Finding positivity in the infamous year that is 2020 may seem like a challenge, especially in the film world. Ever since the pandemic became an unfortunate factor in our lives, one of the many side effects has been the rampant pushbacks of anticipated films to later dates, including horror films like A Quiet Place: Part II, Halloween Kills, and Nia DaCosta’s reboot of Candyman.
Because of 2020’s unique circumstances, many of this year’s movies, horror in particular, have gone the way of convenience through streaming, midnight drive-ins, and virtual cinema. While many have bemoaned this route as being one of the main factors to “kill” the theatrical experience, it has nonetheless allowed audiences to consume a wider array of films through a service that encourages riskier films to stand out.
Any other year would’ve seen films like Relic, The Wretched, and The Wolf of Snow Hollow buried under the messy and sprawling sea of direct-to-VOD titles and major event films freshly released for home video. But a year that has essentially stripped away these luxuries has allowed audiences to see the value in smaller and ballsier horror films, including some damn fine performances that likely would’ve also gone unnoticed.
But 2020 has not stopped these performances from resonating with us, reminding us of the true power of film. Some make us laugh, others draw us to tears, and there are even some oddballs that just draw…reactions from us. But they have all contributed some of the strongest film performances of this year and while it’s impossible to please everyone, hopefully this list offers something for everybody. You may even find your new horror favorite with this list.
Let’s not waste more time…
15: Sierra McCormick – The Vast of Night
Andrew Patterson has gotten what I believe to be very little credit for the underappreciated alien invasion gem that is the Vast of Night. He penned a sharp screenplay that not only wisely took advantage of its limited budget, but gave Sierra McCormick an incredibly fun role to chew on. Playing Fey Crocker, Sierra eats up her role as the teenage assistant to a young disc jockey (played by the also great Jake Horowitz) as they receive a mysterious radio signal that could be linked to a possible alien invasion.
Despite the threat, Vast of Night thrives from the strong personalities onscreen and McCormick’s performance is pure joy. Playing up the giddiness of a potentially huge story and the impulsiveness of a young person with ambition, McCormick adds a likable nature to this otherwise dark and twisty invasion horror-thriller. She acts on instinct, is wide-eyed about her future prospects, and pairs so well with Everett as the younger and more excitable sister to his cool older brother vibes. Let her performance speak for itself when you boot this up.
14: Kathryn Newton – Freaky
Much will be said about Vince Vaughn’s passionate turn as an awkward teenage girl trapped inside a serial killer’s body, but Kathryn Newton’s role opposite him as said serial killer inhabiting said girl’s body should not go unnoticed. Freaky’s body-swap premise can only go as far as the actors are willing to go and Newton’s shift to a cold and emotionless killer is exactly what we need here. Newton switches up her character with such ease and completely sells the killer slowly getting accustomed to his new body, developing a mean streak that’s both cool as hell and intimidating when Newton literally channels her killer instincts to raise havoc.
The killer’s first moments in her body are already a gold mine for Newton to dig up, allowing her to sell the idea of a killer indulging in the luxuries of a teenager in a loving home. But when he gets out in the world, Newton is unhinged and predatory as she successfully slips into the role of the slasher. While it does take two to tango, it would be a crime to not recognize the fun she brings to the slasher role. Do not sleep on Newton, I am telling you.
13: Pyotr Fyodorov – Sputnik
One of the latest entries into the space horror field, this Russian chiller benefits from not just relying on creative body horror, but a strong cast of characters to bring this alien story (literally) down to Earth when a space mission with two cosmonauts ends in the ship crashing and the lone survivor potentially harboring an alien host within him. From there, he is isolated by top Russian officials as they all intend on discovering what he brought down with him – and how dangerous it is. What follows is almost a one-man show as we come to unravel the mystery of the space incident and the dark truths of a beloved national hero, all performed to outstanding results by Pyotr Fyodorov.
Sputnik heavily restrains itself and Fyodorov’s performance as the lone surviving cosmonaut helps introduce an interesting examination of patriotism and the dirty secrets hidden under its flag-waving. Fyodorov plays the cosmonaut with an air of stereotypical manliness that soon sheds as the direness of his situation becomes clear. Playing a man grappling with his sense of purpose in the midst of officials examining him like a guinea pig, Fyodorov is on the brink of emotional collapse and it’s unnerving as hell to witness. Fyodorov’s performance transforming from calm and confident to desperate and introspective is far from showy, but his journey helps Sputnik stand out as one of the most unlikely horror gems of 2020.
