October is defined in Webster’s Dictionary as “31 days of horror.” Don’t bother looking it up; it’s true. Most people take that to mean highlighting one horror movie a day, but here at FSR, we’ve taken that up a spooky notch or nine by celebrating each day with a top ten list. This article about the top ten horror performances by Brad Dourif outside of the Child’s Play franchise is part of our ongoing series 31 Days of Horror Lists.
I’m not sure if you know this, but the “no small parts” adage was invented to accommodate Brad Dourif, an actor seemingly incapable of putting in a dull performance. While Dourif can (and has) made his mark on other genres, horror fans know in our hearts that this man is ours. Something about Dourif’s uncanny sincerity and total abandon makes him a perfect fit for a cinematic space capable of accommodating both big swings and quiet tour-de-forces. Horror is a refuge for actors brave enough to get ugly, weird, and impressionistic. And Dourif is a living testament to that fact.
He’s brought sympathy and heart to scumbags and saints alike. And even when he’s playing a categorical freak, he can’t help but inject pathos into their fury, terror, and madness. He’s one of the greats whose mere presence is enough to auto-bump a B-movie onto your watchlist. If you see his name in the credits, you know you’re in for a good time. Speaking of which, below you’ll find our top ten favorite Brad Dourif horror movie performances, as ranked by Rob Hunter, Chris Coffel, Brad Gullickson, Jacob Trussell, and yours truly. We’ve chosen to exclude the Child’s Play franchise to broaden things up. But let it be known that we have no intention to fuck with the Chuck. We just want more folks to watch Spontaneous Combustion, that’s all.
10. Death Machine (1994)
In the distant future of 2003, mega-corporation Chaank Industries is the leading manufacturer of weapons technology. The company’s pet project is Project: Hard Man, an enhanced super soldier. The project goes off the rails when it malfunctions and slaughters innocent civilians at a roadside diner. Chaank’s new chief executive is determined to clean up the company’s image and starts by shutting down the project and firing the main weapon designer, Jack Dante (Dourif). Not only does Dante refuse to be shut down, he’s also working on an even more super secret project codenamed Warbeast. Once his work is threatened, Dante activates Warbeast, jeopardizing more than just the company. Director Stephen Norrington‘s Death Machine should be nothing short of a beloved cult classic, carried by a stellar performance from Dourif. Giant fighting robots, futuristic tech from the early ’90s, and Dourif sporting beautiful long locks. Simply brilliant. (Chris Coffel)
9. Body Parts (1991)
When our hero, Bill Chrushank (Jeff “not Billy Zane” Fahey), learns that his arm transplant came from a serial killer on death row, he decides to pay the other “recipients” a visit. Among them is the carefree painter Remo Lacey (Dourif), who inherited the murderer’s other arm. Unlike Bill, Remo is unbothered by the grisly backstory behind his new appendage. Sure, since his operation, Lacey’s paintings have gone a little Francis Bacon-y. But why question a good thing, you know?
Lacey’s never been so successful! And in waltzes this sweaty killjoy trying to tell him his arm is possessed with the malicious intent of a mass murderer. Where does he get off, exactly? As ever, Dourif steals every scene he’s in as an optimist, trying to make the best of a morbid situation. One man’s horrific body horror nightmare is another man’s artistic inspiration, I suppose. (Meg Shields)
8. Halloween II (2009)
I’ve previously gone on record as not being the biggest fan of Rob Zombie’s Halloween remakes. But gripes aside, there’s no denying that Brad Dourif’s Lee Brackett is the beating heart of these two films. In a world keen to choke out any hint of a happy home life, the Sheriff of Haddonfield is a warm, humane, and overwhelmingly kind presence. Even in Halloween II — which sees the kindly sheriff as the parental figure of two deeply traumatized young women — he’s doing his absolute best to create a safe space. And while things do take a tragic turn, Brackett isn’t to blame: he’s a girl dad doing his best in a Rob Zombie movie for chrissakes.
Sure, withholding the truth from Laurie Strode about her connection to Michael Myers might not have been the best move. But it felt merciful at the time. While Dourif is proficient at playing villains, his performance as Sheriff Brackett is a pathos-rich reminder of how sweet it is when he gets to play a good guy. The way you really know Brackett is Good, by the way, is that he sucker punches Malcolm McDowell’s Dr. Loomis in the face, a thing we all wish we could do. (Meg Shields)
7. Halloween (2007)
Rob Zombie’s Halloween has an (admittedly deserved) reputation for being a grimy, unpleasant, and remarkably brutish viewing experience. Then again, it is a Rob Zombie movie. So I don’t know what we were all expecting. Even so, the doomers overlook the one kindly presence in this film: Lee Brackett, portrayed with unbearable sorrow and empathy by Brad Dourif. Playing against type, Dourif brings palpable decency to the role of Sheriff Brackett, a kindhearted man who finds himself thrust to the frontlines of an unspeakable tragedy.
