Prepare to be very scared. Top 10 Films editor Dan Stephens takes a look at his scariest scenes in horror cinema. Now turn down the lights and HOLD ON..!
The horror genre produces some of the most iconic movies to grace cinema as well as some of the most derided. It might have been dismissed by some as low-grade entertainment, satisfying the darkest fetishes of society’s social outcasts and degrading our youth, but horror gives audiences the sort of frenzied adrenaline rush other forms of cinema cannot achieve. In effect, fictional entertainment should take you out of yourself and into the satisfying and gratifying world of the make-believe. Horror achieves this like no other genre because it breaks down those inherent defence mechanisms by focusing on our primal instincts.
It was difficult picking ten scary moments from the countless horror movies I’ve seen. The task is made harder by the fact such a list is more subjective than the majority of film lists. What is scary for me may well be amusing to someone else (exampled by the countless amount of people who think The Exorcist is funny not horrifying – but I think most of them are lying!). However, I’ve chosen the films below very carefully, and I’ve based my choices not only on the impact of the scenes themselves but the quality of the movie they appear in. By most estimations, certainly mine, the films presented below are fantastic examples of the genre and prove their quality with some cracking sequences that leave chills in the spines of the most hardened audiences.
I should mention that this article does contain spoilers for the movies mentioned so if you haven’t seen any of the films below, don’t read the accompanying words.
Get yourself a drink, turn down the lights, and prepare yourself for the top 10 scariest horror movie moments!
10. The Vanishing (George Sluizer, France/Holland, 1988)
The Vanishing is a peculiar movie. It was badly remade by Hollywood when it should have been left alone. Alas, as a foreign movie with subtitles, it is still largely undiscovered outside of horror aficionados and foreign film buffs but I’d recommend anyone with a passing interest in psychological horror to check it out.
I say the film is peculiar simply because it has the sort of tone and doom-like quality that really gets under your skin. It’s also peculiar, and in many ways innovative, through its depiction of the killer. The story begins when a couple on a travelling holiday stop at a petrol station. The girl disappears, beginning a long and desperate attempt by her boyfriend to find her. In films of a similar nature the identity of the killer or kidnapper is hidden from the audience in order to provide the element of “whodunnit”. Director George Sluizer actually tells us who the killer is, giving us a fairly good indication that the girl has been killed. The interest lies in both the boyfriend and the kidnapper’s lives – how they interact and eventually meet, and perhaps some inkling to their motivations, one in search of lost love, the other their drive to commit atrocity.
The scene that provides the biggest scare is the film’s climatic sequence. In the boyfriend’s attempts to find his girlfriend he eventually tracks down the kidnapper. We as the audience know he’s found the right person but he is unsure. The kidnapper actually tells him he did take his girlfriend but doesn’t say whether she’s alive or what he did to her. He simply tells the boyfriend that if he really wants to know what happened to his lover, he has to show him. There’s a powerful sequence when the boyfriend has to make the decision. He’s searched for his lost love for a long time and now, maybe, he has the chance to finally find out what happened to her. But he doesn’t trust this man, and he doesn’t know what will happen to him if he agrees. His overriding obsession to learn the truth of that day at the petrol station when she disappeared colours his decision and he says yes to the kidnapper’s demands.
The scene that follows is my tenth scariest moment in horror cinema. The kidnapper gives the boyfriend a drink which puts him to sleep. He awakes in darkness. He fumbles for the lighter in his pocket, which eventually produces a flame. The dim light shows him exactly what happened to his lost love, and simultaneously his own demise. He’s lying in a coffin, buried in the ground, left to die. There’s no escape and no one’s going to save him. The effect on the viewer is harrowing and long-lasting.
9. The Exorcist III (William Peter Blatty, USA, 1989)
The Exorcist, my favourite horror film, is as you’d expect full of great scary moments. I’ve kept myself down to just two moments in my top ten but I’ve had to include this brilliant scene from the second sequel.
