It's a debate I've participated in for years. Can a film, a horror film in particular, be considered good or effective if the performances aren't very strong? Do we really turn into a horror film and expect realism and quality on the part of the actors?
I know my answer is almost always yes. We do need good performances or else the actors and the director failed to accomplish their mutual goal of conveying the story as effectively as possible. If I don't believe in the performances, I'm unlikely to believe the story. And if I don't believe the story, I feel like I'm wasting my time. And if I'm wasting my time, I'm not likely to say kind things about a film.
All of this is coming to mind because I watched what some consider the quintessential evil child film for the first time last night: Children of the Corn. Based on Stephen King's short story of the same name, Children of the Corn concerns an adult couple who happen to drive through the wrong town on a trip. Three years before, the children rose up against the adults of the town, slaughtered them all, and began worshiping a boy named Isaac who preached of "He who walks behind the rows" of the cornfield. The result is a very unnerving set-up for a feature film.
So why all of this talk about performances? Simple. The cast is pretty awful. From the children who don't seem to have received much coaching to the adult stars who have nothing to work with, director Fritz Kiersch either failed at directing his actors or had such a stylized interpretation of reality he wanted the performances to be that awkward. Despite these major glaring issues, I was scared by this film. The children were so off in their line reading and performances they turned from horrible to terrifying. They weren't really human: only unreasonable facsimiles of humanity. The adults had to fade to the background to bring out how creepy the scenario really was.
Are there even bigger issues than the acting? You betcha. The special effects in the final reel are bad. Like, if I put a wig on a watermelon and smashed it with a sledgehammer, it would look more realistic than the raging clouds and killer cornfield of this film.
Then there are the inconsistencies. It's almost like Kiersch could not figure out which characters he wanted to focus on, so he threw them all at you in random spurts. The film starts with a child's voice over narration that disappears twenty minutes in. Then we follow the adult couple, switching between husband and wife for another thirty minutes. Throughout those fifty minutes, insurgent right hand religious teen Malachi takes over without saying a word and disappears just as quickly. Then the voice over reappears for a few minutes only to never be touched on again. It's off balanced, and like all the other arguably poor aspects of the film, works.
I don't know how the film works so well. Nothing is particularly effective when looked at as an individual element, yet all of those slightly to really off elements combine to form a very effective horror film. I found myself on the edge of my seat for much of the film, wondering how much worse it could get.
So do horrors need good performances to be effective? It certainly can't hurt. I can imagine how much better the film would be with the right cast. But would the right cast have been as effective in conveying how unusual and off the circumstances were? It's a puzzle.