12: Kiera Allen – Run
Aneesh Chaganty’s Run has gone through quite the 2020 experience, from being announced as the follow-up to his surprise hit, Searching, to being set for a Mother’s Day release to being pushed back to November for pandemic reasons. But the wait is more than worth it and one of the biggest reasons is one of the newest young stars to grace the scene: Kiera Allen. An actress who is a wheelchair user herself, Allen plays the disabled and brainy teenager, Chloe, who begins to suspect that her mother Diane, who has cared for her many personal and medical needs all of her life, is not being entirely truthful with her about her life, paving the way for a modern-day Hitchcockian horror-thriller elevated in part by the phenomenal Allen.
Refusing to be apart of a film that singles out her disability for exploitation, Allen commands the screen as one of the smartest horror protagonists in recent memory. Some may think I’m bending the rules by allowing a film that could mostly be called a thriller into the list, but Allen’s ability to sell the horror of the situation without being made to feel useless, along with the power of her shifting emotions as the film ramps up, is both admirable and goes a long way in standing toe-to-toe with the magnificent Sarah Paulson. She’s hilarious, intelligent, tenacious, and most of all human in Chaganty’s excellent sophomore feature.
11: Vince Vaughn – Freaky
Of course, if Kathryn Newton was the only half pulling her weight in this body swap horror-comedy, perhaps Freaky would have gotten lost in the field. But Vince Vaughn is more than willing to step up to the challenge by playing the awkward and average high school girl Millie, the total opposite of a cold-blooded killer. It’s been awhile since we’ve seen Vaughn flex his comedic chops after his foray into dramatic films (specifically with S. Craig Zahler in Brawl in Cell Block 99 and Dragged Across Concrete), so seeing him bring back his comedic wit as a serial killer/lovesick teenager is the perfect comeback.
The best part is that Vaughn does not venture into a “teenage girl” caricature in this role. He is given ample time to truly play around with Newton’s own mannerisms to create a surprisingly realistic portrayal of a girl stuck in a body that is not hers. Her plight calls for much visual comedy at the tall frame of Vaughn towering over her best friends, but Vaughn is careful in not making her the butt of the joke. His performance rings both respectful and hysterical and that is a rare balance to find in high concept comedies like Freaky.
10: Betty Gilpin – The Hunt
Bending the rules a little again with The Hunt, which I like to categorize as an action-horror satire with mixed results. The satire in question is a little too scattershot to be consistent in its message, but that does not take away from the performance of Betty Gilpin from GLOW fame. The acclaimed Netflix original has already made Gilpin master the art of physical performance through professional wrestling, which lends a hand in her equally physical role as Crystal Creasey, an Afghanistan veteran who is among a group of individuals targeted by an elite group of wealthy liberals for some reason.
It’s refreshing to see horror protagonists one step ahead of the villains and Gilpin’s no-nonsense attitude is the perfect fit for this role. She’s calm, calculated, and not afraid to gloat a little when she knows that she has the upper hand. Crystal’s personal politics don’t even come into the forefront because at the end of the day, she’s a pissed off warrior that just wants to go home. It’s simple, yet Gilpin is successful in getting us to care about her survival; and in a genre that always seems to encourage characters to act as dumb as possible for the convenience of the script, it’s a welcome change of pace.
9: Wil Wheaton – Rent-A-Pal
In the middle of figuring out whether to stream Run, Happiest Season, or Parasite on Hulu, you would not be blamed for scrolling by a little horror flick from Jon Stevenson, entitled Rent-A-Pal. A disturbing tale about a lonely man named David’s obsessive friendship with Andy, the bright and cheery star of a low budget videotape that Andy plays to give him company while he deals with his dementia-addled mother. Andy, played by Wil Wheaton, reeks of Blue’s Clues energy and gradually becomes David’s best companion who may or may not have a mind of his own.
Admittedly, it’s an incredibly cheesy premise, but Wheaton’s unsettlingly positive performance as Andy is both a scene-stealer and immensely tragic once the full picture behind his character is revealed. Wheaton paints the portrait of a character constantly burdened by loneliness and his increasingly unstable behavior meshes bizarrely well with his shifts back into “best buddy” mode. Wheaton feels like he’s gonna leap out of the screen within our screen at any moment and when paired with the strong work of Brian Landis Folkins as David, it combines to create a toxic, yet compelling story of loneliness and resentment.
