There are moments – shocking, unbelievable moments – in film that stay engraved in your mind forever. Some are horrific. The clearest pop culture example would be the shower scene in Psycho, a moment so unheard of at the time that director Alfred Hitchcock fought tooth and nail for it to happen at all. No studio wanted to back a movie that killed off the leading lady 1/3 of the way through. He financed much of it himself, and today even those that haven’t seen the full film know the scene. It’s just that effective.
There are plenty of lists and appraisals of the most effective and frightening scenes in horror. For the most part, they’re not dissimilar. They start with The Exorcist and end with Jaws, with a bit of Tod Browning and Hitchcock thrown in for good measure. It’s almost uniform to include them, sacrilege to not. And for good reason – these are the moments that tap into something so primal in all of us that not to fear them would put you on a watch list.
But there are a few unsung scenes that are sure to tickle your chill receptors. While a few of the following may be included on such lists everywhere, others seem to have fallen off the radar, or perhaps the movie is the same, but the scene in question is different. So sit down, turn off the lights, lock all the doors and windows, and take perverse pleasure in these nightmarish moments. But be forewarned, young soul, for this list may contain one of the Internet’s scariest elements: spoilers.
15. Suspiria – Opening
Dario Argento’s giallo classic is known primarily for its audacious first twenty minutes, a scene that almost barely connects to the rest of the film. After a young girl runs from a dance academy in the dark and pouring rain, she takes refuge at a friend’s apartment. Though its never immediately clear what scared her so, her friend invites her to relax. Soon it becomes apparent that someone is stalking them just outside the second story apartment. As one goes downstairs, the other is brutally murdered in the bathroom. Soon her body falls through the stained glass ceiling of the lobby, the glass gruesomely cutting through her friend below.
14. Don’t Look Now – Ending
Like the best of Argento, Nicolas Roeg’s harrowing, paranoid, tragic film is splashed with vibrant use of red as the camera takes us through the streets of Venice. It not only features a sex scene both erotic and surprisingly touching, but one of the most terrifying endings in film history.
From Daphne Du Maurier’s short story, the film follows Donald Sutherland and wife Julie Christie as they travel to the city on the water following the accidental death of their daughter. They come across a blind psychic who claims to have seen their daughter in a vision. While Sutherland remains skeptical about the woman’s abilities, Christie is convinced. Soon, though, Sutherland sees a small figure in the same red coat his daughter wore on the day of her death. He chases after it, cornering the small person…only to discover the figure is a murderous dwarf. As he lay dying, he comes to realize the mysterious occurrences throughout the film were his own psychic omens he refused to recognize.
13. Cat People – Alice Goes For A Swim
At the height of the popularity of Universal’s classic monsters, every other studio was looking to compete. RKO hired a young script/short story writer as the head of the horror division named Val Lewton. Lewton was largely given free rein, with three provisions: the budget for each film had to be under 150 grand, the films had to run less than 75 minutes, and the titles would be provided for him.
Lewton’s production, Cat People, was released in 1942. And, like all nine of the horror films he produced, the title was misleading. Indeed, there is a woman who believes she will turn into a cat in the throes of passion, but due to budgetary constrictions, its never seen. The horror in Lewton’s productions is by way of implication. The works themselves were far more creative than what would be expected. I Walked With a Zombie, for instance, is a loose adaptation of Jane Eyre with Haitian voodoo practices thrown in.
It’s Cat People, however, that contains one of the most atmospheric and jump-worthy scenes. The cursed cat woman has become jealous of her husband’s attractive assistant Alice. An animal – shown only in shadow and silhouette – begins stalking her. She jumps in the pool to evade the creature. Ultimately, the lights in the darkened poolroom are turned on and the terror subsides, but the build-up – aided by an excellent jump scare at a bus stop – is unrelenting.
12. Halloween – After School
Director John Carpenter‘s favourite shot in his original slasher classic is the establishing shot of Haddonfield, Illinois. And it’s not hard to see why. Though shot in the summer, dead autumn leaves slowly blow across an empty street as Carpenter’s minimalist piano score plays softly in the background. Part of what makes Halloween work so well today – despite suffering countless imitators – is the mood established and carried from that shot.
It’s never more evident than just after young Tommy Jarvis and Jamie Lee Curtis‘ Laurie Strode both finish school and wind up quietly stalked on their way home. For Tommy, it’s a jolting fright as the mute Michael Meyers grabs him by the shoulders as he runs from bullies. For Laurie, it’s a quiet, slow burn of a cat and mouse game she’s unaware she’s playing. First, the Shape (as he’s known in the credits) menacingly stops a car in the middle of nowhere, then he ducks behind a bush as Laurie and her friend approach it. This culminates in one final jump from the Sheriff.
