Are These the Scariest Movie Moments?
In the spirit of October, this list will look at scary scenes, but not from the horror classics directed by Craven or Carpenter or even Hitchcock (I’m excluding him, though I argue most of his work isn’t exactly horror). These are from the films that aren’t really meant to scare you. At least, not at the visceral level that horror films do. These are the fifty definitive moments from non-horror films that still made an impact on the “frightening front.” From shocking to creepy to unsettlingly hair raising, these are moments that will stick in your mind long after watching the films, even if they are part of a very different narrative.
The third installment of one of the greatest movie trilogies of all time is also one of the darkest children’s films ever made. But in a film that has a stuffed bear with the persona of a cult leader and a near closing scene that feels like a descent into Hell, the scariest moment takes place about two thirds through, when our beloved toys try to escape the daycare center with Lotso (Ned Beatty) – a stuffed bear – serving as a surrogate leader for the existing toys. Lotso’s ship is run like a cult – once you’re in, there’s no turning back. He’s welcoming and promises that any toy is free to go, but that exit is monitored by a cymbal banging little chimp who watches the security cameras at all times. The dark, surreal nature of the daycare center is frightening enough for children, but the chimp puts it over the top, with a terrifying face and an aggressive persona that goes beyond a cheap jump scare. And to think – this was a toy we used to give to kids for fun.
You would expect a movie called The Witches to be frightening, but not when it’s based on a Roald Dahl book (well, maybe if it’s based on a Roald Dahl book). Directed by Nicholas Roeg (he directed Don’t Look Now, so perhaps we should’ve known), The Witches is the story of Luke (Jasen Fisher), a young boy who loses his parents in a car accident and is taken in by his grandmother Helga. Eventually, Luke is exposed to a bevy of witches, but his first encounter comes while playing in his treehouse in the English countryside. The Woman in Black (Anne Lambton) approaches and tries to coax Luke down with the promise of a snake and chocolate (a real snake – alive and everything). This sets the narrative in motion, but the incredibly unpleasant first encounter is the one that sticks in the memory. The reveal of her purple eyes. Her attempts to lure him down like a child predator. In a film co-produced by Jim Henson with some creepy art direction and staging, the most frightening moment comes without the help of any special effects at all.
48. Leave Her to Heaven (1945)
Scene: Danny’s Death
One of the classic 1940′s film noirs that tends to be forgotten, John M. Stahl’s Leave Her to Heaven is a classic femme fatale story with a brilliantly devilish lead performance from Gene Tierney (Oscar-nominated). Told in flashback, novelist Richard (Cornel Wilde) meets socialite Ellen Berent (Tierney) on a train. Ellen immediately falls for him, mostly because he looks like her dead father. Plus, she’s already engaged to a Boston attorney (Vincent Price), whom she quickly tosses aside to marry her newfound love. Slowly, we learn how unbalanced and jealous Ellen is, refusing to let anyone else accept the care and love of her new husband. Richard’s brother Danny (Darryl Hickman) comes to stay with them at their lodge on the lake, drawing out Ellen’s hatred as she sees how much Richard cares for him. Mind you, eventually, Ellen throws herself down a flight of stairs to ensure a miscarriage; that’s terrible. But it’s her trip out on the lake with Danny that is the most frightening moment, as Danny talks a big game about how he can swim the lake, despite being unable to use his legs due to paralysis. Ellen doesn’t believe him and almost challenges him without saying so. Danny hops overboard but finds himself impossibly weighed down by his immobile legs. Ellen watches dead-eyed as Danny struggles to stay afloat, just out of the reach of the boat. It isn’t until Danny is already submerged and Richard comes to shore that she begins to scream. Tierney’s eyes are as cold and unloving as any ever on-screen in this oft-forgotten noir and this moment of sheer uncaring and disregard for another life is enough to make anyone’s skin crawl.
