The freedom that horror is given to explore the deepest, darkest corners of the human psyche is what brings its greatest value. Ever since I watched Zulawski’s 1981 film Possession, I have been obsessed with finding films with performances of the same caliber. For this list, I watched a ton of movies to find what I was looking for. It wasn’t enough that someone had to be a little insane - I wanted a performance pulled from somewhere deep, real, and disturbing. However these women achieved that - and whether those methods were ethical - is up for debate. Whether they were pushed, forced, tortured, or blessed, their performances are worth checking out for those who love a little bit of a psychological nightmare.
Bette Davis - Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?
1962, Directed by Robert Aldrich, Written by Lukas Heller (NR)
As a young person, my introduction to Bette Davis was unfortunately through a Kim Carnes song from 1981. My second introduction was through Whatever Happened to Baby Jane and Davis’ performance hasn’t left my mind since. The academy took notice and threw her a Best Actress nomination which was well-deserved. Davis plays Baby Jane, a former child star and spinster living with her paraplegic sister played by Joan Crawford. Perhaps too true to real life, we watch Baby Jane descend further into madness as she ages, refusing to let her glory days go and mistreating her sister. Even juicier, the conflict between sisters is palpable. “It was an open secret that Davis and Crawford loathed each other, and filming was contentious as their real-life hatred for one another spilled over into the production, and even after filming had wrapped.” This movie is an absolute must for horror fans or old film fanatics and is one of my favourite examples of a truly cracked mind. Her meltdown moment comes while singing “I’ve Written a Letter to Daddy”, the song that brought her childhood fame. Baby Jane catches her face in the mirror and seems to recognize and comprehend her age for the first time. Bette Davis’ haunting visage comes to mind at the most inopportune moments thanks to that iconic moment.
Natalie Portman - Black Swan
2010, Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Written by Mark Heyman & Andres Heinz (R)
Natalie Portman’s performance in Black Swan left me breathless. Portman plays a ballet dancer desperate to make a name for herself by playing the lead role in Swan Lake. Her inherent anxiety and compulsive behaviours spiral out of control until she is pushed to pure darkness. Part of this was due to her commitment to the role, she told Entertainment Weekly “There were some nights that I thought I literally was going to die. It was the first time I understood how you could get so wrapped up in a role that it could sort of take you down.” Portman lost a shocking amount of weight and trained for several hours daily in order to dance for the film (along with her dance-double Sarah Lane.) Her breakdown moment comes at the end of the movie, giving us a brilliant and broken finale and proving to everyone that she can play both roles - good and evil - perfectly.
Ellen Burstyn - Requiem for a Dream
2000, Directed by Darren Aronofsky, Written by Hubert Selby Jr. (R)
The second Aronofsky film on my list, Requiem for a Dream is a contender partly because it’s the only movie I haven’t had the stomach to watch more than once. This is mainly because of Ellen Burstyn’s incredible performance as Sara Goldfarb, an elderly woman who becomes mistakenly addicted to amphetamines for weight loss. Her descent into total ruin is horrifying. Sara is caught in the turmoil of her heroin-addicted son’s life and suffering that familiar loneliness and neglect of the aged. Watching her physical and mental transformation scarred me and still bothers me when I think about it. It’s worth noting she was completely robbed of her Academy Award, losing to Julia Roberts in Erin Brockovich.
Isabelle Adjani - Possession
1981, Directed & Written by Andrzej Zulawski (R)
I’ve talked about Adjani’s role in Possession incessantly since my first viewing years ago. Adjani's commitment to her character is something I have not seen replicated. Possession shines a spotlight on a failing marriage fraught with infidelity and disatisfaction. Throw in a phallic monster and you have a recipe for a genre-bending mindf * ck. Isabelle’s performance is one that left me starving for more, and every performance I see I subconsciously compare to her selflessly agonizing commitment. It’s hard to choose a specific moment to highlight, but a favourite tends to be her total meltdown in a subway tunnel. Pick your favourite moment, you’re sure to find one.
Seo Young-Hee - Bedevilled
2010, Directed by Cheol-soo Jang, Written by Kwang-young Choi (R)
I watched Bedevilled early in my horror obsession and it impressed me greatly. Seo Young-Hee plays a woman stuck on an island in South Korea. Her childhood friend returns to visit, reeking of the success and fortune of the city. Young-Hee begs her to take her away from the island - for good reason, as she is the victim of severe physical, mental and sexual abuse. Nobody takes her seriously until she quietly snaps. The scene where she finally makes a move is so natural and seemingly comes from nowhere that it will leave you shocked. If you’re a fan of revenge films, don’t miss this one. Yeong-Hee captures the quiet desperation of a woman who feels she has no other way out but through bloodshed.