11. The Omen – Father Brennan’s Impalement
After The Exorcist, a series of religious horror films dominated the box office. Some, such as The Sentinel, were received poorly. But Richard Donner’s The Omen managed to bring something fresh to the subgenre. Having a stellar cast including Gregory Peck, Lee Remick, and David Warner certainly didn’t hurt. The film itself, like Poltergeist, is considered haunted due to several mysterious events that occurred while filming. But what happens onscreen is plenty frightening.
After Father Brennan (Patrick Troughton) warns U.S. Ambassador Richard Thorne (Peck) that his secretly adopted son is, in fact, the antichrist, a storm gathers. The heavy winds pick up and thunder and lightning crash and boom around the priest. As he runs for a chapel, the weather worsens and Jerry Goldsmith’s classic score kicks up. Brennan runs for a nearby chapel, narrowly avoiding a strike of lightning just next to him. The door to the chapel is locked, and one final strike hits a spike on a statue atop the church. It falls like a lawn dart, going through the priest and holding him upright.
10. The Stepford Wives – Bobbie Malfunctions
The ’70s was the age of the conspiracy film. Most of these were political, but some focused on other pressing issues of the day. Bryan Forbes’ The Stepford Wives, from a novel by Ira Levin, tackled feminist concerns. Though it’s never explained exactly how, the men’s association in the quiet town of Stepford has found a way to turn their wives into sex starved, submissive robots. When Joanna Eberhart (Katherine Ross) moves there from the city with her family, she finds herself bored by the day to day housewife lifestyle. Soon she finds a kindred spirit in the carefree Bobbie (Paula Prentiss).
As the film winds down and the men’s association’s ultimate goal becomes clear, she runs to Bobbie one last time. But she’s not acting like herself. A hysterical Joanna stabs Bobbie in the stomach with a butcher knife. Bobbie’s circuitry goes on the fritz and, in a frenzy, begins taking coffee mugs from the cupboard, dropping them and repeating the same phrase over and over. It’s nerve-wracking to watch the most fun-loving character reduced to nothing more than a useless homemaker.
9. Rosemary’s Baby – Devil Dream
Ira Levin makes a second appearance on the list with Roman Polanski‘s adaptation of his work. Levin specialized in pulpy paranoia. When it worked well, so did the adaptations. The Boys From Brazil, The Stepford Wives, and Rosemary’s Baby are all excellent and so screen-ready that little is changed from book to film. When it doesn’t work well, you wind up with sub-softcore pornography like Sliver.
After Rosemary (Mia Farrow) and her husband Guy move into a new apartment building (shot at The Dakota, where John Lennon walked his last steps), they plan to conceive. A drugged Rosemary begins to experience a visceral nightmare during their love making in which she is raped by a beastly demon in front of Guy. The imagery is hypnotic, grotesque, and surreal. That is, until Rosemary realizes it’s not a dream at all, but it is very much happening.
8. Alien – Dallas in the Duct
Director Ridley Scott‘s haunted-house-in-space classic contains its share of “Boo” moments and flashes of gore, and it’s perhaps best remembered for the chest-bursting scene. The scene is gruesome and well-earned after nearly an hour of build up. However, after the titular creature grows to full size, the tension grows to damn near unbearable limits. Once the small crew realizes the alien has been using the air ducts to travel, no nonsense Captain Dallas (Tom Skerritt) decides to go hunting with a flame thrower. The ducts turn out to be a maze, and a small tracking device allows the rest of the crew to monitor the two life forms inside them as large, white dots on a map.
After the crew realizes the creature is right behind Dallas, he turns, only for it to attack before he can get a shot off. It’s not only a tense, well-orchestrated death, but a game changer. Much like Janet Leigh’s character in Psycho, Skerritt’s Dallas appeared, for all intents and purposes, to be the lead. Instead, he’s the third to be dispatched.
7. Dead and Buried – “Welcome to Potter’s Bluff”
The film Alien began as a screenplay called Star Beast written by Dan O’Bannon and Ronald Schusett. O’Bannon would later write and direct Return of the Living Dead, and Schusett wrote the little known Dead and Buried (O’Bannon’s name is also credited, though he disowned it after seeing none of his ideas were used). James Farentino plays a small town sheriff investigating a series of murders after which the victims appear around the neighbourhood as different people.
The opener is a shocker. A nameless photographer pulls up on a beach in his van and begins taking shots of generic beach junk. Then his lens catches a beautiful blonde. They flirt briefly, and soon he’s taking photos of her. As she exposes herself, he approaches her, only to suddenly be surrounded by a large group of people. They beat him and tie him to a pole, then, just before dousing him in gasoline, one says, “Welcome to Potter’s Bluff.” After burning, his charred body is found upside down in his burning van. As cop and coroner go in for a close look, the seemingly dead man suddenly screams in agony.