From the mind of famed misogynistic author Bret Easton Ellis, Mary Harron’s American Psycho could almost be classified as a horror film if it wasn’t so deliberately darkly comic. But within those mild traces of anti-establishment, 80′s pop culture comic moments comes a graphic and sometimes bloody edge that is stomach-turning. Patrick Bateman (Christian Bale) is a well-groomed, wealthy investment banker in New York City, obsessed with his appearance, his social standing, and his music collection, consisting of dozens of 1980′s staples, like Phil Collins and Whitney Houston. On top of all this, he is secretly a serial killer. So there’s that. In this world, the allure of your business card is what makes you stand out. When Patrick learns his associate Paul (Jared Leto) has a nicer business card than him, it throws Patrick into a fit of rage. He lures Paul to his apartment after getting him drunk and proceeds to layer the room with tarps and newspapers, while he wears a parka. He puts on Huey Lewis and the News’ hit “Hip to Be Square” and illustrates the importance of the subtext of the song and its writer/performer, all while preparing to ambush Paul with an axe. As intended, it’s kind of funny, despite the violence. But it’s also all the while terrifying to watch a man switch off and on between happy-go-lucky and menacing. We even get to see a little Bale moonwalk in there. But Bale’s breakout adult performance in this cult classic is one for the ages and one that points directly to that inner darkness he has drawn upon since, especially in this exceptionally memorable scene.
Produced by Hyperion Animation and distributed by Walt Disney, The Brave Little Toaster was an early offering from a group of animators that would eventually make up Pixar Animation Studios. The story centers on the titular toaster and his band of electronic appliances as they head out to find their original owner. Their log cabin has been put up for sale, so the appliances hook up a car battery to a rolling chair and keep themselves powered for the long journey. They are met with various trouble on their way through the wilderness, but the moment in question actually happens early in the film, when the toaster has a dream about his owner. In this dream, he sees his owner making morning toast, only to watch smoke pour out of his slots. The smoke morphs into a hand and grabs his owner, giving way to a towering fire and a menacing clown in firefighter attire holding a hose. He leans into the toaster (we are watching through the toaster’s eyes) and whispers “Run.” From there, it’s a chase as the toaster tries to get away from a tidal wave, only to end up falling into a bathtub and waking up. While only given a limited release in theaters, The Brave Little Toaster found new life of VHS, giving birth to two sequels of lesser quality. It was distributed by Disney, but never really gets included into the Disney canon very often, predating the Disney renaissance that began with The Little Mermaid in 1989. But the influence of the Pixar approach was there – an adult story veiled by a children’s adventure that was darker than most give it credit for.
Claymation is creepy enough – we see that with work from Jan Švankmajer. But Will Winton’s 1985 film The Adventures of Mark Twain (released as Comet Quest in the UK) took the ideas of the great Mark Twain and twisted it into a cerebral, twisted smörgåsbord of vignettes. In the film, Mark Twain and three of his famous characters – Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, and Becky Thatcher – travel on an airship, searching for Halley’s Comet. The children sneaked onto this interstellar balloon Twain built because he was tired of the human race and planned to crash into the comet. They plan to convince him that his plan is wrong and that he should have more faith in humanity. So, Twain takes them through various portals, each one giving a small piece of his philosophies, personified by select stories he wrote. There are many terrifying scenes in the film, but the one that stands out is definitely their meeting with a body holding a talking mask who identifies himself as an angel named Satan. The scene itself feels disjointed from the rest of the film, as he takes them onto a floating island and gives them fruit, then they all build a sandcastle with people together. But the ambiance being set in the scene is just uncomfortable. For a film that is filled with dark depictions of Twain’s honest philosophies throughout his work, this little stand alone moment is incredibly unsettling, especially with the way Winton’s animation feels so all at once smooth and dirty at the same time.
