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Two performers defined horror in 2022: Jenna Ortega and Mia Goth. No others quite compare to the sheer emotional brawn both actors brought to the screen. While they have each been working for years in various TV and film roles, the stars aligned over the last 12 months to catapult them into the stratosphere. From Goth’s stunning turn in Pearl to Ortega’s career-making performance as Wednesday Addams, the breadth of work on display is unmatched. Their magnetism is unequivocal. They have a talent of outlining full-bodied characters with bright definition and intention. Together, they make a tour de force of talent that leaps beyond the horror world.
Goth, who previously appeared in 2018’s Suspiria remake, guns for magnificence with year-topping performances in X and Pearl. Playing two drastically dissimilar roles, a bombshell sex pot in one and a mentally deranged killer in the other, Goth manages to cultivate two rich and dynamic character studies around fame and sexual liberation. X’s Maxine triumphs as a sex-positive seductress primed for the spotlight, and Pearl’s dreams wither away into ruin. And both pull back the curtain on the human experience, a revealing glimpse into sex as a firebranded superpower. No matter if the characters are good people or not, it’s about how sexual appetites shape our understanding of our own personhood and affect relationships, platonic and otherwise. Sex can be a bargaining tool, yet it’s often a form of salvation and freedom, as we see with Maxine’s ambitions to become the Lynda Carter of the porn industry.
Maxine possesses an extraordinary softness. When we first meet her, she’s snorting lines in her dressing room. The glaring vanity lights cast a warm glow around her frame, and even such a hardcore drug can’t distract from her beauty and allure. “You’re a fucking sex symbol,” she peers into the mirror. There’s something almost otherworldly about her presence, as though she’s transported from another time and place into ‘70s Texas, supplying its own grimy feel beneath the Ti West polish. When Wayne (Martin Henderson) and the group arrive on Pearl (Goth) and Howard’s (Stephen Ure) secluded farm, and begin shooting their pornographic film, Maxine brings innocence and charm to each salaciously climatic scene.
Sex doesn’t make her vulnerable or weak. It doesn’t cloud her judgment and make her unaware of the dangers lurking in the shadows. Instead, it empowers. With clarity and resolve, she defeats the monsters, both the literal and figurative, and manages to address some long-buried religious trauma. “Praise the fucking Lord,” she says, moments after running Pearl over with her truck and sniffing another line of coke. Her father, an evangelist, pops up throughout the film on grainy TV sets, perched in his pulpit and preaching his fire and brimstone convictions. “Every man has got his limits…” he proclaims. It’s only revealed in the finale that Maxine is his daughter, which gives her character even more context. You come to understand Goth’s mechanics to her performance, often quiet and subdued, yet commanding and present. From line delivery to character beats, especially when she must make the switch in the third act to become the film’s unexpected hero, Goth delivers on every single moment in such a way that results in Maxine becoming one of the year’s more fascinating characters.
Conversely, Pearl allows Goth to go completely unhinged, oscillating between terrifying and emotionally pulverizing. Pearl requires far more complexity of performance than Maxine, and that’s not a problem for Goth. In fact, it comes quite easily to the young actor, who layers on detailed subtext with each scene, and it’s not hyperbolic to say she carries the film on her back. She plumbs the depths of a psychopath, contextualizing Pearl’s upbringing and her mother Ruth’s (Tandi Wright) strict religious beliefs.
Pearl is first seen trying on one of her mother’s dresses and fantasizing herself a stage performer, far removed from the farm on which she feels suffocated. There’s a little girl wanting to love and be loved, and she’s seemingly clung to her child-like imagination and wonder. Goth slathers on that same Maxine-like innocence but with a wide-eyed depravity. While Maxine does possess a talent for erotic performance, Pearl is steeped in delusion that she’s a good dancer. She could not be more different than Maxine, yet they also have plenty in common.
With each passing day she’s trapped on the farm, Pearl descends further into madness. It initially appears through her mutilation and killing of animals, including Mister Goose and an unborn chick. It’s her way of controlling her life, made even worse as the events take place during the first world war and the Spanish Flu. Her father has been stricken with the illness and is now confined to a wheelchair. Ruth and Pearl are his caretakers, and it more than takes its toll. Their dreams are unrealized and their lives unfulfilled. “I was supposed to be his wife, not his mother,” Ruth admits.
In this pivotal scene, Pearl expresses her desires to audition to be part of a dance troupe traveling around the country. But her mother won’t hear of it. Her dreams have been squelched, so why should her daughter have the luxury of chasing hers. Unfortunate souls, they are cut from the same cloth. “The whole world’s gonna know my name,” Pearl screeches later on, shoving her mother against the mantel causing her to catch on fire. Flames consume Ruth, a symbolic way for Pearl to escape her anguish and enslavement. Years of torment leads to this very moment, as her mother becomes charred and unrecognizable on the hardwood.