6. Re-Animator – Elevator Attack
H.P. Lovecraft adaptations are damn near unfilmable most of the time. The brief length of most of his short stories, combined with the unseen horror typically described in his work, don’t make for great cinema. Stuart Gordon’s Re-Animator, however, is the exception to the rule. Though it’s mostly played for laughs, there are moments of genuine terror.
After the evil, headless Dr. Hill (who now carries his head in his hands) re-animates an entire morgue into bloodthirsty zombies, heroes Dan and Megan run through the carnage to an elevator. One zombie manages an arm through the door and begins to choke Megan. Dan succeeds in…disarming the creature, but not before it claims the life of poor Megan. Desperate, Dan injects his love with the re-animation serum as the screen fades to black. Cue scream.
5. The Wicker Man – May Day
Robin Hardy’s 1973 horror/musical is a disconcerting experience throughout. As Sergeant Howie, a devout Christian, investigates a secluded island inhabited by a Pagan cult to find a missing girl, he experiences the ultimate test of his faith. The bizarre rituals, attempted seductions, and forthrightness of Pagan leader Lord Summerisle (Christopher Lee) seem as foreign and haunting to the audience as they do to Howie.
Things come to a head on May Day, as a frantic Howie runs through the community, desperately searching for the girl before she is to be sacrificed to ensure a prosperous harvest. As he searches, masked figures appear behind him at every corner, his paranoia begins to grow until he finally renders a villager unconscious and steals his costume. Each costumed villager is led to the sacrificial grounds, where they must put their head in the centre of crossed swords to prove their faith. Howie goes under like all the rest, but is spared – for then. The fate waiting for him is much worse.
4. The Howling – Chase
After a television news anchor is nearly assaulted in a sting operation to capture a serial killer, her psychiatrist recommends a stay at a colony for others coping. What others are coping with, it turns out, is not PTSD but rather lycanthropy.
The anchor’s friend sets off to the colony to warn her, only to find herself running for her life from one of the transformed patients. She succeeds in cutting the arm off the monster and takes refuge in the psychiatrist’s office. While searching through records, however, a hairy arm suddenly hands her a file.
3. Exorcist III – Beheading
After penning the original novel upon which William Friedkin’s 1974 film was based, William Peter Blatty returned to the franchise to write and direct the third entry. The film is based on his novel Legion, and though studio interference muddled the production, it still contains one of the most genuinely terrifying deaths ever filmed.
As a nurse makes the late night rounds at a mental hospital, the camera sits idle, watching the entire hallway as security and other doctors leave for the night. The nurse checks room after room, until it appears she comes across an empty one. She enters it, emerging moments later. As she walks away, a figure covered in a white sheet runs out with a pair of hedge clippers. Just as the clipper reach the back of her head, the camera cuts to a headless statue. The juxtaposition is surprisingly effective.
2. Candyman – The Funeral Pyre
The movie Candyman is not the standard slasher film. It has a lot more on its mind than blood and gore. Set in the south side Chicago projects, a serial killer appears to have taken on the persona of an urban legend concerning a slave brutally murdered for having an affair with the white daughter of his owner. After the serial killer is revealed, the real Candyman comes out to ensure his legend remains in the hearts and minds of the city.
So Candyman’s motives are two fold. He wishes to expose the old hypocrisies of racism and intolerance of interracial relationships and note that society still very much feels the same way. They just stopped lynching. To keep his legend intact, he sets up graduate student Helen (Virginia Madsen) by placing a kidnapped baby in the centre of a pyre in the projects. As she climbs in to save the child, all the neighbourhood sees is his signature hook. They set the pyre alight, burning Helen as she saves the baby, and setting her up to carry on Candyman’s mantle.
1. The Thing – Blood Test
It’s hard to believe John Carpenter’s remake of Christian Nyby’s (rumoured to be really directed by Howard Hawks) original was a critical and commercial disaster upon release. Hack critic Leonard Maltin still maintains his 1/2 star rating, but the rest of society has re-appraised the film as a modern classic.
Calling it a remake isn’t entirely accurate. Rather, it’s a much more faithful adaptation of the original John W. Campbell Jr. novella (the entire text of which can and should be read here) Who Goes There?
After realizing that the only way to tell human from imposter, MacReady (Kurt Russell) ties up the rest of his arctic outpost crew and takes a blood sample from each. Theorizing that any part of the titular alien will react when threatened, he begins touching each sample with a hot needle. It’s a masterfully directed scene, ratcheting up the tension with each test. The audience is just as in the dark as Russell, no indication has been given to which survivor may be an alien. No clues have been dropped, no hints, and the few chief suspects still alive are quickly crossed off the list.
Then it happens. The blood leaps and the infected starts to change, sending the entire room into chaos.