M. Night Shyamalan broke out with his 1999 film The Sixth Sense. He followed it up with a lesser, but still not terrible film, Unbreakable. Then, in what felt like the turning point, he made Signs, an alien invasion story that was surprisingly well-paced and interesting. Starring Mel Gibson as a conflicted pastor on a farm in Pennsylvania, he and his family begin to see mysterious crop circles popping up on their property. Graham (Gibson) has all but lost his faith after the death of his wife, as he is now left with his son Morgan (Rory Culkin), daughter Bo (Abigail Breslin), and his younger brother Merrill (Joaquin Phoenix), a washed-up minor league baseball player. The children are exceedingly quirky – Morgan is asthmatic and insightful, Bo leaves half-filled glasses of water all over the house. But, slowly the paranoia builds. The scene in question is a simple jump scare, but Phoenix’s performance sells it. Merrill watches a news report being ported in from Brazil, taken from a children’s birthday party. The camera shows the children watching, while Merrill screams for them to move (in Spanish, no less). It’s brief and seemingly inconsequential, but when that alien steps past the alley, Phoenix takes Merrill to a different level. His face is scarier than the actual report. At that point, Merrill joins the children, convinced that the aliens are coming. Signs is an excellent piece of science-fiction and suspense for 95 minutes of its running time. Then, the final ten minutes happen and everything falls apart, much like Shyamalan’s career seems to have. But for those 95 minutes and that brief moment, we had ourselves a really solid thriller that didn’t rely on special effects. It relied on atmosphere and some really quality performances.
43. The Neverending Story (1984)
Scene: Gmork’s Final Attack
I won’t even dance around it – when I was a child, the idea of “The Nothing” scared the living crap out of me. Plus, I was a little young to really gather everything that was happening in Wolfgang Petersen’s The Neverending Story. But within the incredibly dense children’s movie was a collection of memorable characters that still stick in the memories of the youth of that time. Among them was a villain we never really hear from until the end named Gmork, which is basically a large wolf-like creature. We follow Atreyu (Noah Hathaway) through Fantasia as he tries to find a way to save it and the childlike empress, who is dying from an illness caused by “The Nothing” which, as Gmork explains, is basically hopelessness and despair that destroys the human heart and any semblance of imagination, which fuels the existence of Fantasia. Gmork has been sent as a servant for this entity to kill Atreyu. The showdown is little more than a Bond-villain style confession from Gmork, which allows Atreyu to arm himself, knowing that Gmork has come for him. But that animatronic talking wolf in the cave and its expressive eyes are enough to frighten anyone, especially with the world around our hero crashing down around him. As an adult, the moment isn’t nearly as scary. But, as a child, Gmork was the personification of a nightmare – a creature sent to kill within a dream world that supposedly exists in all of our minds. Deep stuff.
A small, independent British film from director Shane Meadows, A Room for Romeo Brass is really a coming of age story focusing on the friendship of two twelve-year-old boys in the English countryside. Andrew Shim plays the title character, who hangs out (sometimes begrudgingly) with his best friend Gavin (Ben Marshall), whose nicknamed “Knocks.” Knocks has a spinal issue and needs to have surgery, which leaves him with a noticeable limp and an obvious impairment. Romeo must work through the stigma attached to his friendship with a now disabled boy, which causes him some grief. Meanwhile, the two boys meet an older teenager named Morell (screen debut of Paddy Considine), though he is really looking for more exposure to Romeo’s attractive older sister, Ladine (Vicky McClure). So, Morell uses his friendship with the boys to try to work his way to Ladine, only to see Knocks play a humiliating practical joke on him, embarrassing Morell in the sight of Ladine. Morell already seemed like a bit of a wild card, but the resulting conversation between Morell and Knocks sets the stage for the rest of the film, as Morell begins to drive a chasm between Romeo and Knocks, thinking that will help his chances. But this scene, which begins as a friendly, somewhat weighty conversation between two familiar people, takes an incredibly dark turn as Morell becomes increasingly hostile, to the point that he is threatening the life of a disabled, twelve-year-old boy. We recognize that Morell’s behavior is not necessarily out of the realm of the character, but the slow burn of anger in his eyes directed toward a child half his size is not easily seen. A Room for Romeo Brass feels almost comedic up until this point, but Morell’s first verbal assault ensured that this was nothing to laugh at, as well as Considine’s presence on screen as a loose cannon.