Directed by The Exorcist novel and screenplay writer William Peter Blatty, Exorcist III was his retort to John Boorman’s sequel, which he hated. It tells the story of a police officer who – having investigated the events of the first film, including the mysterious death and beheading of the film director who fell from Regan’s window – falls onto another religiously-inspired murder plot. Seeing chilling similarities between these new events and what went before, he’s drawn to Father Karras who is now holed up in a mental institution.
The scene that never fails to deliver is more a jump-out-of-your-seat moment than the scene in The Vanishing. It takes place in a hospital where some strange goings-on have taken place. In the middle of the night, the only nurse on duty is doing her regular checks on the hospital beds. There is a security guard on duty so it seems safe. The camera just watches down the corridor. The security officer walks out of sight for a moment. The nurse heads back to the reception station. Again, everything seems fine but now she’s well and truly alone. We’ve seen her entering and exiting rooms with no alarm. She checks on another room and then exits. Suddenly she is tracked by a hooded killer preparing to stab her. The scene is beautifully paced. Through its simplicity it’s frighteningly real.
8. Rosemary’s Baby (Roman Polanski, USA, 1968)
When picking this list I kept thinking I’m forgetting great scary moments in film’s that aren’t very good. It’s easy to remember those great films and scenes within them, but it’s more difficult to remember those poor movies you’ve purposely drained from memory. For example, there’s some odd moments and a great ending in that Oliver Reed haunted house flick Burnt Offerings but the film isn’t up to much. My choice for No. 8 scariest moment is, however, not in that category. Rosemary’s Baby is not only one of the best examples of the genre, it’s one that stays with you long after the credits have rolled.
Rosemary’s Baby is another mood piece. Roman Polanski hides the macabre, chilling undertone under a surface of domestic dysfunction. Mia Farrow is superb in the role of Rosemary and her pregnancy is one of the most iconic in horror cinema. The scene that stands out for me is what can only be termed ‘The Devil’s Rape’.
In the scene she is on a bed surrounded by her strangely over-protective neighbours. She can’t move or escape, and her disorientation caused by poisoning makes it difficult to decipher what is occurring. But she knows she’s been raped. It’s only when Polanski gives us a single frame image of the rapist’s face that we discover it isn’t a man or a woman forcing them selves upon her. It’s the Devil.
7. The Omen (Richard Donner, USA, 1976)
The Omen was one of those horror films I saw when I was probably too young to watch it. I remember seeing it in my parent’s VHS collection and knew instinctively it was out of bounds. Firstly, it had the UK rating of 18, and secondly, it had that horrid image of a boy clad in black with a jackal’s shadow. The poster is brilliantly conceived but it’s one hell of a scary proposition.
The scene I refer to as my seventh scariest horror movie moment is perhaps the film’s most famous. When the father of a child he believes to be the son of the Devil travels to mainland Europe with his photographer friend to investigate the child’s mysterious birth, things take a turn for the worse. Director Richard Donner sets up the scene in question perfectly with a haunting sequence in a graveyard where the father discovers the mother of his child was an animal. From here we head back into town where a truck with sheets of glass is backing onto a construction site. The photographer, already pre-warned that his death will have something to do with his neck, has no time to save himself when a sheet of glass slides off the truck, through the air and, unfortunately for him, through his neck. The severed body part spins in the air before coming to a final resting spot.
6. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, USA, 1973)
William Friedkin’s The Exorcist is the greatest horror movie ever made. Therefore, I can’t help but choose two moments for my top ten list. The first of which is the head-spinning-foul-language-crucifix-masturbation sequence. There aren’t any more words required other than that. Disturbing, graphic, and stays with you long after the scene ends.
5. Alien (Ridley Scott, USA, 1979)Ridley Scott changed the way science-fiction was viewed heading into the 1980s; he empowered the female hero, and he inspired a slew of brilliant sci-fi horror movies to be made over the coming years as well as one of the genre’s most iconic franchises.