8: Jim Cummings – The Wolf of Snow Hollow
In only 2 years, writer-director Jim Cummings has gone from small indie darling to one of the most exciting voices in independent cinema today. His newest film, The Wolf of Snow Hollow, is his first foray into larger-scale filmmaking, but his idiosyncratic style still shines through, down to Cummings’ lead performance in his own film. Playing a deputy named John Marshall, Cummings leads the charge when a tiny Utah town is terrorized by a series of brutal killings being linked to a werewolf despite Marshall’s denial of such things.
Cummings led his own script in his previous film, Thunder Road (giving one of the best performances of the 2010s), and he brings similar energy with another sheriff character plagued with personal issues. Cummings is much angrier here, juggling a bunch of murders, his alcoholism, and tending to his relationships with his father and daughter. He is easily irritable and Cummings transforms this flaw from a humorous quirk into a personal tragedy, portraying an alcoholic deputy with humility and grace. It sounds messy, but Cummings’ commitment makes it work like no other and his rock-solid comedic timing mixed with his everyman charm is a high selling point of this whip-smart horror-comedy.
7: Elisabeth Moss – The Invisible Man
It’s a shame that Leigh Whannell’s adaptation of The Invisible Man came around the time that Covid started hitting everywhere, rendering the film helpless to the real world. The ensuing fallout forced the film out of theaters and into VOD, which was helpful in showcasing Elisabeth Moss’s work to an audience even after the abrupt end to its theatrical run. Moss has largely impressed in the past and her work here is brilliantly layered and fun to watch through her ups and downs.
Playing a woman named Cecilia who is convinced that she is being stalked by her ex in invisible form, Moss perfectly captures the pains of relationship trauma and its affect on everyday life. Cecilia is rendered timid and paranoid thanks to her experiences and Moss is hypnotic as she begins to fear if she is actually losing it or not. Moss’s tense performance is heartbreaking as her paranoia grows and watching her adapt to this bizarre scenario is both satisfying and critical in understanding why she is among the strongest talents gracing our screens right now.
6: Christopher Abbott – Possessor
2020 is the year of body swapping, apparently. Directed by Brandon Cronenberg, son of David, Possessor tells its body-swap story through science, letting a contract killer named Tasya possess people’s bodies to aid her in killing targets with plausible deniability. But when her next target has her possessing the body of Colin, the boyfriend of the daughter of a powerful business CEO, a literal battle of the minds begins as the two wage war over control of Colin’s body, bringing about an excellent “dual” performance from Christopher Abbott.
Part of me wants to pair Andrea Riseborough with Abbott’s performance, but the latter gets the most time to shine and he delivers one of the most complicated performances of the year. Having to act as though he’s not himself, Abbott balances the two personalities with finesse and unease. We never know exactly who is in control and how much control they have and Abbott plays this duality with careful precision that boils over into pure desperation. It’s stressful anticipating what’s going to happen, but I mention this as the biggest positive to Abbott’s criminally underrated work in this film.
5: Haley Bennett – Swallow
I’m not even going to argue much about Swallow’s presence on this list. This psychological drama doubles as a body horror film, blending the two together to concoct a story about manipulation and control. Said story stars Haley Bennett as Hunter, a seemingly perfect trophy wife who finds out that she will be pregnant with her rich husband’s child. This is when she shows signs of having pica, a psychological disorder characterized by a sudden craving to consume inanimate objects; which Hunter quickly indulges in and even begins to eat larger and larger objects.
Her performance is important in grounding this bizarre story. Bennett portrays Hunter as a soft-spoken woman with her own interests, yet she is forced to bury her emotions and play nice to keep up appearances. Something harder than crying onscreen is forcing yourself to not cry despite teetering on the edge and the slow unraveling of Hunter’s traumatic past gives Bennett the chance to break out with her most powerful work to date. Bennett’s acting captures emotional suppression frighteningly well and particularly her performance in the third act solidifies her as among the best that this year has to offer.