41. Return to Oz (1985)
Scene: The Wheelers
This movie is ridiculous. 1939′s The Wizard of Oz is still one of the most beloved, most successful films of all time. But L. Frank Baum had a library of books about the world of Oz. So, in 1985, Disney distributed this pseudo-sequel, much more faithfully based on Baum’s The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz. Return to Oz follows Dorothy (screen debut of Fairuza Balk) as she returns to Oz to find it has been completely destroyed. This time, she is accompanied by her favorite chicken, Billina, a clunky mechanical man named Tik-Tok, and Jack Pumpkinhead (he’s what you think he looks like). Then comes The Gump, a moose-like head with the body of a couch, broom, and tree branches. There are dozens of terrifying moments in this “fantasy-adventure family film;” disembodies heads screaming; a giant, flame-engulfed rock monster; the possibility of Dorothy received shock therapy at the beginning of the film. But the moment that stands out has always been the Wheelers. The Wheelers are basically stooges sent by the Nome King to track down Dorothy as she journeys to the Emerald City. They are men in colorful costumes with wheels hooked to their feet; men that look unbalanced and horrifying. So, within a movie that, while extremely faithful to the source material, was a major disappointment to fans of the original, if I had to pick one moment out of a laundry list of scary moments, it would be their first appearance to Dorothy.
40. Night of the Hunter (1955)
Scene: The Preacher on the Horizon
Just like a few others in this section of the list, Charles Laughton’s brilliant Night of the Hunter isn’t really a horror film, but still sets out to keep the audience on edge. Starring a diabolical Robert Mitchum as a preacher/serial killer Reverend Harry Powell, it follows him as he tries to woo his former cellmate’s widow Willa (Shelly Winters), hoping to learn where he has hidden his bank loot. Powell devises that his children John and Pearl must know, but he struggles to gain young John’s trust. When Willa learns of his plan, Powell is forced to kill her and hide the body, leaving him as sole caretaker of the children, who flee down the river. And then the scene. Having believed they have escaped Powell, they hide themselves in an empty barn. They catch some sleep, but John is awakened by barking dogs. He looks out on the horizon and hears the calling card: Powell singing “Leaning on the Everlasting Arms” in the distance while, suddenly, his silhouette on his horse move into the line of sight from the left. This was Laughton’s only film as a director, but what a masterpiece. Mitchum’s performance is so menacingly calm that the moment his deep voice is heard in the distance, it’s chilling.
You can’t argue that Ivan Reitman was legitimately trying to frighten anyone, though Ghostbusters is filled with images that, in many other films, may have done that. The tone he sets with Bill Murray, Dan Aykroyd, and Harold Ramis is sarcastic and funny enough that it drowns out any real fear it may have incited. But, as a standalone moment, the first emergence of Gozer is a frightening scene. Dana (Sigourney Weaver) sits in her apartment alone, when things start to get a little creepy. She sits in her armchair, hoping to relax, when it won’t release her. Light emerges from her door and that chair locks her down and turns her to face the door. The door opens to reveal a reanimated gargoyle, red eyes and all. This creature (and its lost mate) is played for laughs other times, especially with Rick Moranis. But the first appearance of this menacing creature is actually quite unnerving, packaged in with household items taking control. The special effects are dated now, but viewing Ghostbusters through a lens of story development only, and it’s a pretty solid ghost story with a premise that goes beyond the constant wisecracking.
