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The best way I can describe the past year is as a year of trend shifts in the film zeitgeist. In a film environment where the most popular discussions often revolved around the never-ending slate of superhero blockbusters (and Martin Scorsese’s opinions on them for some reason), 2023 positioned itself as a time of change in the film industry.
Between the struggles faced by once-dominant cape flicks to break even at the box office and the SAG-AFTRA/WGA strikes being at the forefront of industry shakeups into awards season, 2023 has been a year of unlikely and/or unusual success stories for off-kilter genre movies.
In 2023 alone, we bore witness to a horror game adaptation outperforming superhero movies from both Marvel and DC, video game movies in general overtaking the conversation surrounding films and of course, the Barbenheimer double feature born from a meme before blossoming into two of the most successful films of the year. The rules for success and creative liberation have seemingly changed overnight.
With these changes have arrived a slew of horror projects that have been afforded the opportunity to shine in an environment friendlier towards left-field artistic endeavors, complete with both new and familiar faces in the horror genre bringing their A-game. It was honestly a struggle to narrow down the group of performances that warranted extra attention and no matter which ones are omitted, rest assured that 2023 was a year brimming with outstanding performances in the horror genre.
The performances listed are a mixture of dramatic turns, darkly comedic side-splitters, and the scenery-chewing wonders that come with animalistic monster turns. Some familiar faces and some new blood destined for bright (and bloody) futures in the industry. Now this list will NOT include the performances from television shows and will focus specifically on horror film performances, but let’s not let that take away from the brilliance we’ve seen in the genre from all mediums in 2023. Now without further ado, let’s get going!
15. Judah Lewis – Suitable Flesh
Taking the out-of-body experience and manifesting that into a literal demonic curse, director Joe Lynch and writer Dennis Paoli filmed Suitable Flesh as both a gonzo adaptation of H.P. Lovecraft’s The Thing on the Doorstep and a spiritual successor to Stuart Gordon’s own 1980s Lovecraft adaptations. A delightfully weird hybrid between a story on a woman experiencing a new sexual awakening amidst a sudden affair and a blood-soaked body-swap horror-comedy, Suitable Flesh’s body swap premise makes way for the actors to give whiplash-inducing performances, the most notable being that of Judah Lewis.
Perhaps most well-known as the rapping sibling to Olivia DeJonge in M. Night Shyamalan’s The Visit, Lewis has been quietly carving his name in the annals of horror over the years and in Lynch’s Lovecraft adaptation, he is given the chance to impress alongside the likes of Heather Graham and Barbara Crampton. With a performance floating between a naïve and cynical boy fearing for his life and an arrogantly dangerous killer, Lewis’s body swap shifts are seamlessly effective in establishing the film’s balance of goopy horror and darkly hilarious laughs.
By no means a newcomer, it was still a welcome surprise to see a young star like Lewis hold his own against established genre veterans in Graham and Crampton while making it look like a walk in the park. This could be due to Lewis’s character being given the freest rein by swapping bodies the most frequently. Regardless, Lewis puts in the work to make each shift feel natural and distinct and in a just world, this would be only the beginning of Lewis showcasing his developing talents as an actor to pay attention to.
14. Dewayne Perkins – The Blackening
Sometimes what I look for in a horror film isn’t necessarily a performance that digs deep into complex emotions that encourage me to gain a new perspective on life. For a horror-comedy like Tim Story’s social horror satire The Blackening, I just need to see the cast being in tune with the film’s tone, regardless of how over-the-top it seems even in-universe. Enter Dewayne Perkins: comedian, writer, producer, and one of the original minds behind the comedy short of The Blackening that first released in 2018. As part of the improv group 3Peat, Perkins helped helm a gut-busting satire of Black characters in horror films and the tropes that they always seemed destined to repeat by a never-ending carousel of writers struggling to giving Black characters agency and intelligence in the genre.
Come 2023 and that comedy short has been adapted into a full-length feature film co-written by and co-starring Perkins as one in a group of friends hunted by masked killers testing them on their “Blackness.” Being the brainchild of him and 3Peat, it’s immediately evident how much the Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Amber Ruffin Show writer cares about the material and that bleeds into his infectious howler of a performance.