4: Riley Keough – The Lodge
The Lodge may arguably be the hardest film to watch on this list thanks largely to its story giving isolation vibes, something we don’t need in 2020. That does not discredit the film though, in fact it’s because of this story that we were able to witness Riley Keough’s masterful work here. Playing Grace, the young fiancée to a recently widowed father, Keough is given so much to chew on as Grace is forced to spend her time snowed in with her fiancée’s two disapproving children at their holiday lodge, bringing about the feeling that somebody, or even some people, might be watching her.
An isolation movie in the truest sense, The Lodge brings us uncomfortably close to everybody in said lodge as they do their best to not lose their wits. Keough as Grace puts on a powerhouse of a performance that requires her to maintain an air of mystery. Is she truly insane or is there a larger plot against her? The depth provided by Grace’s past as part of a notorious cult is strengthened by Keough’s looming central performance. We’re with her the most and yet we know next to nothing about her. Everyone is unreliable, making Keough’s mental breaks all the more horrifying to witness in this chilly isolation horror-drama. She has already proven herself in the past, but The Lodge may just be her most powerful role to date.
3: Robyn Nevin – Relic
One of the most commonplace fears in the real world is loss of control and that fear can take hold in many ways. Losing control of a relationship, your path in life, etc. But that fear is amplified when it starts to feel as though you can’t even have control of your own body and though some films on this list have explored that, frankly none are made to look quite as terrifying as Robyn Nevin makes the looming threat of dementia look in the Australian horror-drama, Relic.
Centered around an elderly matriarch that suddenly goes missing from her home, Relic dives into the mind of a woman rapidly losing control of herself with her dementia causing her to forget more pieces of her life and lash out at her daughter and granddaughter. The threat is inescapable and Nevin plays Edna’s growing realization of that fact with haunting beauty. Her transformation from her witty and capable former self into a withered shell is disturbing, tragic, and laced with a brilliantly layered performance from Nevin. Relic is a tough watch, but Nevin and the work of the cast and crew are worth the experience.
2: Jean Dujardin – Deerskin
Bending the rules again and with this entry, but it is entirely necessary to do so. Deerskin, from the director of the horror parody Rubber (yeah, remember that movie?), mostly functions as a depressingly hilarious dark comedy about a man named Georges who abandons his old life after buying an expensive deerskin jacket that makes him feel like hot shit. But the second half of the film shows the results of such an ego boost, inching this film closer to horror-comedy with what is perhaps the funniest performance of the year from Jean Dujardin.
Georges is a man who is quite pathetic in his normal life, but the jacket gives him an enormous confidence boost that quickly spirals out of control. Dujardin takes us with him on this experience by giving Georges a meek, yet tenacious attitude. Dujardin often spends large portions of the film talking to his jacket (himself) and watching him slip further into delusion is simultaneously sad and hilarious. Dujardin owns the screen with the power of his awkward complex, culminating in a third act that allows him to tap into his deepest primal instincts and cement himself as the second best horror performance of 2020.
What I said won’t do him (or any of these performances) justice. Seek it out and witness a unique breakdown of an unhinged and hilariously disturbed man happen in real time.
1: Sarah Paulson – Run
There might’ve been a little confusion over why only half of the main cast of Run appeared on this list and the answer is simple. I save the best for last. As fantastic as Kiera Allen is, Paulson’s performance might be career-defining. After her strong work in Ryan Murphy’s projects (including her outstanding performance in The People vs. O.J. Simpson), Paulson returns to the horror-thriller field with a complex role as Diane Sherman, mother to Chloe with a checkered past to boot.
The nuance behind “crazy mothers” can get lost in films that cheapen the context surrounding their behavior, but Run is just as much a character piece on Diane as it is a survival story about Chloe. There’s no doubting her strengths as a caring mother, but Paulson has us permanently on edge with her unpredictable performance. Even something like the slightest shift in facial expression is masterful, keeping the audience on its toes as to what she might do next.
Every movement has purpose and Diane’s words are spoken with the utmost conviction. Paulson is utterly terrifying in some moments while coming across as arguably the most sympathetic character in other scenes. She disappears into a role that was risky to communicate well and leaves with a hellish impact, making it difficult to definitively choose a side. While the script obviously gave her a lot of good to work with, the final end result is something that only Paulson could’ve achieved and together with Kiera Allen, makes for one of the best films of the year with the best horror performance as the cherry on top.