38. The Hand That Rocks the Cradle (1992)
It might play out like a horror film to many, but it’s just a psychological thriller. Don’t get too antsy. Directed by Curtis Hanson, The Hand That Rocks the Cradle sees a woman named Claire (Annabella Sciorra) reporting her obstetrician to the police after he sexually molests her during a routine checkup. The doctor kills himself in response, leaving his pregnant widow (Rebecca De Mornay) with nothing, thanks to the lawsuits that have spring up since the first reported molestation charge. His widow goes into early labor, loses her baby, bleeds out, and is given an emergency hysterectomy. Claire and her husband have a beautiful baby boy named Joey and try to find a nanny. They hire a woman named Peyton (De Mornay, using an alias) who comes into their home and begins a treacherous plan to destroy Claire from inside her own home and steal her family away from her. Peyton manipulates her daughter by having her keep secrets from her mother and her husband by sexually tempting him, causing Claire to question his fidelity. But the biggest moment of the film comes from Peyton’s direct care of Joey. She finds him crying in his crib – as any infant does – and picks up a pillow. At first, it appears that Peyton is going to smother him, but instead sets the pillow aside. She picks Joey up to comfort him, only to undo her dress and begin to breastfeed him. It’s a chilling moment and is repeated throughout the film, causing Joey to refuse Claire’s milk (any mother will vouch for how this somewhat simple thing can bring on such a feeling of utter rejection). Peyton’s act of vengeance hasn’t just complicated the family’s lives, but taken one of the true gifts every mother has with their own child. While she hasn’t turned Joey against Claire, she has created a scenario where he prefers her to Claire in one of the only “decisions” an infant can make. The first moment itself is a quietly frightening visual, but the undercurrent of what it does to a parent is deafening.
Walt Disney’s fourth animated film, Dumbo was pretty much made for next to nothing to make up for the financial loss the studio went through after Fantasia, an expensive, gorgeous experiment that didn’t go over well with audiences. While it clocks in at a mere 64 minutes, it is still one of Disney’s beloved classics. Dumbo is ridiculed by all the other elephants for having enormous ears. His mother, while defending her son, loses her temper and is locked away, her trainers assuming she’s gone crazy. Now alone, Timothy Q. Mouse decides to keep him company and mentor him, a lonely elephant without anyone to care for him. The circus director tries to include him in various acts, but he ends up ruining all of them. But one evening, after a heartbreaking visit with his jailed mother, Dumbo begins to cry and gives himself hiccups. He and Timothy both drink from a bucket which they believe is water, only to learn it’s been spiked with champagne. As classic Disney films tended to do, Dumbo then shifts into surprisingly dark territory, as Dumbo gets drunk and begins to hallucinate. What results is a colorful, unpredictable dream with pink elephants against a dark background set to music. The musical number featuring eyeless elephants playing their trunks as trumpets is beautifully animated, but it does take a surprisingly sad Disney movie into an area that is legitimately bewildering. It’s become a signature scene in Disney’s early work, but it still incites feelings of discomfort and worry.
Martin Scorsese’s films tend to have a dirty, sinister underbelly. His use of music is sometimes bewildering, but incredibly effective. But, other than his Cape Fear remake (Shutter Island notwithstanding), he has never made a film that could be described as a “horror film” (even Cape Fear is on the fence). So, when Scorsese delivers chilling, unstable moments that incite fear, you know it’s a deliberate shot to the veins. Casino has always been viewed as a spiritual sequel to Goodfellas, but stands alone as one of Scorsese’s greatest critical and commercial successes, not to mention convincing everyone for a brief period of time that Sharon Stone could act. Ace Rothstein (Robert De Niro) is sent to Las Vegas to run a casino on behalf of some mobsters in the Midwest. Eventually, thanks to his success, the mob sends Ace’s friend Nicky (Joe Pesci) and his brother Dominick (Philip Suriano) out to help protect the business. Throw in a woman named Ginger (Stone) who marries Ace and has a daughter with him and you get the makings of a crime/family drama of high level. Ace begins to make enemies and the FBI eventually gets involved, making Ace’s business and family difficult to maintain. The mob gets tired of the mess that’s being made and decides to take action. Meanwhile, Ginger has a brief affair with Nicky, infuriating Ace, forcing him to search out Nicky and confront him. But, before he can do so, members of their own crew take Nicky and Dominick out to a cornfield in the middle of Indiana and unload on them. As usual, Scorsese’s penchant for rock/pop music makes its mark, as “House of the Rising Sun” plays in the background. But the brutality Scorsese tends to show in his crime dramas usually come packaged with dark lighting and a more mysterious mood to them. This one is in broad daylight in middle America – no back alleys, no dumpsters to hide behind. Just corn. Scorsese even uses Nicky as the narrator of the scene; that is until he takes the first shot with a baseball bat. The scene feels like it was coming, but the amount of graphic violence is surprising, even by Scorsese’s standards.