Being the gay friend in the group, Perkins is given the freedom to be the unfiltered friend unafraid to give his opinions on one’s love life and his disapproval for formerly problematic exes. We’re gifted a scathingly funny performance from a comedian who knows full well when to tap into his sharp comedic wit to level out the various chase scenes. For some, that may make for a horror-comedy that severely lacks the horror portion. But I believe Perkins’ brisk, mile-a-minute performance is THE defining quality of The Blackening and a hilarious encapsulation of the film’s subversion of Black horror tropes.
13. Joe Bird – Talk to Me
If ever I envisioned a powerfully honest and visceral horror story that doubles as an allegory against the destructive waves caused by addiction, I wouldn’t have connected that hypothetical story with YouTubers most well-known for comedic skits of Ronald McDonald being a hyperviolent and psychopathic menace to society. Alas, Danny and Michael Philippou from RackaRacka have thrown their name into the bucket hat of A24 breakouts with their stunning debut feature, Talk to Me.
Telling the story of unfortunate kids coming across and having too much fun with a mysterious hand that can briefly possess them with spirits from the dead, Talk to Me hinges the acting from the young Australian cast partially on a framing device like Suitable Flesh by allowing them to shift from humanistic to otherworldly creatures at the drop of a dime. Most of the shifts lead to terrifyingly versatile performances from the cast, but Joe Bird uses his limited screentime to impress with a wildly different and traumatic turn as a young boy in way over his head amid the older kids in the possession parties.
Bird’s performance reeks of curiosity by seeing his older sister’s friends messing around with the strange hand and talking in weird voices. There is a real innocence to Bird’s performance that is extremely genuine for a modern supernatural flick. It’s that innocence that makes his possession scene an all-time downer and if I’m honest, the biggest reason as to why he’s on this list. His gradual deterioration from a chill and curious boy into a decaying and self-harming spirit of vengeance is both tragic and horrifying and even if you haven’t seen the film yet, find the clip of his possession and be blown away (if you’re not wincing at the head-banging).
12. Hadley Robinson – Appendage
When I was finally fortunate enough to buy the beloved cult classic Basket Case, it became apparent how little we see this level of hammy horror-comedy nowadays without an air of cynical self-deprecation. Even the modern action-horror reimagining of this film that James Wan gifted us with Malignant doesn’t fully embrace its b-horror qualities until the third act. But if there’s a film this year that’s come close to doing so, Anna Zlokovic’s Appendage comfortably fits the bill.
Adapted from her 2021 horror short of the same name starring this year’s Bottoms star Rachel Sennott, the feature adaptation trades in Sennott for Hadley Robinson from Winning Time: The Rise of the Lakers Dynasty as a budding fashion designer whose life gets flipped around when a birthmark on her stomach begins to morph into a separate living being. Such an unusual premise is primed for ridicule, but Appendage succeeds largely due to Robinson’s committed dual performance.
Portraying both her and her sinister doppelganger, Robinson carries the material with a commanding, yet calming presence for the first half. Through the increased stress from work and her love life, Robinson pulls of the tricky balancing act of selling both the unusual camp of the horror-comedy premise and a real sense of isolation many feel balancing their social and work lives. Adding to that is Robinson’s slow descent into otherworldly chaos in the second half and Appendage transforms into a frantic showcase for her talents as a hilarious and appropriately dramatic performer. We may not have been gifted with the version that would’ve seen Sennott reprising her role for the feature, but it was a necessary move if it meant we got Hadley Robinson’s crazy fun double duty performance from it.
11. Judy Reyes – Birth/Rebirth
In the vein of Pet Sematary, the Shudder original Birth/Rebirth tackles the themes of reincarnation and the consequences of manipulating the very concepts of life and death. In this case, our story focuses on a young girl dying after a sudden illness and being reincarnated by her mother (played by Judy Reyes) and an antisocial morgue technician (Marin Ireland). Both stories play around with the idea that with reincarnation comes the perversion of the soul, but Birth/Rebirth approaches this theme through means of medical science and the limits it can surpass despite its increasingly unstable foundation.