Unlike Carpenter’s original film, Brackett is repositioned as the guardian angel who saved Laurie as a baby, protecting her from her insidious heritage for as long as possible. The weight of his intervention weighs heavy on Brackett’s shoulders, a contrition Dourif effortlessly relays through watery downward glances, gentle whispers, and futile efforts to protect his town (and his girls) from Michael’s return. His presence is bittersweet and deeply moving, a small oasis of dignity in an otherwise pitch-black repackaging of one of horror’s greatest (or, at the very least, largest) sons. (Meg Shields)
6. The Eyes of Laura Mars (1978)
While a good chunk of horror fans view Eyes of Laura Mars as “the other thing John Carpenter did in 1978,” true aficionados respect Irvin Kershner’s psycho-thriller for what it is: peak male costume design. There’s Tommy Lee Jones looking uncannily like Anton Chigurh. There’s Raúl Juliá, embodying slime incarnate. And then there’s Dourif as Tommy Ludlow, human dust bunny, switchblade at the ready, eyes darting around like a trapped animal. As the chauffeur of New York’s most provocative photographer (Faye Dunaway), Tommy has to be prepared for anything. He hasn’t told his employer yet, but his street smarts have a sordid origin story; he’s an ex-con, reformed, of course, and he’s ready to do whatever it takes to keep his boss safe and remain gainfully employed. Unfortunately, Tommy’s dark past and proximity to Laura make him a prime suspect for the horrifying copycat murders emulating Laura’s art. It’s to Dourif’s credit that he’s able to straddle the line between sympathetic and suspicious. He’s a weirdo trying his best, like the best Dourif characters. Unfortunately for Tommy, good intentions aren’t bulletproof. (Meg Shields)
5. Alien Resurrection (1997)
If you know anything about Alien Resurrection, it’s probably that it’s the sequel where the US military makes a bunch of horrifying hybrid Xenomorph/Ripley clones. Say what you will about this premise, but the casting of Dourif as one of the scientists overseeing this affront to nature is, in a word, perfect. The man was born to play space Frankenstein or Igor … take your pick. Dr. Gediman may not be here for a long time. But he is here to hammer home the fuck-around-and-find-out nature of the whole “let’s tame the xenomorphs” enterprise. Despite being one of the more subdued weirdos Dourif has ever played, Dr. Gediman is still an unequivocal highlight of an otherwise messy movie. If you make kissy faces at an acid-blooded alien through a glass observation tank, you’re inviting chaos into your life. It’s good to know that tiny little ponytails still exist in the year 2381. (Meg Shields)
4. Urban Legend (1998)
In one of his shortest performances on the list, what makes Dourif’s role in Urban Legend so memorable is that it leans full-tilt into his chops as a character actor. In the film’s opening scene, Dourif plays a stuttering gas station attendant on a lone stretch of road in the middle of a stormy night. He’s instantly positioned as a threat, his rough-around-the-edges energy raising red flags for college student Michelle (Natasha Gregson Wagner). But this is only used as an ironic twist. For while Dourif may appear like a budding killer, he is nothing more than a concerned citizen trying to warn Michelle about a killer reenacting one of the most famous urban legends of all time. As he screams, “Someone’s in the backseat,” we both cheer at being able to say, “I get that reference,” and shiver as we make mental notes to always check the back of the car before embarking on our next road trip. (Jacob Trussell)
3. Spontaneous Combustion (1990)
For all its grotesque gore and rad flame effects, Spontaneous Combustion is a film about internal torment resulting in external agony. Dourif excels in selling the bubbling pain within as Sam struggles to understand his origin and the strange command he has over fire. His screams hurt, and his whines ache. And he does a lot of both over the course of Tobe Hooper‘s film. In the hands of another performer, the role would probably come off as annoying. But Dourif is all relatable pain. Spontaneous Combustion drifts into B-movie trash on occasion. And you would forgive the lead from rolling down that hill, too. However, Dourif treats his time here as he does on every project: giving what he has for what’s needed. Don’t overlook this underrated outing from a top-tier character actor and a top-tier genre director. (Brad Gullickson)
2. Graveyard Shift (1990)
I’m a simple woman. If an esteemed character actor plays an unhinged Vietnam vet exterminator, I’ll clap like a happy baby. While the rest of the so-called civilized world has yet to recognize the brilliance of Graveyard Shift, this website’s fine contributors are a small oasis of good sense. One man’s sub-par Stephen King adaptation is another (smarter) man’s goopy delight. Graveyard Shift tells of a rotten deathtrap of a cotton mill, which also happens to have a massive rat problem (in more ways than one).
While the dubiously Maine-accented foreman (Stephen Macht) is more than happy to throw his underpaid workers at the problem, even he is smart enough to send for a true professional. Enter Tucker Cleveland, the Exterminator. Armed with state-of-the-art chemical warfare, his trusty terrier, and a red-hot hatred for the vermin used to torture his fellow GIs by the Vietcong, Tucker is as unhinged as a sliding glass door. Is he shell-shocked? Yes. Does he start crying at the mere suggestion of rodent-killing? Yes. Does he suffer one of the most brutal deaths of any Brad Dourif character? Also Yes. Graveyard Shift is perhaps the greatest instance of anyone giving Dourif a blank check to be as weird and weepy as he wants. More movies should do this. (Meg Shields)
1. The Exorcist III (1990)
It’s wild that we all agree on the best Exorcist film being William Peter Blatty‘s The Exorcist III (1990). Fine fine, I know I’m alone on that one, but more of you are probably on my side when it comes to the best Brad Dourif performance in a horror film (outside the Chucky franchise) being his brief turn here as the Gemini Killer. He’s physically restrained, seated, and literally in a straitjacket, but his performance is filled with violent life as he recounts working for “the Master” and murdering with artistic abandon. There’s no real danger here, but it’s as menacing, threatening, and ominous a delivery as you’ll find. Anger, ego, and devilish confidence collide as he shifts from regaling us with the details of a kill to singing a religious song to sharing a love of plays. It’s controlled madness, and it is unforgettable. (Rob Hunter)
Don’t cry because it’s over. Cry because it happened. Oh, and while you’re weeping, head on over to our archive of past 31 Days of Horror Lists!