The scene I place at No. 5 is another rather obvious choice. The set up is fairly simple. The crew of the spacecraft Nostromo are awakened from hyper-sleep by a distress signal sent from a nearby planet. On investigating, one of the crew gets attacked and is left with an alien creature attached to his face. After several hours the creature seems to die and the crew member awakens. At first everything appears normal. The crew have one last meal before returning to hyper-sleep. However, Kane, the crew member who was attacked by the alien creature, begins convulsing at the dinner table. His chest begins to bleed then explodes from within. From the open wound, another creature appears. Kane, now dead, is left lying on the dinner table as the creature runs off into the ventilation shaft leaving the crew breathless and bemused.
The scene is one of the most remembered in horror cinema. Scott didn’t tell the actors how much blood was going to be caused by the violent death so their shocked reactions are very real. John Hurt, who played Kane, is so convincing during his chaotic demise. The scene was a definite first, and it’s a perfect example of blood and gore used correctly. That is – not overdone, not used for the sake of it, and not simply to shock or repulse the audience. In Alien, this scene is pivotal to character and plot, and since, at the time, we’d never seen anything like it before, it’s a banker in any Top 10 list.
4. An American Werewolf In London (John Landis, USA, 1981)
An American Werewolf In London is the best horror/comedy ever made. I think of it in such high regard because it has some wonderfully funny moments (David Naughton running around London Zoo with a child’s balloons covering his crown jewels; his best friend turning up beyond the grave and explaining to him how bored he is being dead) along with, as you’d expect, some hair-raising, gut-wrenching, sweaty-palm-inducing sequences that for years during my childhood left me sleeping with the light on.
John Landis’ film follows the misadventures of two friends who, having lost their way while travelling in England, find themselves being attacked on open moorland by a rabid beast. One of the friends is saved by a group of locals but the other is not so lucky and dies from his injuries. However, while recovering in a London hospital the survivor is visited by his dead friend who tells him he was bitten by a werewolf and will, at the next full moon, turn into one.
There are several fantastically frightening scenes in An American Werewolf In London, not least the brilliant point-of-view camerawork during the attack in the London Underground station, and the groundbreaking special-effects of the werewolf transformation. However, for pure terror, I’m always drawn to the scene on the moors that as a child really traumatised me. The prelude in the pub is a great set up, and that great line delivered by Brian Glover – “Beware the moon lads” – is so damn haunting. Landis directs the werewolf attack with claustrophobic close-ups, handheld motion, and a lovely backdrop of descending mist that appears to be closing in. The intermittent sounds of something circling them and the vast expanse of the moors offering no where to hide builds the tension. Then everything happens so quickly with fast-cuts, bloody images and the sounds of tearing flesh and screaming.
3. The Exorcist (William Friedkin, USA, 1973)
I’ve always felt that the scariest thing about The Exorcist is the possessed girl’s face when she’s beginning to fall more and more under the spell of her possessor. That’s testament to the special-effects and make-up teams who created a facial design that evokes such threatening images of pure evil. Much of that evil is conveyed through the girl’s eyes which take on a very animalist look. In choosing one moment when Regan – the victim – is at her most unsettling was a difficult proposition. I’ve already sought out one moment – the crucifix masturbation scene – as one iconic sequence of terror, but there’s so many more. Early in the film when Regan is screaming, her mother runs into the room only to see her daughter writhe and be dragged around the bed in an unnatural manner. The most horrifying thing about this scene is the two doctors, who witness the attack, have no clue as to the cause or offer any means of resolution. The fact science appears to be failing is one of the most difficult elements of the movie to stomach.
There’s also the scene in the hospital when they are taking brain scans of the girl believing, wrongly I might add, that her problems may be being caused by a tumour or other such brain anomaly. The machinery makes loud, deafening noises, and the young girl is in obvious agony.
