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Great Moments in Horror Actressing

by Jason Adams

Howdy folks and say howdy-do to my brand new series here at TFE, "Great Moments in Horror Actressing". I'll be smashing together my favorite things (horror movies) with your favorite things (actresses). We'll focus in on great women giving the scary movies that little oomph of something extra. I'm just going to be lasering in on little moments, scenes, flourishes that I find especially special -- the pieces that make the big scary whole all the sweeter. Or sourer, as the case will probably more often be, given the genre. 

First up, Vera Farmiga in Orphan (2009). Jaume Collet-Serra's horror film about an orphan (Isabelle Furhman) just looking for a home, no matter the cost, is celebrating its 10th anniversary this week. It's a truly astounding box of shocks that's managed to retain its ability to jaw-drop a full decade later. But for all its third act reveals that I still can't believe they got away with, and the titular mind-blowing performance, the film packs such a visceral punch as its bottom drops out because of the sound emotional foundation Vera Farmiga set up in its opening scenes...

After a gross-out opening nightmare sequence which ramps every pregnant woman's worst fears up to eleven (maybe even twelve) we spend a little time getting to know Kate (Farmiga), who's lost a baby and battled alcohol addiction to just barely come out on the other side wobbly but sober and alive. In the grand tradition of horror movie characterization dumps this all comes real fast and hard, over the course of a couple of minutes, but Farmiga gets us caring about this obviously still unwell woman with great ease.

... those icy eyes of hers have the uncanny ability to somehow transmit decency and warmth and utter awesome terror all at once.

Kate shifts awkwardly, a jangle of elbows and knees and too long pauses, under the glare of her therapist (Margo Martindale, holla), and she kisses her precocious deaf daughter a little too hard and a lot too often -- motherly desperation radiating from Kate in waves. This woman was ripe for the plucking -- an easy mark. But already we care, we care as desperately, that Kate will find her way towards the light again. Farmiga, big blues up, finds that light every damn time.  .

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Reader Comments (29)

Farmiga brings so much to this role,she is almost Ellen Burtsyn in The Exorcist level.

Thanks JA so good to read about horror actressing,

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered Commentermarkgordonuk

I feel like Farmiga is basically tasked with spinning straw into gold all the goddamn time. She's so freaking good in everything and the movies she's in don't deserve her.

PLEASE write about Shelley Duvall.

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeter

I CAN'T WAIT for you to talk about Drew Barrymore in Scream! It is one of the top 5 performances of her career and not only one of the best opening 10 minutes of all time, but one of the best openings of a movie ever!!

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBhuray

Welp, I have to finally watch Orphan then. Didn’t know Vera killed it as you say. And @Bhuray, fully 100% agree; THAT is how you open a GD horror movie.

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterkris01

Terrific piece. Can’t wait for more

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMichael Cusumano

I know this is a great piece because I wanted the article to be longer. Really excited about this series.

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPoliVamp

@Peter - "spinning straw into gold" is a wonderful description of her. Well spoken.

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJames from Ames

2009 was the year that introduced Vera Farmiga to me with Orphan and Up in the Air. I remember being so impressed with her in Orphan (and the movie in general) that I found myself seeking out her films from there on out. I’ll agree with the previous commenter that she simply elevates everything she’s in even if the movie is weak.

I’m going to need to take another look at Orphan and see if it holds up a decade later. I really thought it was fantastic back in 2009 landing in my Top 15 for the year.

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJHR

Definitely an unsung performance. Farmiga is under appreciated in general. I hope you can cover Liv Tyler in The Strangers. She was absolute aces in that.

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMorgan (the 1st)

I hope to read your take on The Iron Lady.

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPeggy Sue

Great idea for a series! Look forward to more...

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterSteve G

I love this! can't wait for more.

July 22, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRyan

Please, please, please write about Zohra Lampert’s performance in LET’S SCARE JESSICA TO DEATH for this series.

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRoger

I hope Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane is mentioned. Also the women in two French horror masterpieces ;- Martyrs and Haute Tension.

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterBette Streep

Yay, Jason Adams! I hope your new series lasts a long time. And that you will consider lesser-known but stellar performances from actresses like Zohra Lampert in Let's Scare Jessica to Death and Alex Essoe in Starry Eyes.

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

The best female performance in an horror film of all-time: Jodie Foster in The Silence of The Lambs. Please write about it (again).

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

1 - Jodie Foster, The Silence of The Lambs
2 - Catherine Deneuve, Repulsion
3 - Mia Farrow, Rosemary's Baby
4 - Deborah Kerr, The Innocents
5 - Sissy Spacker, Carrie
6 - Drew Barrymore, Scream
7 - Belén Rueda, El Orfanato
8 - Kathy Bates, Misery
9 - Ellen Burstyn, The Exorcist
10 - Shelley Duvall, The Shining

I wish I could include Isuzu Yamada in Kurosawa's Throne of Blood. Of course it's Shakespeare, but she plays her Lady MacBeth like she was in a horror movie.

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered Commentercal roth

Will we treat Alien like a horror movie?

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterH

Thanks everybody for the recs! I love all the performances you've named and hope to get to each and every one eventually.

And yes H, Alien is most certainly a horror movie. I'm actually super loose with calling things horror films -- I have the opposite problem of most critics, who always want to call things "thrillers" or "elevated" or whatever to get away from the word "horror" -- I'll slap HORROR on everything. I expect that to be the place where I annoy most of you, who'll call some of my chocies questionable in that regard. We'll see!

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJason

Three other wonderful performances I hafto mention: Virginia Madsen in Candyman, Nicole Kidman in The Others, and Kika Magalhaes in The Eyes of My Mother.

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

Mia Farrow in Rosemary's Baby is the Gold Standard.

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterken s.

The original Alien was a horror movie in outer space. Weaver wasn't a brave choice as the hero but the final girl.

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered Commenter/3rtful

loved this spotlight on great acting in over-looked genre films i hope Essie Davis for The Babadook will be on your list.

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterLadyEdith

Oh, I am even more interested in that I include more things in Horror than most, but still exclude a few noteworthy films (Silence of the Lambs? Not a horror film IMO). Love to see what off-kilter inclusions you bring in, Jason.

And while we are listing great performances, I hope you also hit some less-heralded ones like JoBeth Williams in Poltergeist or Julianne Moore in the Carrie remake - ones that don't traditionally make the Top 10 lists and don't have small-but-vocal champions like Zohra Lampert. Then again, horror as a genre has so many excellent performances that this series could run for YEARS without hitting all of the truly great ones.

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterPoliVamp

@PoliVamp Jobeth Williams was phenomenal in Poltergeist, agree.

One more and I'll stop: Robin McLeavy in The Loved Ones. A genuinely scary performance of a seriously twisted woman.

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterRob

I forgot she was in this movie- which has very creepy villain

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterJaragon

And let’s not forget Essie Davis in The Babadook (dir. Jennifer Kent/2014).

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterCraig

Look forward to more of this. Orphan was terrific horror.

July 23, 2019 | Unregistered Commenterforever1267

A vote for Belén Rueda in The Orphanage (2007) -superb actress.

July 24, 2019 | Unregistered CommenterMuriel

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