Wednesday, October 28, 2020

Top Ten Things: Scary Movie Moments

Welcome to another edition of Top Ten Things, here at!

Since it's October I thought I'd do a Halloween-themed list, so today I'll be talking about truly frightening or disturbing moments/scenes in some of my favorite scary films.  I generally don't scare very easy when watching a film; I've seen so many in my lifetime, and coming up with new ways to shock audiences becomes more difficult with each passing year.  But there are some cinematic scares that have endured for me, either because of a visually harrowing moment, or because of the sheer genius of a scene's construction.

10. The Shining: Bear Suit - This first entry isn't terrifying in the traditional sense, but I've included it more because it's such a strange and upsetting image.  In this scene from one of the all-time horror classics, Wendy Torrance is running through the halls of the haunted Overlook Hotel trying to find her son.  She stops in her tracks and the camera abruptly zooms in through the open doorway of one of the rooms, on a ghost dude in a bear suit pleasuring another ghost dude in a tux.  The novel provides an explanation for these supernatural shenanigans, but it's so much more effective as an unexplained cinematic bit.  This visual is so traumatic, so bizarre and disorienting, for both Wendy and the audience, particularly since neither of these men is supposed to be there.  It's like something out of a nightmare that you can barely remember; one of those dreams where you can only recall fragments of out-of-context imagery that stay with you for weeks.

Seriously, what the hell's goin' on?

9. Invasion of the Body Snatchers: Pointing - The 1978 remake of this sci-fi classic (in my opinion the best version by far) ends with the entire city of San Francisco being taken over by human-impersonating pod people.  The protagonist Matthew Bennell has seemingly escaped without being assimilated and is spotted by his friend Nancy, one of the few humans left in the city.  As she approaches him, he turns and lets out the signature body snatcher screech, revealing to us that he's one of them, and alerting the other pod people to Nancy's presence.  It's a truly terrifying conclusion to the film, and the visual of Donald Sutherland pointing at her accusingly with this inhuman facial expression is an iconic horror moment.

If you ever suspect someone of anything, just point at them like this
and I guarantee they'll own up to every shitty thing they've ever done.

8. 28 Days Later: The Church - The first hour of this film is incredibly effective (it lost me in the third act when the bike courier turned into John McClane).  Danny Boyle shot the movie on digital video, which both gives it a documentary feel (pretty much always a good choice for horror as on some level it tricks our brains into believing it's real), and bestows everything with a sense of urgency.  In this scene the main character Jim is wandering the deserted streets of London after waking up from a coma, during which the entire country has been stricken with a fast-spreading virus that turns people into rabid, mindless killing machines.  Jim finds a church and goes in for a minute before discovering that the place appears to be full of dead bodies.  Jim makes a noise and suddenly two "zombies" pop up from the shadows and chase him.  The frenzied aggression on their faces coupled with the sharpness of their movement (2003 audiences were used to slow lumbering zombies) makes this little moment one of the most effective scares I've ever seen.

Scariest church ever.

7. An American Werewolf in London: Dream Sequence - One of my favorite werewolf films, I first tried to watch An American Werewolf in London when I was about eight years old.  I got about halfway through and decided it was just too scary.  A number of moments took their toll on me that night - David and Jack being attacked on The Moors, Jack's mutilated ghost appearing to David, David's dream about hunting and killing a deer - but the scene that upset me to the point of not finishing the movie (until years later) was the dream sequence where David is wandering through the woods and sees himself asleep in his hospital bed with the nurse standing over him.  Then Hospital-Bed David opens his eyes and mouth to reveal a ghoulish monster face with glowing yellow eyes and fangs.  It was a tremendous shock to eight-year-old Justin and I still consider it one of the most purely scary moments in the film.

That makeup still freaks me out.

6. Aliens: In The Ceiling - Aliens is one of my all-time favorite movies of any genre.  I saw it when I was eleven and it was such an intense experience I initially wasn't sure I'd get through it.  But once it was over I knew I'd seen something truly special.  The entire last hour of this film maintains an incredible fever pitch through a string of great sequences, but the biggest "oh shit" moment for me is when the seven or eight surviving humans are holed up in the medlab and the power's been cut.  Their scanners indicate a massive alien presence surrounding the room and ever closing in, but the doors have been sealed.  Still the scanners show the creatures getting closer.  After determining the aliens would have to be inside the room, Cpl. Hicks decides to check above the ceiling panels.  He climbs on a chair, lifts up a panel, swings his flashlight around, and the reveal shows a dozen aliens crawling toward him through the ventilation shaft.  This horrifying revelation sets off the extended multi-tiered climax of the film and still holds up for me as one of the great cinematic moments of utter dread.

I once had a 2 AM moment like this at my old apartment -
I got out of bed to pee, and when I turned on the light
they were EVERYWHERE........the cockroaches I mean.

