As Women of Horror Month befalls us, and we reflect upon all of the distinctive female actresses that make up the singularly-dubbed “Scream Queens” of the horror community, few have delivered as many grappling performances as the beloved Aussie and acting chameleon known as Toni Collette.
From her dry, comedic turns within horror comedies like 2011’s Fright Night remake and 2015’s Krampus, to her soul-crushing, vulnerable deliverances within The Sixth Sense (1999) and last year’s groundbreaking Hereditary, Toni Collette has provided a necessary beating heart and esteem to a genre that is unfairly misunderstood and looked down upon by horror skeptics for being considered “unfair” or “disrespectful” to its female characters.
In 1999, at the mere age of 25, Collette was cast in her first genre fare, in the surprise phenomenon of the late ‘90s, The Sixth Sense. Her character, Lynn Sear, is a loving, single mom (complete with an accurate Philadelphia accent and all) who recognizes that something is very off with her young son Cole— but as hard as she tries, she cannot help him, since she doesn’t see or understand the demons he faces, while she also tries to make sense of her own losses, as well as juggling her responsibilities to keep the roof over her and her son’s heads. We first see the specialness within her performance during a scene in which she is told by Cole’s pediatrician that he has scratches and bruises on his body, in which the doctor indirectly questions/accuses Lynn of abuse. Lynn’s broken heart is visible to the viewer, as Collette, with her glazed, teary eyes, delivers the lines: “You think I hurt my child? You think I’m a bad mother?” However, the scene that exemplifies Lynn’s pain— and subsequently led to Collette’s first Academy Award nomination the following year— was the car scene towards the film’s final act, in which Cole breaks the lack of communication with his mother, and reveals to her that the spirit of her mother/his grandmother visits him. Lynn asks him if she makes her mother proud, and her facial expressions transform from fear and skepticism to tears of surprised joy and relief. Collette’s turn as Lynn represented the embodiment of what single moms go through when they are trying to balance it all, while internally struggling because they are not doing everything perfectly at all times. This performance would mark the first of several brave roles Collette has carefully taken over the years about what it means to be a mother to a family who is experiencing horrors and traumas that are far beyond her control.
In the remake of the ‘80s classic Fright Night and in the Christmas horror cult movie Krampus, Collette received the opportunity for much-needed light-heartedness, as she, once again, plays two different variations of mothers who are just doing their best with their warped familial situations. In her smaller role in Fright Night, Collette is relatable as a likeable, single, 40-something mom who expresses cautious interest in the new, hunky neighbor that lives next door. As she wearingly lusts after Colin Farrell’s secretive Jerry from afar, she serves as a reminder that yes, even moms have needs, and that sometimes even wise, all-knowing mothers can fall for the charms of an attractive façade, that likely hides a wicked (and fanged) identity underneath. In Krampus, Collette gets to bust out her darkly humorous side for a role as the matriarch within a dysfunctional Christmas celebration. As her character welcomes her family into her beautifully decorated home— complete with poinsettias galore and a fancy Christmas dinner she prepared herself— she keeps her poise, as the family snarkily comments on her efforts looking as if “Martha Stewart threw up in here.” Every woman who has ever had to deal with ungrateful jerks during the holidays after putting forth so much effort can identify with Collette’s warmness, as she quietly reminds herself, “It’s Christmas,” before she loses her cool. Additionally, she does whatever she can to protect her character’s son, as he inadvertently brings Krampus into their home, to the best of her ability as well. In both horror comedies, Collette perfects the terrified, what-is-lurking-behind-the-corner face in the scarier scenes, while appreciating the film’s lighter tones, and not overdoing it with campiness.
And then last year’s Hereditary came along, and none of us were ready. The horror community fell in love with Toni all over again, breaking our hearts while simultaneously terrifying us, with her iconic performance as Annie Graham, a fearful (and feared) mother of two, who is led into a slaughterous betrayal after decades of being manipulated and lied to by an emotionally abusive mother— while doing her best to protect her children and her husband from forces she never fully comprehends, until it is too late.
As astounding as the film is on its own, Hereditary simply would not work without Collette’s commitment. She is so hauntingly convincing throughout, that I never felt like I was watching Toni Collette portraying a role— I felt as if I was entering Annie Graham’s unendurable world— a three-dimensional character who Collette brings to life through her elastic face, that contorts and changes within every mortifying sequence. One of the greatest examples of this is within the film’s memorable sleepwalking scene: as Annie walks slowly into Peter’s room and sees his head covered in ants, the camera lingers on her mortified face— her mouth gaped so wide that it looks physically painful— as her shoulders softly shake. Within 30 seconds, Collette morphs entirely, as Annie changes from horrified, to flat-out cruel. The way she instantaneously covers her mouth in shock, after her own hateful words make their way into the atmosphere, and she reveals that she “never wanted to be (Peter’s) mother” is perfection. Collette brings a realness to this scene in a way that so few films that portray unconventional mothers typically do.
Of course, many of Hereditary’s sequences are a showcase for Collette’s wide range of dramatic talent. In the first act, as Annie seeks help from a grief therapy session, she begins to open up to speak, and then awkwardly stops herself a couple times initially. She then starts to explain her family history, while vulnerably sobbing to complete strangers, tearfully claiming that she just doesn’t “want to put any more stress on (her) family.” After the shock of discovering Charlie’s dead body, Collette screams her daughter’s name in debilitating agony, wallowing on the floor of her bedroom in visceral grief— which never fails to make me cry after the many times I’ve rewatched the film. Thinking she will sacrifice herself by throwing Charlie’s book into the fire, she lovingly looks into her husband’s eyes, tells him he is the love of her life and gives him one hard kiss— so beautifully that her on-screen chemistry with Gabriel Byrne feels like the real thing. And by Hereditary’s brutal conclusion, Collette makes a 180-degree turn, as her character’s possession scenes are some of the most mind-searing horror moments of recent memory. From her quiet lurking in the shadows to her dead-eyed, close-up stares during her decapitation— she has haunted us since the film’s initial release.
For what the car scene displayed of her talent in The Sixth Sense, Collette’s monologue within the dinner table scene in Hereditary is that in spades.
During an awkward family dinner where Annie is feeling like an outsider more than ever, her son forces her into expressing her frustrations, and Collette reaches a crescendo of intensity that personifies her depth to this character’s pain. She slams the silverware as she yells at her son for his “f*cking face on (his) face,” before she looks up to the sky and wishes this tragedy could have brought them closer together. Just when we think she’s starting to lessen her anger towards him, she goes right back to screaming in his face. The sheer terror she exudes when she proclaims at the top of her lungs, “Because NOBODY admits anything they’ve done!!” makes this scene—in which nothing inherently scary is happening— absolutely the stuff of nightmares. Annie finally unleashes years of pent-up resentment, anger, and pain— to the point in which Collette gives out an audible gasp of relief after sitting back down in her chair. Acting at its finest.
Even since Hereditary’s world premiere at last year’s Sundance Film Festival, even the most skeptical critics who condone horror raved about her empathic performance. The dinner table scene alone should have guaranteed her a second Academy Award nomination, but we can be grateful for her winning the Gotham Award, Independent Spirit Award, and various Critics Circles’ Awards for Best Performance by a Lead Actress. At the end of the day, all of her performances speak for themselves, whether they are officially recognized by genre-biased award shows or not.
For an actress who has said numerous times that she will not watch horror films because she is too afraid, Toni Collette is truly fearless in regards to her roles. Collette’s performances embody what the horror genre is at its core: facing your darkest demons and innermost fears and transforming the pain into art— which is why she is one of our favorite women in horror.