The scene that I choose for my top ten list is, however, the most renowned of the film. Having tried countless doctors and medical tests, Regan’s mother becomes increasingly worried she can’t help her daughter. Unexplainable things are occurring of which no one has any answers and a death, which could be murder, took place from Regan’s bedroom window. Her only hope may lie in a priest – Father Karras. He visits Regan trying to establish whether she is possessed or simply mentally disturbed. Eventually, he is forced to believe in the unbelievable. Karras has to re-establish his connection to the faith he lost hope in when his mother died. Telling the church that he needs help, they send the only man equipped to handle the possessing demon.
My third scariest moment in horror cinema occurs when Father Merrin arrives at Regan’s home by taxi. He gets out of the car and looks up to her bedroom window where a beam of bright light streaks down to his feet. Director William Friedkin inter-cuts Merrin’s arrival with shots of Regan’s animalistic eyes looking directly at camera, daring you the viewer to deny that pure, demonic evil does not exist.
2. The Blair Witch Project (Daniel Myrick/Eduardo Sanchez, USA, 1999)
The Blair Witch Project was the best horror movie of the 1990s and one of the most groundbreaking since the 1970s. Filmed with grainy video and a 16mm black and white film camera by the actors, the movie had an authenticity never before achieved. The film was more than just a movie, it was a definitive precursor to the You Tube generation and reality television, and it used the internet to generate a cheap but brilliant buzz that inferred the events depicted in the film were real.
The film – a pseudo-documentary supposed to be edited together from lost footage – saw three filmmakers set out to document the Blair Witch myth in the Maryland woodland. Beginning in retrospect, the viewer is told the students went missing in the woods never to be found. The only thing discovered were their film cameras and the footage held within. What we see is their footage, culminating in their ultimate demise. A demise that leaves many questions unanswered.
The best scene in the movie is the scene I pick for my second favourite scary moment of all time. The students, having completely lost their way in the woods, are becoming increasingly disorientated. After an unscheduled extra night in the woods one of the students disappears. Still lost, paranoia rampant, the two remaining students settle down for another night lost in the woods. They hear strange noises including their missing friend crying out in pain. As another day turns to dark they get back into their tent and try to get some sleep. Suddenly they hear voices of children all around them. Then, what appear to be hands start frantically pushing at the tent. Terrified, the two students make a hasty exit and run away into the woods screaming for their lives. We never find out what was pushing on the tent.
1. Jaws (Steven Spielberg, USA, 1975)
I only recently read the Peter Benchley novel that Steven Spielberg’s film is based on. It came as little surprise, given the quality of Jaws the movie, that its cinematic incarnation is an exceedingly more pleasing experience than its literary form. Jaws is one of those anomalies – the film is better than the book.
Jaws was a massive hit in 1975. It paved the way for George Lucas’ Star Wars and began the trend of multimillion dollar blockbuster movies. Jaws became a summer event in itself and firmly placed Spielberg at the top of the movie brats.
Everyone knows the story by now. Amity Island is being terrorised by a shark with a taste for human blood. Chief Brody hires the help of shark specialist Matt Hooper and fisherman Quint to catch and kill the big fish. On one night time expedition, Hooper and Brody find an unmanned boat. Hooper, for reasons of insanity and dramatic tension, decides to don his scuba diving gear and swim underneath the stricken boat. Naturally, that’s when my all time favourite scary moment occurs.
Hooper enters the water lit by fluorescents from his boat and the diving torch in his hand. He heads under the boat and finds a sizeable hole beneath the water line. He goes towards the hole and finds a large shark’s tooth caught in the wood. He shines his torch on the tooth in order to examine it. Then, with perfect timing, a human face with a severed eye floats out the hole. Hooper screams, drops the tooth which disappears into the murky depths, and swims to the surface to tell Brody he’s just had the fright of his life.
I can’t think of a more perfect scary moment in horror cinema and I bet I’m not the only one to think this is the best of them all.
Over to you: what are your fave scary movie scenes?