But with the film combining technical procedure with body horror, it was up to the actors to provide emotional weight to the story and Judy Reyes is undoubtedly the standout in this field. Reyes’ grief being shown through her near-stoic demeanor in the first 20 minutes is uncomfortably real and she pulls off trauma-ridden mother incredibly well. It’s this connection that allows Reyes to expand the ethos in her performance as she begins partaking in the slow process of reteaching her reborn daughter and forming an unlikely bond with the distant and cold technician played by an also superb Marin Ireland.
Even as the film’s science becomes increasingly muddled and the tone gradually shifts, Reyes never loses sight of the priority to her character: that being a mother willing to go to any length to save her daughter. As these lengths begin pushing moral boundaries, it’s Reyes’ skill as an emotive performer that handles the character change so seamlessly. Never the kind to box her character into areas of black and white, I think Reyes’ performance needs the spotlight that many other actors are receiving both in and out of the horror genre. An underseen gem housing a hidden powerhouse in Judy Reyes.
10. Cassandra Naud – Influencer
I often roll my eyes when I come across a genre film trying its hand at social commentary regarding social media. “Are we prisoners to our phones? Are we slaves to the algorithm and artificial likes?” It’s a tired trope at this day and age, especially when the themes are about as deep as the kiddie pool. Color me pleasantly surprised when director Kurtis David Harder and actress Cassandra Naud paired up for the slick, stylish, and twisty social media horror-thriller Influencer.
A story of a vacation gone wrong and one ambitious (and dangerous) crook with a deft hand at understanding social media, Influencer pinpoints its critique of social media on the idea of the online persona and how easily we can be manipulated to believe anything accounts will say on the internet. Cassandra Naud takes advantage of this and quickly shifts her initial persona of a chill free spirit into a cunning, vindictive, and selfishly evil leech with frightening ease.
Watching Naud shift personas on a dime and trying desperately to keep her wits about her is an absolute riot and she pulls off manipulative killer with a morbid charm to boot. Elevated by a strong script, Naud understands the nature of the film’s themes perfectly in how careful she is with constructing her false online identity. Furthermore, she is quite fitting of the unlikely killer mold and with her persona being based around the stolen identity of a lifestyle influencer, it’s both entertaining and disheartening to see Naud’s killer performance hinges on her ability to manipulate and lie.
9. Paula Luchsinger – El Conde
For how consistently politicians are compared to blood-sucking parasites draining the livelihoods of their communities, I was still drawn to the unique premise of El Conde presented by Jackie and Spencer director Pablo Larraín. A revisionist vampire horror-comedy based on the life (or afterlife, if you prefer) of Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet, the infamous ruler is reimagined as a literal vampire on his last legs as his greedy adult children plot his murder for all his fortune gathered over the course of centuries. To help them in their plot is a French nun going undercover as an auditor to get close to and kill Pinochet through an exorcism. In short, this is best compared to a Chilean horror adaptation of Succession.
Like Succession, El Conde is carried by the strength of its stunning ensemble, sans even a single weak performance among the cast. Standing head-and-shoulders above the rest is Chilean actress Paula Luchsinger as the nun assassin in disguise. A young, wide-eyed woman of faith, her priorities could not be any less aligned with the money-hungry family and she is unflinching in her hatred towards the Pinochets. The highlights of her performance include various interviews with the family and her ability to barely conceal her seething hatred for the family manifests in multiple moments of her smiling while saying the most insulting things towards the family.
With such a large and frankly putrid cast of characters taking centerstage, Luchsinger is the breath of fresh air El Conde needs. Her needlepoint barbs towards the family are hidden under a timid, kindly, and sufficient woman and Luchsinger is truly the actor holding this sprawling story of generational tyranny together. Even as her mission begins to change her, Luchsinger is careful to guide us through her arc of questioning her faith with delicate precision. A strong showcase in a film whose director is known for directing Oscar-nominated performances, I hope that Paula Luchsinger’s assassin nun undercover gets similar treatment.