Gena Rowlands - A Woman Under the Influence
1974, Directed & Written by John Cassavetes (R)
Alright, this one isn’t a horror movie per say, but I wasn’t surprised that I might have to venture onto the fringe of genre to find exactly what I was looking for. Gena Rowlands proved to give one of the best performances I’ve seen onscreen. Rowlands plays Mabel Longhetti, a woman clearly suffering from declining mental health. Her husband knows he has to do something about it, but struggles to make the decision to get her help. Rowlands is electric; my eyes never left her when she was onscreen. The intense climax scene of her psychotic break has earned her a spot on this list. I was struck immediately by how afraid the men in the film were of her unpredictable and uncomfortable behaviour - we were constantly shown their gaze as an indicator of how deranged her behaviour had become. This movie deserves a full review for its ultimate digestion. Rowland’s portrait of a woman desperate to stay sane amidst her marriage and children has shot this movie into my top 10 of all time.
Alex Essoe - Starry Eyes
2014, Directed & Written by Kevin Kolsch & Dennis Widmyer (R)
Alex Essoe is another actor I can’t stop talking about. Her brave and fierce portrayal of a young woman shooting for the stars in Hollywood is a noticeable achievement for such an early stage in her career. Without spoiling anything, Starry Eyes has a body horror element that is rarely done so well. It’s hard to say where Essoe’s character’s breaking point occurs, as there are so many levels to what’s going on inside her mind. This, to me, is closest to the quality of performance Adjani gives in Possession. This is no surprise, as Essoe has said it was a great inspiration for this role. Her knowledge of horror greats and her ability to draw inspiration from them fills me with great hope for anything she goes on to star in.
Shelley Duvall - The Shining
1980, Directed & Written by Stanley Kubrick (R)
Horror fans know the infamous stories of the torture of Shelley Duvall while filming The Shining. Kubrick reportedly pushed her to her mental, physical, and emotional limits. Duval was subjected to endless physically demanding takes, and stress to the point that her hair began to fall out. This comes across in her performance leading to a terrifying finale.
Forgive me for saying so, but my love for The Shining only goes so far. Part of this is because of Duvall’s nearly distracting performance. Critics laud her for her raw emotion, but it came with a price for me. Stephen King reportedly told the BBC that Duvall’s character was “One of the most misogynistic characters ever put on film. She's basically just there to scream and be stupid and that's not the woman that I wrote about.” Regardless of my feelings about it, The Shining is a must-see for any horror fan, so get out there and take notes.
Charlotte Gainsbourg - Antichrist
2009, Directed & Written by Lars von Trier (NR)
For a man who is accused of hating women, von Trier sure has some of the best actors giving him their loyalty. Charlotte Gainsbourg is my favourite example. She has an incredible depth to her performances and doesn’t rely on stereotypical roles to get her point across. Von Trier is known for pushing his actors to the absolute limit, so it was actually a challenge not to include too many of his colleagues on this list. Of the sexism controversy, Gainsbourg says, “People have said he doesn’t like women but I don’t see how you can portray characters with such depth and not feel for them, have no empathy? I think he loves women.”
Though there are at least three films in which Charlotte pulls from the absolute depths of human experience, I’ll focus on Antichrist for its horrifying climax scene involving self genital mutilation. Playing a grieving mother after the death of her child, she retreats to a cabin in the woods with her psychiatrist husband to devastating results. “She says that the hardest scenes to film were not those that required her to perform explicit sex acts or horrific violence … but those that tested her emotional limits.” This makes total sense for me, as I uncomfortable through the entire film - so much so that it took me three tries to finish.
Isabella Rossellini - Blue Velvet
1986, Directed & Written by David Lynch (R)
Basically everyone in Blue Velvet has a meltdown, but Isabella Rossellini gives it her all. Striking out from a modeling and cosmetics representative career, David Lynch offered her this opportunity to stand out - and boy does she ever. Playing the tortured Dorothy Vallens in an artful look at the underbelly of the American Dream, her breakdown comes slowly but begs great empathy. Join Jeffrey (Kyle MacLachlan) and follow a mystery as he witnesses the sadomasochistic treatment of Dorothy being held hostage, the kidnapping of her husband and son being waved over her head as a bargaining chip for violent sex. Her stark-naked simper, “he put his disease in me” has haunted me ever since my first viewing.
