Rebecca Hall – The Night House
It’s 2021 and by this time, we’ve seemingly reached our wits’ end with haunted house movies, right? Watching a character creep around in the dark of their spirit-infested home has become as tired a cliché as a record scratch to indicate that we should be laughing our hearts out. Luckily, David Bruckner of V/H/S fame understands the very nature of those clichés so that he can subvert them to unsettling results with The Night House. In it, Rebecca Hall is a revelation as a woman named Beth stricken with grief, finding herself driven to madness over her deceased husband’s ominous and mysterious suicide note.
As her house seemingly begins to awaken at night and she finds blueprints for a reversed version of their home, Hall is given the opportunity to mix standard haunted house creepiness with her work as a woman whose depression and PTSD is leading to an increasing number of erratic mood swings. Some of the film’s best scenes are far-removed from the house itself and simply revolve around Beth lashing out at the people around her. Her sudden need to explain the nature of her husband’s suicide to an unsuspecting parent of one of her students lands her a spot on this list all by itself, but The Night House thrives throughout its entire runtime with Hall’s towering performance that would be an Oscar contender if the world was all right. But I’ll take what I can get.
5: Matthias Schweighöfer – Army of the Dead
Zack Snyder’s return to the zombie genre has yielded great results with Army of the Dead, the heist horror-comedy that has managed to already spawn a franchise with prequel Army of Thieves. Not surprising that the prequel only focuses on one character from Army of the Dead since Matthias Schweighöfer’s wonderfully endearing work as talented safecracker Ludwig Dieter easily steals Snyder’s entire movie away from its already solid cast. Joining the makeshift heist team tasked with robbing a casino inside a zombified Las Vegas, Dieter comes out of left field to become the film’s breakout character thanks to Schweighöfer’s electric chemistry with the cast.
On his own, Dieter is a talented goofball in way over his head with the new mission, but it’s his interactions with the crew that truly allow him to shine. Schweighöfer’s sincere comedic timing brilliantly contrasts with the badass vibes of the rest of the crew. His bonding moments with Omari Hardwick’s Vanderohe are something straight out of a buddy comedy, never feeling out of place in a Zack Snyder zombie movie. Dieter is interesting enough to lead a movie on his own, but his supporting role in Army is where he is best used, allowing Matthias to carve out a name for himself among the zombie genre’s most entertaining and watchable characters. In a genre where human characters are more often than not just bodies for James A. Janisse to compile for a YouTube list, Schweighöfer’s Dieter refuses such a label.
4: Chris Sheffield – The Block Island Sound
I wasn’t sure what to expect when turning on Netflix and deciding to boot up The Block Island Sound late at night. Was I expecting to see indie darling Jim Cummings playing a seaside conspiracy theorist? Not really. Did I expect the film to turn into a Lovecraftian-inspired sci-fi horror tale of unusual phenomena plaguing the New York island? Of course not. I sure as hell was not expecting a legitimate top 5 of the year contender with Chris Sheffield’s criminally underrated performance as Harry, the son of a local and recently deceased fisherman who was waking up in strange places days before his death.
Despite the horror appearing grand scale on the surface, Sheffield’s Harry is the core of this sci-fi tale, dealing with the death of his father and his own rapidly deteriorating mental health. Sheffield masterfully uses facial expressions to communicate the slow destruction of Harry’s mind, carrying what could have been a flavorless attempt at cosmic horror to a heightened emotional level. The Block Island Sound may not always be heavy on plot, but Chris Sheffield is the anchor needed for the film to soar past its limitations. Here for Sheffield to demonstrate his tight grasp on nuanced drama in more roles for the future.
3: Vincent Lindon – Titane
I could not for the life of me explain the general plot of Titane from director Julia Ducournau even if I dumbed it down. Following an even stranger vibe than her previous film Raw, Titane follows a serial killer on the run who shacks up with a lonely fire captain who is still grieving over the disappearance of his son years back. It’s a seemingly random pairing that pulls through to become one of, if not arguably the best, duo-led film of the year. One half of that magic equation is the supremely talented Vincent Lindon in the role of that fire captain, giving one of the most heartfelt performances in a horror film you’re likely to ever come across.
Lindon throws himself into the role of a man who is trying so hard to keep his body going, resorting to steroids and unusual workout routines that do him more harm than good. The man is falling apart at the seams and despite his issues, Vincent makes him an almost instantly endearing figure through the natural touches he adds to the character. As he bonds with the most unlikely figure ever, it’s still hard not to cheer him on when Vincent adds such a strong humanity to his character’s writing. As much a friendship movie as it is a horror film (with a surprisingly sturdy kill count), Titane is a showcase for the understated talent of Vincent Lindon, who instantly elevates and humanizes EVERY scene he’s in here, even when the whole car thing becomes more prominent.
2: Noomi Rapace – Lamb
A married couple still coping over the loss of their child put all of their love into their new adopted lamb-human hybrid baby. That’s the plot of Lamb. Unusual yet simple in its introduction. It seems destined to fail because we have to believe that a human couple would be this loving and dedicated towards a hybrid baby, but Noomi Rapace puts those fears to rest with a powerhouse of a performance that is just as much about her character as it is about the aforementioned lamb baby.
Repace sells the stilted and awkward misery of her life without a child with such frightening realism that it’s easy to still be on her side even as she blatantly destroys the life of one mother to finally have a child to call her own. There is a darkness to Rapace’s Maria that fully forms the conflicted nature of her character and it results in several powerful moments showcasing the intense versatility of the woman with the dragon tattoo. Maria is a mother with an animalistic instinct to protect her lamb/human hybrid child, leading Rapace towards a possible career-best performance that is simultaneously frightening, heartbreaking, and wonderfully realized.
1: Agathe Rousselle – Titane
It’s one thing for an experienced actor to show you the years they’ve spent mastering their craft paying off onscreen for us. For some people, years of experience and training can lead to a brick wall with no signs of further progress. But it’s genuinely miraculous for someone to turn in a year-end topping performance on their feature length debut. Rousselle, who has previously worked as a journalist for feminist magazine Peach (of which she is a co-founder), made her feature length debut for Ducournau’s Titane, playing opposite the previously mentioned Vincent Lindon as the serial killer who holes up with the fire captain. In the process of her character Alexia’s journey, Rousselle is given the opportunity to display her talent for playing seemingly different characters in a single movie and she is absolutely mesmerizing.
The first quarter has Rousselle playing everyone like a fiddle, setting herself up as a tired showgirl at a motor show, being hounded by fans as she apathetically autographs their belongings. Then she uses trickery to take her hair pin and viciously murder an invasive fan of hers and now we’re watching the life of a serial killer who has a strange kink for cars. Rousselle’s scowl scares harder than the entire runtime for most horror films and she is completely believable in such a grim role that sees her up the body count in almost record time in the beginning.
But her eventual façade as Vincent’s long lost son (even breaking her own damn nose to look the part) is where Rousselle shines brighter than a star, giving an emotional rollercoaster of a performance while hardly uttering a single word. Playing a man’s missing son is quite fucked, but Alexia’s commitment to the role is able to help us shift her into the identity so much easier. I’ve barely seen reviews praising her inane ability to clearly develop Alexia into a lost soul looking for companionship and it’s a damn shame. She is the very heart of Titane and contains all that I look for in a great horror performance. Terrifying and intimidating in one breath and able to win your heart with her raw (get it) humanity in the next, Agathe Rousselle is THE horror MVP of 2021 and I cannot wait to see what she does next.