While these actors aren’t specifically known for horror, their work in the genre is easy to overlook…
Within the horror community, we often focus our admiration and attention on some of the more iconic actors. If it’s classics like Bela Lugosi or Christopher Lee to modern icons like Sarah Michelle Gellar or Bruce Campbell, we all know a staple in the horror world.
But what about those actors who aren’t known for horror films but make the genre their own once they enter? We’ll look at six actors who appear in horror, big or small screen, and win over the community even if they don’t spend all their time with chills and thrills.
The only requirement for this list is that the actor must appear in multiple horror-related projects, including television and movies. While some amazing actors appear in one or two horror films, we are looking for great horror actors but not as well-known as Tony Todd or Jamie Lee Curtis. For example, Samara Weaving has quite the stacked resume and is slowly becoming a screen queen, while Lupita Nyong’o made a splash with her work in Us but hasn’t ventured into horror much again.
Again, these talented actors have appeared in films from every genre, but their talents shine when they stop by a horror movie. Now, let’s look at some overlooked top-tier horror performances…
Ethan Hawke (Sinister)
At this point, Ethan Hawke should take his rightful place as a King of Horror because it’s always a fantastic time when he pops into the genre. His work in The Black Phone could’ve placed him here, but the complex role in Sinister offers up horrors far more twisted treats.
If you haven’t returned to director Scott Derrickson and Ethan Hawke’s first project together, watch Sinister as soon as possible but keep the lights on. It’s a scary film that makes the most out of the jump-scare-heavy trend at the time and fleshes out the terror. All of this is grounded by the compelling Hawke and his work as Ellison.
Even when Ethan Hawke takes Ellison down routes you don’t want, you feel the guiding hand of the filmmaker and actors. It’s one of those horror films that asks a bit from its viewers, but it rewards you, and that’s often what we see in Hawke’s genre work. He perfectly walks the line between cool-headed and crazy, making horror his home.
Angela Bassett (American Horror Story: Coven)
You’d be surprised at how often Angela Bassett works in horror or thrillers, even as early as 1995’s Vampire In Brooklyn (which almost took this spot). But what Basset crafted alongside Ryan Murphy for AHS: Coven is something genuinely otherworldly and a career-best in some eyes.
As Marie Laveau, we got Bassett putting a much-needed modern spin on a voodoo practitioner, making her more of a commanding and well-rounded character. Sure, the writing for her character was strong, but no one can transform the written work into mesmerizing work like Bassett. She brings not only scares but humor and heart as well.
This season is a beloved darling for many. It even saw five acting nominations at the Emmy Awards that year; shockingly, Angela Bassett was among the only ones who didn’t win. Kathy Bates and Jessica Lange both won and while they easily could’ve placed on this list, it’s an oversight to think Bassett didn’t walk over everyone in Coven.
Justin Long (Barbarian)
Of all the picks, Justin Long was the hardest to nail down his signature horror role. He’s a reliable horror talent, from his breakout role in Jeepers Creepers to his odd “Final Boy” turn in Drag Me To Hell. But what he did in 2022’s Barbarian shocked us all.
He makes a great surprise second-act debut, giving us a god-awful character that you grow to love to hate, and then he joins Georgina Campbell’s Tess to help round out the cast and put everything together. Justin Long as AJ truly deserved the “asshole of the year” label, and that is such a surprise coming from an actor known for his usual charm side.
This is also a great time to remind you that Barbarian is an excellent horror ride, easily overlooked by the mainstream, much like Long is ignored as a horror powerhouse. His face-off with the monster in the finale is example enough. If it’s his usual charm or horrible side, as we see in this and Tusk, you can rely on him to add a certain status.
Toni Collette (Hereditary)
Hereditary put Toni Collette on the map as a horror icon, but she’s done fantastic genre work long before the role. Collette made both 2011’s Fright Night and Krampus better and added such strength and heart to The Sixth Sense. Still, nothing is like Hereditary.
Ari Aster’s cinematic debut helped cement A24 as a genre staple and gave Toni Collette so much to sink her teeth into. It’s like every single thing written was to play to the actress’s strength, making Annie Graham feel like her signature character. You know you’re replaying that intense “I Am Your Mother” speech in your head now.
Collette’s work in Hereditary also began the modern era’s rally against the Oscars for ignoring horror performances. It would happen with Lupita Nyong’o in Us and James McAvoy in Split, but the anger and passion around Toni Collette’s snub served as our rallying cry and speaks to the now-iconic performance.
John Cho (The Exorcist)
John Cho slightly breaks the requirements for the list, as the actor has fewer horror credits than the others. Yet, that helps make him a contender for most underrated and look no further than his work in The Exorcist. The possession-filled series gave Cho a real chance to stretch himself.
Cho joined The Exorcist Season 2, the short-lived series from Fox that saw a fantastic revamp in its second outing. The scares were there, the weekly drama was stronger, and the acting seemed elevated. John Cho’s work as Andrew Kim gave us much to chew on, and he grounded the film with his leading man sensibilities.
Cho is one of those actors you forget how versatile and strong he can be, and it takes a little bit of horror to bring something even more special. His inclusion in The Exorcist is not the best part of the series, but it’s enough reason to watch. We can take this time also to tell you to watch his work in the horror-ish Searching.
Naomi Watts (Mulholland Drive)
When you work with David Lynch, you enter a world beyond genre, but it’s safe to say Mulholland Drive leans heavily into the world of horror, which was seemingly easy for sort of genre newcomer Naomi Watts. Now, we know how great Watts works in the world of horror.
Her unknown status at the time allowed the actress some ability to blend into Lynch’s twisted Mulholland Drive world and give us as close to an authentic Lynchian performance as possible. It’s a shame the pair haven’t worked together more, as it seemed like the two spoke each other’s cinematic language. Yet, the one-off nature makes this even more special.
Naomi Watts would tear it up in The Ring a few years later, carry the stellar Funny Games remake to its iconic status, and return with The Watcher recently, but there’s nothing like a Lynch scare. We witnessed the birth of not only one of David Lynch’s best works but a career-defining and, in some ways, a career-best for Watts.
Who is your favorite actor to appear in a horror film but not be known as a genre mainstay? What horror performance has stood the test of time for you? Reach out to us via social media @FlickeringMyth and share your thoughts…