5. Se7en: Sloth - David Fincher's neo-noir masterpiece is bursting with bleak atmosphere and disturbing imagery, but no scene is quite as unsettling as when Detectives Mills and Somerset discover "sloth," the drug addict and child molester whom our antagonist serial killer has kept tied to a bed barely clinging to life for a full calendar year.  Little more than a skeletal apparition covered by a taut layer of skin, the victim appears to have died from the ordeal, until one of the cops shines a light into his eyes and he coughs and flails wildly, startling the bejeezus out of everyone in the room.  Se7en is one of the darkest films I've ever seen, and this particular moment is ingenious in its psychological cruelty.

Keith Richards was amazing in this scene.

4. Night of the Living Dead: Killing Mom - The film that birthed the zombie genre as we know it, George Romero's low-budget classic is spectacularly dreary and unforgiving.  To this day I can't see a large empty field, a cemetery, or a farmhouse in the middle of nowhere without thinking of the imagery from this film.  The most distressing scene occurs late in the movie when the house is being overrun by zombies, and one of the protagonists, Helen runs downstairs to what she thinks is a safe basement, only to discover that her daughter Karen (who had been bitten) has died and turned into a zombie herself.  Helen slowly backs away in disbelief and falls, paralyzed with fright as Karen picks up a masonry trowel and proceeds to hack her mother to death.  This has to be one of the most starkly brutal scenes ever filmed up to that point.  It upset me as a preteen, and I still find it very unnerving.

I've always hated gardening.

3. The Descent: Stuck in the Tunnel - I (like many people) would classify myself as a claustrophobic.  It's just a perfectly natural thing to fear being shut up in a small, confining space.  I get a bit freaked out watching any National Geographic documentary where people go crawling down into caves.  Therefore any movie that deals with this subject will immediately have at least a little horror credibility for me.  Case in point is Neil Marshall's awesome 2005 film, The Descent, about a group of women whose favorite hobby is spelunking.  They climb thousands of feet into the earth and eventually encounter vampire-like creatures who begin knocking them off one-by-one.  But what's crazy is the scariest moment in the film happens before these cave-dwelling pests ever show up.  Early on as the women are crawling through a narrow tunnel, the main character Sarah lags behind, gets stuck and has a panic attack.  Right there I'm already terrified; were I in that situation I'd quiver into a mass of gelatin.  Sarah's friend Beth goes back to talk her through, and as they're sharing a joke, the ceiling of the tunnel starts to shift.  Frantically they shimmy to the other end just before the opening collapses.  Now don't get me wrong, the rest of this movie is genuinely scary, but this one moment trumps anything having to do with vampire people, because this shit could actually happen.

"Help, I'm stuck!" said the Big Mac I ate three hours ago.

2. The Thing: Spider Head - John Carpenter's classic remake of The Thing contains several all-time great horror moments, but the big one for me occurs about halfway through.  The Antarctic outpost has been sieged by this human-and-dog-imitating monster, and no one knows anymore who to trust.  The geologist Norris seemingly has a heart attack and the station doctor tries to revive him with a defibrilator.  Norris's chest opens up into a gaping monster mouth, revealing that Norris is actually the Thing.  A huge spider-like creature jumps out of Norris's belly before being incinerated by a flamethrower.  Stubbornly, the Thing attempts another getaway, as what was Norris's head separates from his body, grows legs, and tries to crawl away.  This scene is grotesque, surreal, unrelenting, and staggeringly imaginative.  The makeup effects by Rob Bottin are the stuff of legend.  I think chopper pilot Palmer's line sums it up perfectly: "You gotta be fucking kidding....."

Spider-Head, Spider-Head, does whatever a Spider-Head does.....

1. Silence of the Lambs: Meeting Hannibal - When it comes to pure abject horror, for me the thrill is in the anticipation.  Sure a jump-scare scene is always good for a fleeting moment of fright, but when a film takes its time to fully set up the mood, the payoff can last several seconds, several minutes, or the entire remainder of the movie, without being diffused.  This is how I felt about the introduction of Hannibal Lecter in Silence of the Lambs.  At the outset we meet FBI rookie Clarice Starling, who perfectly represents our view of the events about to unfold.  She's inexperienced, in over her head, and unprepared to face the embodiment of evil that is Lecter.  The filmmakers brilliantly depict Starling being warned about Lecter by both her boss Jack Crawford and the asylum's administrator Dr. Chilton.  The scene where Chilton walks her to Lecter's cell block might be the most important scene in the film, in terms of hyping this malevolent character.  "On the evening of July 8th, 1981, he complained of chest pains and was taken to the dispensary. His mouthpiece and restraints were removed for an EKG. When the nurse leaned over him, he did this to her."  By the time Clarice makes that long slow walk down the hall to Lecter's cell we are petrified about what she's going to find there.  And it's even more disquieting when we find he's not a raving, frenzied maniac, but a controlled, polite, soft-spoken gentleman, and more, he's standing at attention, waiting for her.  He is the opposite of what we expect; we haven't even been subjected to his evil yet.  That comes much later in the film.  Silence of the Lambs is a virtuosic exercise in truly palpable suspense.

Dude, he's just standing there smiling, greeting me politely,

Got any others that I missed?  Tell me about it in the Comments section!

That'll do it for this column, but stay tuned at for more Halloween-themed stuff!

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