Stephen Lang in ‘Old Man’ and Other Favorite Modern Horror Performances, a story by David Guglielmo

Of all the genres, horror must be the most eclectic, with enough sub-genres to satisfy anyone who isn’t a scaredy-cat, and even then, they can probably watch SHAUN OF THE DEAD and sleep fine at night. But whether we’re talking aliens, slashers, or even Satan himself, what makes a film work will always be the humans at the center.

We all have our favorite actors who play those humans, and as a casting director, I tend to work with those favorites more than once. For example, I’m such a fan of actor Stephen Lang, that in the last three years, I’ve cast him four times: First in the splatter-action pic VFW, then in the exorcist horror THE SEVENTH DAY, followed by the yet to be released cop-thriller MUZZLE, and the reason why we’re here today, the Lucky McKee chamber horror/drama OLD MAN, which released recently in theaters and on-demand via RLJE FILMS.

OLD MAN takes place deep in the woods where a lost hiker (Marc Senter) stumbles upon an isolated cabin in the woods inhabited by a reclusive old man (Stephen Lang). What starts off as dubious conversation soon turns dangerous as it becomes clear that one or both of them might be hiding a terrifying secret.

Deep in the woods, a lost hiker stumbles upon the cabin of an erratic and reclusive old man. What starts off as cordial conversation soon turns dangerous as it becomes clear that one or both of them might be hiding a terrifying secret.

I received this script during the height of the Covid lockdowns in LA and Stephen Lang was our first offer. Once he accepted, we were off to the races, building a set in NY when most people were still figuring out if it were even possible to make a movie during these times. The script reminded me of great, thriller play-to-movie adaptations like DEATH AND THE MAIDEN, and with Lucky McKee taking the director’s chair, I knew it would be executed with panache. I’ve been a fan of Lucky’s for a while, and I even cast DARLIN’, the sequel to THE WOMAN (which Lucky wrote and directed back in 2011), so I had been in his world even if we had not worked together directly, and was very excited for this chance to do so.

Even with high expectations, I’m floored by how beautifully and cleverly he staged, blocked, and shot this film. He creates an other-worldly atmosphere, choosing the surreal over realism, but never with a heavy hand. Things are just slightly off, making the movie feel like you had dreamt it. But no matter how expertly Lucky crafted the film, I do think the movie is contingent on the titular performance. Luckily for us, Stephen Lang does work here that is so far from anything he’s ever done before, changing his voice, the way he walks, and the way he holds his face. Crafting a character of such duality that he can be both menacing and funny, frail and dangerous, loathsome and empathetic, all in the same scene. It’s a masterclass in playing a heightened character that is rooted in authenticity and he radiates star power, reminding us that he’s simply one of the best we got. It’s a blast to watch!

And it got me thinking. What are some other horror performances that have stuck in my head similarly to how this one has made such an impression.

We all know the obvious and endlessly heralded performances (deservedly so) of decades past like Kathy Bates in MISERY or Anthony Hopkins in THE SILENCE OF THE LAMBS, so I’m going to do my best to list a few, more modern performances that haven’t yet made the ranks. I decided to focus on the recent ones because it’s inspiring to point out the talent that is among us currently, still creating and building their careers with exciting character choices on the horizon. These are in no particular order, and I’m pleased to say Stephen Lang in OLD MAN now joins the list.

Check out the full list on Horrorville here.

Since we’re already on the topic, here’s another Old Man performance I love in one of the best recent movies, period, regardless of genre. He takes the Walter Brennan role, our comedic relief, and infuses it with such distinctive characterization, both funny and sad, that he becomes the heart of a movie not necessarily remembered for its heart! The movie slows down when most directors would speed it up, in the third act, so he can deliver a monologue about a “flea circus”. Patton Oswalt tweeted in 2015 “That’s Oscar-level work there, folks. Probably get totally ignored”. He was right.

As mentioned briefly, I cast VFW starring Stephen Lang, which was directed by Joe Begos, and it was an ensemble piece that had everyone pulling their weight with no weak link to be found. But instead of tooting that horn, which I’ve done to anyone who will listen (as it’s one of the casts I’m most proud of) I want to rewind the clock to Joe’s previous film, BLISS, and the powerhouse performance at the center by Dora Madison. Talk about commitment! I am exhausted by just watching this drug-addled, manic, and scathing portrayal of a hedonistic artist going through a block who may or may not be turning into a vampire. She’s in every physically and emotionally draining scene in what can only be described as John Cassavetes meets Abel Ferrara on the set of Gaspar Noe. It takes a certain je ne sais quoi to make a character this grating also be so fun to watch.