Where Maxine finds strength in sex from the outset, Pearl feels invigorated in the killing. Her hunger for sex blooms from all her pent up impulses. When she befriends the ever dashing projectionist (David Corenswet), she realizes the tantalizing delight of attraction. On her way home from seeing a moving picture, she makes a pit stop in a cornfield and humps a scarecrow, climaxing in broad daylight. She’s instantly hooked. She later rolls in the hay with Corenswet’s character after watching her mother broil into brisket. Her sex and murderous acts are now tethered together, like some twisted French braid. Her misery has been absolved, and she comes to embrace the darkness that’s always been simmering below the surface.
Her mental distress and despair, much like Maxine’s, stems from the same soured roots: harsh religious homelife. They’ve been brutally ostracized and beaten down, only able to find liberation in using their bodies. Sex and murder, two ends to the same burning wick, are more alike than we care to acknowledge. Unbridled passion will make you do the craziest things.
With these two roles, Goth wonderfully captures the subtleties and nuances required for such meaty material. Both permit her to play and have fun, delving into the darkest pains and pleasures of the human experience. X is about liberation through sex, while Pearl comments on how suppressed sexuality leads to blunder一and murder in this case. Goth can do no wrong in my book, and soon enough, the whole world’s gonna know her name.
The same can be said about Jenna Ortega. Although, judging by her Insta followers一30.8 million and counting一the whole world already does. Across five standout horror-centric roles, including two brief appearances in Studio 666, the young actor has absolutely ruled 2022. Mia Goth aside, no one else reached such dizzying heights of stardom in just 12 months.
Ortega first hit my radar with her stint as Ellie on You, and while I never warmed up to the character, I knew Ortega had a tremendous amount of promise. So color me excited when she was cast in one of the leading roles in Scream’s long-awaited return. Playing the elevated-horror aficionado Tara, Ortega has such stillness to her performance style that few others possess. She can say everything without ever having to utter a single word. In the film’s opening scene, she exhibits the fear from an unwanted threatening phone call, her lip quivering and her eyes piercing the camera. As Ghostface taunts and forces her to play a game of Stab trivia, Tara flips through every single emotion, from alarm to dread, and still is able to grab a butcher’s knife to go save her friend Amber (Mikey Madison). That’s just the person she is. Tara’s a fighter, but she’s not without her own anxieties and reservations.
For all her fighting back, Tara succumbs to Ghostface’s unexplainable strength and finds herself with numerous stab wounds and a broken leg. The sheer terror plastered across her face says it all, with Ortega shattering your heart into a million little pieces. Her cries are unmistakable when you hear them, so bloodcurdling they couldn’t possibly be made by anyone else. She’s a true Scream Queen.
But her turn as Tara isn’t just about screaming. There are several scenes that demand a tremendous amount of other emotional work. When Sam (Melissa Barrera) finally arrives at the hospital, she shares a tender moment with Tara, who immediately breaks down into a waterfall of tears. “I was so scared,” she blubbers. What makes such moments carry so much weight is how grounded they are in real pain. There might be little written on the paper in terms of dialogue, but Ortega is able to make every second count for something. Later, she displays a similar throughline while Tara listens to Sam’s story about her being Billy Loomis’ (Skeet Ulrich) daughter. Her face collapses from interest to dismay, taking great care to fade one into another一until she demands her sister to “get the fuck out!” with a burst of anger.
Following two more brutal attacks, including one in Stu Macher’s old house, now owned by Amber’s parents, Tara’s arc comes full circle. After beating Amber with a crutch, Amber throws her across a sofa and knocks her unconscious. She’s seemingly out of commission for the rest of the film. That is, until Amber resurrects from being caught on fire and brandishes a knife, rushing to the front foyer to stab Sam. A single shot cuts through Amber’s screams and hits her in the back of the head. “I still prefer The Babadook,” mutters Tara. She’s visibly shaken and traumatized by the night’s events, tears welling up behind the eyes. And Ortega delivers the line with such gravitas that it rings as loudly as the bullet. The moment not only completes her character but punctuates the film’s self-referential tone. With Scream VI coming in March 2023, it’ll be fascinating to see what fresh ideas Ortega brings to the table; and I’m sure it’ll be just as captivating.
Tara stands in stark contrast to Wednesday Addams, the central character in Netflix’s spooky Wednesday series. Having taken fencing and cello lessons twice a week, Ortega prepared for the role as all great actors do. The iconic role一previously played by Lisa Loring in the ‘60s sitcom, Christina Ricci in The Addams Family and Addams Family Values, and Nicole Fugere in Addams Family Reunion一finds new vitality in Ortega’s performance. She even walked around the set as Wednesday to really live and breathe the physicality. That’s how dedicated she was.
With strong Rotten Tomatoes scores, the show clearly connects with people. Perhaps it’s her kooky, ooky nature, or maybe the venomous way she zings people with one-liners about how their lives have no real meaning or purpose, or threatens to smother them in their sleep. It all works because of Ortega’s deadpan readings, often feeling detached but always razor sharp. Like when she says color makes the skin melt from her bones, upon meeting her Nevermore Academy roommate Enid (Emma Myers). Her eyes are penetrating and dark, and it seems she can see right into your soul. Later, when taking therapy sessions with Dr. Kinbott (Riki Lindhome), she exudes rigid iciness that digs into the brain. It’s almost as though Ortega was born for and destined to take on the role; it fits her like a glove. Now, it’s inconceivable to imagine anyone else in the role. I’m sure Christina Ricci is proud.
