#32 — Essie Davis as Amelia Vanek in The Babadook (Jennifer Kent, 2014)
In some ways, actors in horror movies have it easy. There is a clear vernacular to the art of duplicating terror, honed through decades upon decades of the genre. For many viewers, the unsettling tone, the sudden jolts, the bursting grotesqueries do all the dramatic heavy lifting. Actors merely have to react in a manner reasonably aligned with those of countless predecessors. Having a good, hearty scream in the tool kit helps. Even in accomplished, innovative horror films, actors are often locked into archetypal escalating woe and agony rather than pushing towards inner truths of the character, the situation, the individual scenario.
I’ve long been impressed by those rare performances that transcend the readily available shorthand, instead carefully settling into the tumult of emotions that someone would experience when confronted with the unfathomable. The turns by Barbara Hershey in The Entity and Annette Bening in In Dreams come to mind. Distinctively, those two performances — and their brethren — create characters who are thinking through their predicaments, trying to make sense of the metaphysical confusion that’s descended upon them. Horror film protagonists too often accept their strange circumstances. Stronger performers realize the value in not abdicating the character’s determination to achieve equilibrium, even in the face of ghastly, harrowing threats.
In recent years, no performance exemplifies this quality as potently as that given by Essie Davis in writer-director Jennifer Kent’s marvelous The Babadook. Even so, part of the insight of Davis’s acting is the way she embodies the exhaustion of her character, Amelia Vanek. And that weariness that reaches all the way to the bone starts to build even before the malevolent figure of the title begins wreaking havoc from the pages of a desperately unpleasant children’s book.
Ahead of the most insistent incursions of the Bababook (Tim Purcell), Amelia’s fortitude is frayed by the challenging behavior of her young son, Samuel (Noah Wiseman). He’s unable to sleep and is prone to careening moods that are typified by tantrums and vicious meltdowns. A single mother, Amelia is barely able to keep the family homestead afloat and is pushed beyond her limits by sleepless nights and emotional chemical explosions that make it nearly impossible to discern between love, empathy, and frustration.
When the narrative builds — as it must — to pinnacles of wailing and desperate bravado, Davis gives it her all. Well ahead of that, she inks in a more complicated, more heartbreaking portrait of a woman seconds away from conceding defeat in the face of the universe’s random cruelties. Rarely has a shattered spirit been depicted on film with such brutal authenticity. The Babadook is a scary fellow, but Davis shows exactly how the grinding trudge of Amelia’s daily life carries its own unyielding darkness. Sure, a murderous shadowy figure who defies physics and logic is tough adversary. Have you ever dealt with a kid who won’t stop kicking the back of the your seat as he screams from the back of the car, though?
Not every major performance in a horror film needs to follow this model. In fact, it might be counterproductive in the same way that cinematic malpractice would usually be perpetrated by instilling vintage Mametesque intensity into a frothy romantic comedy, even if it would technically be logical in a given moment. Though inherently confrontational, horror films are also quintessential escapism, thrill rides with a body count. There’s wisdom to hitting familiar, reassuring beats. Not everyone can replicate the feat of Davis’s performance in The Babadook. Of course, that’s another reason it’s so splendidly singular.
About Greatish Performances
#1 — Mason Gamble in Rushmore
#2 — Judy Davis in The Ref
#3 — Humphrey Bogart in Casablanca
#4 — Kirsten Dunst in Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind
#5 — Parker Posey in Waiting for Guffman
#6 — Patricia Clarkson in Shutter Island
#7 — Brad Pitt in Thelma & Louise
#8 — Gene Wilder in Willy Wonka & the Chocolate Factory
#9 — Jennifer Jason Leigh in The Hudsucker Proxy
#10 — Marisa Tomei in My Cousin Vinny
#11 — Nick Nolte in the “Life Lessons” segment of New York Stories
#12 — Thandie Newton in The Truth About Charlie
#13 — Danny Glover in Grand Canyon
#14 — Rachel McAdams in Red Eye
#15 — Malcolm McDowell in Time After Time
#16 — John Cameron Mitchell in Hedwig and the Angry Inch
#17 — Michelle Pfeiffer in White Oleander
#18 — Kurt Russell in The Thing
#19 — Eric Bogosian in Talk Radio
#20 — Linda Cardellini in Return
#21 — Jeff Bridges in The Fisher King
#22 — Oliver Platt in Bulworth
#23 — Michael B. Jordan in Creed
#24 — Thora Birch in Ghost World
#25 — Kate Beckinsale in The Last Days of Disco
#26 — Michael Douglas in Wonder Boys
#27 — Wilford Brimley in The Natural
#28 — Kevin Kline in Dave
#29 — Bill Murray in Scrooged
#30 — Bill Paxton in One False Move
#31 — Jennifer Lopez in Out of Sight