8. Dave Bautista – Knock at the Cabin
What a bonkers journey Dave Bautista has gone on. From entertaining wrestling audiences worldwide as one of the marquee performers of WWE’s Ruthless Aggression era to his seamless transition to A-list stardom in Hollywood, Bautista has proven to be a success story of hard work and perseverance in an industry that is downright cruel to ex-wrestlers. Many find it difficult to live a life post-wrestling and Bautista has been fortunate enough to work with directors like James Gunn, Sam Mendes, Rian Johnson, Denis Villeneuve, and now M. Night Shyamalan in a career-best performance for the apocalyptic horror-thriller Knock at the Cabin.
An adaptation of Paul G. Tremblay’s novel The Cabin at the End of the World, Shyamalan’s new chiller concerns a potential apocalypse as a couple and their daughter are held hostage by four strangers who fear that the end of the world is imminent if one of them doesn’t sacrifice themselves. Leading the charge is Bautista in his most sensitive and tender performance to date and that is despite him being a giant, imposing man with a weapon.
Bautista’s acting is alarming in its ability to ease one into a weird sense of comfort. He is clearly horrified at what he feels he must do and it’s a disarming performance that always leads to a surprise when he resorts to violence. Bautista practically being at the point of tears throughout the course of the movie is mighty impressive when letting go and sobbing is the easier choice to do onscreen. Bautista plays a giant man willing to kill to achieve his goals and yet it stands as his finest and most nuanced performance to date.
7. Lily Sullivan – Evil Dead Rise
While the Evil Dead series is infamously notable for its chaotic mix of gory violence and campy gallows humor, I feel many don’t appreciate how much the franchise has thrived as an actor’s showcase. The possessed of the Evil Dead series have a penchant for saying the most out-of-pocket shit imaginable while finding new ways to maim and possess their victims. The franchise has been a breeding ground for iconic horror performances from the likes of Bruce Campbell and Jane Levy.
Lily Sullivan is the most recent addition to that prestigious list in Lee Cronin’s Evil Dead Rise. Moving from the isolated horror of the cabin to a dark and cramped apartment, the Book of the Dead is found this time by the son of a family headed by a single mom. Sullivan as the sister to the mom leads the charge here and in the echelon of final girls in horror, she more than delivers despite being stabbed, hit, thrown around and cheese grated.
As an expecting mother on her own, Sullivan gradually adds layers to her cool and badass impromptu demon killer role while still maintaining a level of fear to sell the horror inside the apartment. A performance that is both ferocious and touching at times, Sullivan’s emotive strengths only serve to compliment her demanding physicality when the demons really start to let loose. If this is a one-and-done, it’d be more than fitting to end her arc here, but I personally relish the idea of Sullivan revving the chainsaw once again.
6. Kaitlyn Dever – No One Will Save You
When movies depict alien invasions, they’re often placed in stories that call for a large ensemble cast to carry the action and drama. Not a surprise considering the global implications of aliens openly invading the planet. No One Will Save You approaches a potential invasion through the eyes of one person: a silent social pariah played Kaitlyn Dever. After a tragic incident, she has been branded an outcast and the girl mainly keeps to herself and her 1950s Americana-styled home.
A loner as a result, she doesn’t say a single word in the film and Dever is tasked with making a likable protagonist in an alien movie that is entirely dependent on her facial and physical performance. Dever succeeds with flying colors, lacing her somber life with spurts of isolated happiness when she’s away from people and before one particular alien starts to lurk around her property. With no words, Dever communicates years of loneliness and the longing for human connection before going into full-fledged survivor mode.
The device of the silent protagonist is something of a lost art in the world of film nowadays. They’re not extinct by any means, but modern films seem to have trouble keeping audiences’ attention when their leads are forced to not quip or state their feelings without a hint of subtlety. In Dever’s case, the use of flashbacks certainly helps to inform her character, but it’s up to her to sell the backstory to us and her expert use of emotions and body language seals the deal. Whether she’s dancing to music on her lonesome or fighting for her life against an alien, Dever is there to make me believe every emotion along the way.