Halle Berry - Gothika
2003 Directed by Mathieu Kassovitz Written by Sebastian Gutierrez (R)
Bear with me as we go into an awkward time for horror. Perhaps nobody was more surprised than me when it turned out I enjoyed Gothika. Halle Berry is a psychiatrist who has somehow become the patient with no memory of how she got there. Plagued with visions of the dead and a growing sense of paranoia, her meltdown comes in hallucinations and violence that leads to a devastating reveal. Among my casual movie-going friends, this movie comes up repeatedly. I’d recommend it for your friend who isn’t that into horror - a familiar face and predictable story will keep them comfortable while you can enjoy a decent performance of a woman on the verge of losing it all.
Catherine Deneuve - Repulsion
1965, Directed & Written by Roman Polanski (NR)
As part of Polanski’s apartment trilogy, Repulsion is the exploration of a shattered mind in a small dwelling. While brainstorming ideas for this list, Catherine Deneuve was a name that came up almost unanimously among fellow cinephiles. Deneuve plays a beautician exhibiting almost a fear of men while staying with her sister - her discomfort with her sister’s sexuality and her own hidden desires wreaks havoc on her mind. She hallucinates and is filled with terror at the simplest interruptions to her day. Her violent breaking is so reminiscent of a woman’s desperate anger after being sexually assaulted that each time I watch I’m filled with a new sense of empathy. For fans of Repulsion, be sure to check out Darling - our leading lady there gives a similar role the ol’ college try, but you might appreciate it more than I did. The Bloodlust even did an episode on Darling.
Elisabeth Moss - Queen of Earth
2015, Directed & Written by Alex Ross Perry (NR)
In Hollywood it’s all too common to hear about an actor who would turn down a role because of how she would appear on screen. Elisabeth Moss is not such an actor - she is unafraid to show ugliness of humanity with her face and her heart. Queen of Earth starts with a stark and painfully real close-up of a sobbing and broken Catherine, having been dumped by her boyfriend. She retreats to the cabin of her best friend where we join in reliving memories of past summers and happier times. This movie is for those who prefer a somber and reflective look at the cracking of a mind, as you’ll have a lot more questions than answers by the time the film is complete. Elisabeth Moss has also caught my eye in the New Zealand TV Drama Top of the Lake which deals with “mature subject matter” - she has shown she can hold her own when the topic gets dark and the going gets tough.
Bjork - Dancer in the Dark
2000, Directed & Written by Lars von Trier (R)
Dancer in the Dark is a tough film to watch so I recommend it only to intense fans of Björk or von Trier, respectively. This is a thriller crossed with a musical and only one of those two things is done very well. Björk plays an immigrant mother going blind, who desperately works her life away to save money for preventative surgery for her son. When she’s accused of a crime she didn’t commit, things start to unravel. After starring in the film, an exhausted Björk accused von Trier of “emotional pornography” and “soul robbery”. While she has no clear breaking point in this film, her performance is notable - unfortunately the movie is such a tough ride that I won’t be able to sit through it ever again. Neither can Björk, as she dramatically swore off acting after it was completed. BONUS: This movie also features Catherine Deneuve!
Kathy Bates - Misery
1990, Directed by Rob Reiner, Screenplay by William Goldman (R)
I’m ashamed to admit that I didn’t see Misery until very recently, and I was blown away. Frankly, I didn’t expect much from the story and I am so glad I was proven wrong. Kathy Bates plays Annie Wilkes, an injured and stranded writer’s “biggest fan”. Rescuing him from his car accident and holding him up in her isolated cabin proves to be more than mere humanitarian aid; she has ulterior motives and she inflicts pain to get what she wants. The uneasy feeling of being around someone you know is going to lose it is exhausting, and it comes across in the film. You never know what move Annie’s going to make until she goes hog-wild and shows her true capacity for evil. Stephen King has said that Annie represents cocaine - an addiction he was prisoner to for some time. Somehow this knowledge makes Annie an even more formidable villain.
Honourable mentions: Julianne Moore - Safe, Kim Stanley - Seance on a Wet Afternoon, Faye Dunaway - Chinatown, Deborah Kerr - The Innocents, Lauren Ashley Carter - Darling