Throughout the series (I’m still waiting on that second season renewal, to be honest), Ortega fills every frame and commands attention. The room seems to shrink in front of her imposing presence. While the majority of the performance relies on the robotic Wednesday signatures, there are glimmers of other emotions. The one that comes to mind is when she discovers Thing (Victor Dorobantu) has been stabbed, and she takes her companion to Uncle Fester (Fred Armisen), who attempts to use the power of electricity as a defibrillator. The efforts are initially futile, and the look across Wednesday’s face cracks, the impersonal façade crumbling to real vulnerability. As with Tara, Ortega brings such stillness to the role that it’s far more powerful than emotional blowouts. In the quiet, she detonates her innermost thoughts, transferring the character through her eyes and flourishes of expression.
Ortega is a vision when it comes to her performance style. It’s also present with her role as Camila in the pointed social satire American Carnage, a horror/comedy blend about immigration and governmental cruelty. She serves only a secondary role in the overall story, yet you can feel her presence even when the camera pans elsewhere. With little to say, she draws attention but only when scenes demand it. Such charisma serves her well in playing the sharp-tongued daughter of an undocumented immigrant, detained in a facility to care for the elderly. When a sinister plan is revealed, her hard-coated exterior toughens and Ortega doubles-up into combat mode to save the day.
Conversely, in Ti West’s X, Ortega plays introverted church mouse Lorraine, girlfriend to filmmaker RJ (Owen Campbell). She’s religious, as denoted with her cross necklace, and has seen little beyond those four walls. She calls RJ’s new film “smut,” to which RJ asks, “When did you become such a prude?” She’s a reserved character, an innocence radiating from her bones, and judgmental. She’s never seen anything like porn, and it soon casts her into a hypnotic state. In many ways, she’s much like Mia Goth’s Pearl, only in that sexual liberation soon leads into self-actualization. In a crucial scene, Lorraine asserts that she wants to do a scene in the movie, much to her boyfriend’s vexation. “I did like what I saw today,” she says. Her world has opened up and endless possibilities abound. But where Maxine’s sexual ways are her strength, Lorraine’s are her downfall. She ends up a lamb to the slaughter, eventually locked in the basement in which she releases a mountain-shaking, full-chest scream. Ortega once again captures the full wave of terror in a single breath, or several as she later screams for help after having her fingers shot off by a shotgun-toting Howard. “I hate you so much!” she yells at Maxine, before darting out the front door and being blown to smithereens. The scope of Ortega’s work is a marvel to behold. The range! The screams! The tears!
Speaking of tears, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention Ortega’s mind-blowing performance as Vada in “The Fallout,” a drama about a school shooting and the aftermath. It’s not horror, per se, but it’s horror ripped straight out of the headlines. During class, Vada receives a 9-1-1 text from her sister Amelia (Lumi Pollack), who has just gotten her period and freaks out. Vada goes to the bathroom to call her and meets Mia (Maddie Ziegler), an influencer and fellow student, and the two chat about makeup.
The camera sits in the scene for a moment before shots can be heard pinging down the hallways. Then, there’s chilling screams and more bullets. Vada and Mia bolt into a nearby stall and hunker over the toilet. Ortega masterfully taps into the fear that one only feels under such dire circumstances; the very idea that today could be her last day on earth shoots through her bloodstream. Throughout the rest of the film, Vada descends into a flurry of drugs, booze, and sex to numb the pain and avoid confronting her trauma. But through various therapy sessions with Anna (Shailene Woodley), she dismantles her pain brick by brick until she reveals that she feels anger the most. Anger that a murderer messed up her life “so bad” in just six minutes. Her friendship with Nick (Will Ropp) never recovers from that ill-fated day, and they drift apart. But her friendship with Mia blossoms from their shared trauma.
Ortega transmits trauma, fear, anger, sadness, and joy through the screen with wonderful ease. In whatever role she tackles, from Wednesday Addams to Lorraine in X, she understands the assignment and delivers complex and empathetic characters. 2022 is not only a banner year for her but it solidifies her place as one of the greatest performers of her generation. I predict she’ll be a force within the industry for many years to come.
I can’t fathom what horror would have been like in 2022 without Jenna Ortega and Mia Goth. Both demonstrated depth of performance with commitment and determination, turning in several of the genre’s all-time best performances. Whether it’s that legendary end-credits scene with Goth gazing through the camera lens or Ortega screaming her lungs out, we were blessed with a plentiful bounty. Something shifted this year, and I reckon it was largely due to their bold, probing work. With 2022 now in our rearview, it’s time to look ahead. The future looks even brighter for horror, and I for one can’t wait to see what they do next. I’m sure I’ll be blown away again and again and again.