5. Tobin Bell – Saw X
As soon as Tobin Bell popped up in the trailer for the latest Saw movie and it WASN’T a drawn-out flashback, I knew then that movies were back. Saw is a fascinating franchise in that audiences have collectively agreed that it’s jumped the shark several times and devolved into a convoluted horror soap opera. But the one constant in every film (sans Spiral) was Tobin Bell, the face of John Kramer himself. Whatever messy plotline each entry was knee-deep in, it was a guarantee that any scene involving Bell – present time or flashback – would be a highlight.
In Saw X’s case, the film thrives for Bell in top billing as the actual main character in his first lead Saw role since 3 (and even that’s a messy ensemble). But rather than solely spout out his catchphrases or his delusional sense of moral justice, Bell gives Kramer actual depth as a man in desperate need of saving his life. When Kramer’s cancer diagnosis leads him to be scammed in Mexico by crooked “doctors,” we get to see him processing his imminent death and the hope he once had for his future fizzles away.
Saw X is home to what is far and away Tobin Bell’s best performance as Kramer, giving depth to the horror icon beyond moral posturing. Bell’s solemn look as he sees his victims try and fail to win the sadistic games makes way for a Kramer that truly believes he values life and his performance is tragic, yet beautiful in some regard. Bell gives Kramer the humanity he has lacked for years in the movies and though that doesn’t stop them from being overly complicated messes, it gives me hope that future movies allow him to showcase his dramatic chops.
Honestly, he’s this high on the list just for his reaction to the “procedure” after waking up. Who would want to piss off a guy who looks THAT relieved to be alive?
4. Aime Donald/Jenna Davis – M3GAN
Yeah, this is a 2-for-1 deal that’s technically contradicting the “15” in the title of this list. But in the case of the slasher horror-comedy M3GAN, the work needed to bring the killer doll to life was brought about through two different performances working in tandem. Without the hard work from one side, the other would simply crumble. For the physicality of the super doll created in-universe as a companion/unofficial babysitter for children of busy parents, that was the work of New Zealand dancer Aime Donald.
Tasked to give an unsettling humanity to the overgrown doll, Donald sways and shuffles with just enough stiffness to sell the idea of a doll that grows more emotive and intelligent by the day. Just enough childish mannerisms while also imposing on others with her robotic tendencies, especially when her rampage reaches a boiling point in the second half. The now-iconic dance sequence and moments of genuinely outstanding physicality – such as her rise from the ground without the use of her arms and running on all fours – are examples of peak physical acting and we have the talented New Zealand dancer to thank for that.
Accompanying the physical performance is budding actress and Tik Tok influencer Jenna Davis giving M3GAN her spunky vocal work. Sounding like an increasingly intelligent AI that just so happens to sound like a regular child is horrifically disarming. M3GAN’s change in personality into a deceiving being of destruction is sold perfectly thanks to Davis’s happy-go-lucky vocals shifting into a cold killer relishing in the chaos. As soon as I heard Davis’s voice answer “Are you sure?” to the order of turning herself off, I knew we’d be in for all-timer slasher performance and luckily for us, we have both her and Donald to thank for the memes and phenomenal final product.
3. Adam Lundgren – The Conference
Isn’t it telling that whenever we get movies following workers on a work retreat, they seem to be centered in the horror genre? We have Christopher Smith’s Severance, the main cast for Final Destination 5, and hailing from Sweden is the latest exercise in lampooning corporate work BS: The Conference. As the work retreat for a company that is planning to bulldoze a small community in favor of a mall in development is interrupted by a faceless killer that starts hunting them down, I was immediately down for some good old-fashioned slasher mayhem.
I not only got that, but a GEM of a performance in the form of Adam Lundgren. Playing the stereotypical work suck-up who reaps the benefits of favoritism from his clueless boss, Lundgren emulates that sniveling co-worker to a tee. Heightened superiority from being the boss’s favorite, a cheerleader for his company despite the many issues plaguing it, and a level of condescending snide that oozes off him with each smirk and side-eye. In many ways, he’s just as much the villain as the actual killer.