After BLISS, let’s slow it down. Not every performance needs to stay at energy level: Ten. We often say – when referring to someone’s charisma— “I’d watch him or her read the phone book”. Well, that’s basically what we’re doing when we watch HOUSE OF THE DEVIL. I think she might literally read the phone book to order a pizza. And then we watch her eat the pizza. And then we watch her walk around the house. Then do other mundane things in real time that are somehow never boring. How many modern actors can we call “Iconic” these days? There have been some truly amazing performances, don’t get me wrong, but Iconic is a different thing entirely. Iconic means you can dress up as them for Halloween and nobody asks who you are. I’ve seen this character at more than a few Halloween parties.

Since we’re talking iconic… Holy Moly! Where did Betty Gabriel come from? Cinema is the closest thing we have to dreams, and horror is the closest we have to nightmares, and what we remember most about our nightmares are the images that are burned into our brains. That scene of hers will forever be burned in mine. It won best screenplay, but were I a part of the Academy, I would have given her best supporting actress. It shows that an intense performance can creep you out more than any special effects.

When I talk of actors having a “big presence” this is what I mean. She’s absolutely electrifying and an example of grounding an absurdist world, giving the audience an anchor and allowing the director to throw anything at us, no matter how outrageous. SPOILER: Then the film shifts protagonists, which is very bold, and in line with some of its influences like Dario Argento’s INFERNO, but personally I could have watched her forever and I look forward to her next lead.

Here’s another example of grounding an absurdist world and creating the natural out of the unnatural. Lanthimos is a director similar to Wes Anderson, where the style is so strong, that it infringes upon the actors and their deliveries, blanketing them in the singular voice of its director. I’d imagine it must be difficult for some actors. How do you separate that very specific style from being uniform? Barry Keoghan keeps the performance equally controlled as his counterparts but you can also see the wheels constantly turning, always coming up with each thought and each line, present and in the moment so none of it feels scripted or stylized to the point of losing substance or sounding rote, no matter how peculiar and matter-of-fact the lines may be.

This is my vote for best recent ensemble in a horror and it’s a shame it didn’t get more recognition. Lars Von Trier is one of our great “auteurs” and this is his most personal and introspective work. His 8 ½. Like all of his films, the roles are emotionally demanding and the entire cast is fearless. But while we expect movie star greatness from marquee names like Matt Dillon, I want to tip my hat to who could be my favorite actress of her generation, Riley Keough, in a scene you want to scrub from your mind. Similar to De Niro, she dumbs down in a way that is very difficult to do, never mean, and always remaining endearing and nuanced. Now she’s getting more lead roles, like ZOLA, but there are a number of films where she shows up for a scene or two and steals the show. UNDER THE SILVER LAKE is another (and a modern masterpiece, may I add).

This is a film that in time I think people will go back to more kindly, as true works of art are not always appreciated upon their release. It’s not likable, and it’s not fun, but it’s powerful in its ability to evoke, and Jennifer Lawrence gives a performance for the ages. Filmed mostly in close-up, moving shots, we watch her run the gamut of emotions with her eyes, and she is us, creating an umbilical chord (see what I did) to the audience. We share frustration, despair, etc.  If movies are our empathy machine, then this is prime example of how that works.

DAVID GUGLIELMO is a producer, writer, director, and casting director based in NY and LA. In only five years he cast approximately 40 feature films, fast-tracking his induction into the prestigious Casting Society of America. His titles include the highly acclaimed ensemble-piece THE STANDOFF AT SPARROW CREEK (TIFF Premiere), the crime drama SOUTH OF HEAVEN starring Jason Sudeikis and Evangeline Lilly, and most recently OLD MAN starring Stephen Lang.

As a director, he made two back-to-back thrillers, NO WAY TO LIVE and HOSPITALITY, which were released one year apart to positive reviews and are available on all VOD platforms. He is currently in production on his third feature, LOVE BOMB.

You can follow David Gugliemo on Letterboxd, IMDb, Instagram, and Twitter.