This made for a vastly more interesting dynamic than I was expecting when the kills ramped up. Lundgren’s performance is frantic and comically evil as his worst traits intensify with the mayhem. What could be more dangerous than a killer? How about a selfishly short-sighted ball of simmering rage and insecurity looking out purely for himself? It’s hysterical watching him come undone as the events of the night – from his co-workers discovering his true intentions within the company to a killer picking them off one by one – slowly break him and it made for one of the most unexpectedly fantastic villainous performances of 2023. A perfect encapsulation of why work lapdogs are the worst.
2. Sophie Wilde – Talk to Me
I have already said my piece regarding Joe Bird’s emotionally investing performance even with his limited screentime. But fortunately for the film, it was in more than capable hands in Sophie Wilde. Leading the proceedings as a grieving teenager who finds solace in the activity of summoning and being possessed by ghosts, going so far as to let her friend’s brother (the aforementioned Bird) try it out. A girl so consumed by both grief and isolation from her father that she lets this weird game spiral out of control.
It’s a bonkers premise that feels as though it could easily fall into the area of campy b-horror, but Sophie Wilde’s tremendous lead performance gives the story a heightened sense of emotional fragility that it needs. Wilde carries herself as fun-loving girl who is happy to be anywhere but home, capturing the reality of depression at such a young age. A depression that spirals her into a new world of horrors that she can’t even begin to comprehend. Wilde stumbling through incident after incident while failing to understand the true nature of her mother’s death is heartbreaking and her performance benefits all the more from it.
But this is still a horror film and Wilde’s acting chops are truly put to the test in the possession sequences. Having to briefly act as completely different characters and all while tied down to a chair no less is a difficult feat. Sophie Wilde makes it look so clean as she shifts from persona to persona. Regular teenager to giddy spirit wanting to break out. It’s so seamless and combined with the emotional weight of the second half, we are gifted with a genuine breakout star performance from one of the brightest actors working today. Never catch her commanding you to run.
1. Alyssa Sutherland – Evil Dead Rise
“Mommy’s with the maggots now.”
As I mentioned, the Evil Dead series is an extremely actor-friendly franchise that is the breeding ground for iconic showcases and wonderful final girls. We had Lily Sullivan filling in the shoes of Evil Dead Rise’s final girl, but an anchor like that can’t survive on its own. The opposition must be equally capable in bringing their A-game and in an Evil Dead movie, that needs an actor who is willing to completely transform themselves to strengthen immersion and sell the drama and horror of the supernatural antics.
Enter Alyssa Sutherland. The former Australian model hasn’t had a ton of experience with acting, but has had a string of roles peppered throughout the 2000s and 2010s. Until now, her most prominent role was in the historical drama series Vikings. But now she transitions away from Nordic duties to Deadite shenanigans as the mother of the family that is the first and most prominent possession of the film. Before her possession, she comes across as a likable and cool mom having to deal with possibly being evicted and yet hardly ever letting up for the sake of her kids. Wholesome stuff really.
All that tender wholesomeness flies out the window as Sutherland digs into her inner beast to give arguably(?) the best Deadite performance in the Evil Dead franchise, matching the viciousness of Jane Levy’s 2013 stunner. An eclectic mixture of vile and snarky, Sutherland’s Deadite revels in the barbaric torturing of her family and much of that comes from the Aussie’s talents for enduring heavy makeup to give the prosthetics true weight to them. Sutherland sells the deterioration of her body and soul with a mixture of panic and sadistic glee as her real self fades away and the demon comes out to play.
No mincing of words here, but Sutherland is a revelation in Evil Dead Rise. Her modeling past giving her the ability to walk and shuffle around in a strangely elegant manner. The intense emotions etched into her face as the Deadite toys around with her victims. Mouthing off the most putrid and darkly hilarious one-liners and most importantly of all, Sutherland selling the idea of a real person trapped underneath the demonic surface. In a just world, Alyssa Sutherland would be in year-end conversations across all genres in film for 2023, but either way I am more than confident in calling her monstrously outstanding work in Evil Dead Rise to be the best horror film performance of the year.
What were your favorite performances of 2023 from the horror genre? Any that I overlooked? Sound off below!