It was originally conceived as a television miniseries, spanning a whopping 312 minutes. It was cut down to 188 minutes for a theatrical release in 1982 and focuses on the two title children in Sweden, navigating their expansive family. Fanny (Pernilla Allwin) and Alexander (Bertil Guve) have a happy life, with two parents with a happy marriage. When their father unexpectedly dies, their mother eventually marries Edvard (Jan Malmsjö), a local bishop. They move into his home with his mother, sister, aunt, and maids. Unfortunately, unlike the life they’ve lived until then, Edvard’s strict rules diminish any sense of creativity and freedom they once had. Edvard stifles any sense of imagination in the children, punishing them often by keeping them in their rooms. Their mother asks for a divorce, but he refuses, citing that, if she leaves, he will gain custody of Fanny and Alexander. Eventually, they receive help from Isak, a friend of their grandmother, who helps stow them away and moves them to his own apartment, which is a cavalcade of mystery and fantasy. But, within those rooms is Isak’s nephew Aron’s puppets. These puppets just hang in this dark room, the wind moving them like chimes back and forth. At one point, Alexander is in this room, when a door slowly opens. From there, he has a cryptic conversation with a being claiming to be God, who says that no mortal should ever look upon him. Ingmar Bergman’s filmography is filled with beautiful realism and fantasy both, but Fanny and Alexander has always felt like the one that finally combined the two themes into one epic dreamscape. But this moment, even within the context of the film, is terrifyingly well-staged and creepy. Plus, puppets are just creepy. Especially marionettes.
It’s not a horror film in the supernatural sense, but you could argue that American History X is scarier, thanks to its heightened version of all too real evil. Directed by Tony Kaye and written by David McKenna, the film is told through the eyes of Danny (Edward Furlong), a Venice, California teenager slowly being introduced into the neo-Nazi movement. After writing a paper on Hitler’s Mein Kampf, rather than being expelled, Danny is asked to write a paper about his older brother Derek (Edward Norton), who is being released from prison after three years. Scenes flash back and forth between the past events, which tell the story of Derek’s movement into neo-Nazism and the present day, with Danny struggling to understand his brother’s tendencies and why they have suddenly evaporated. Kaye shows past events in black-and-white, adding a stark contrast to the present-day events, which are buried in a tone of misunderstanding and confusion. Derek’s father was a racist firefighter who was murdered by African-American drug dealers, enraging a young Derek to the point of a volcanic, racist explosion on television. He then begins a white supremacist gang with Cameron Alexander (Stacey Keach) called the D.O.C. All this leads to the moment that haunts many a viewer. After defeating some gang members in a basketball game, those men come to Derek’s neighborhood and try to steal his truck. Enraged, he goes outside and shoots one of the thieves. In addition to that thief’s death, his treatment of the second thief is what sends him to prison to change his life. The curb-stomping scene is not nearly as graphic as most audiences remember it, but the build-up is epic – the dinner party that turns anti-Semitic, Derek’s “celebration” with his girlfriend, and Danny’s slow-motion attempts to stop Derek while he lines up his victim. Kaye’s decision to film it in black-and-white only adds to its gritty realism. Norton’s performance earned him his second Oscar nomination in a film that, while aggressively broad in its morality tale, still manages to make an impact.
The happy story of a group of bunnies based on the novel by Richard Adams and adapted for the screen by Martin Rosen is far from a child’s animated film. Watership Down follows a world with a culture and mythology all its own, where the rabbits worship a God named Frith who created the world. The action takes place in Sandleford, England, where a rabbit named Fiver has a vision about the world ending, encouraging Hazel, his brother, to ask the chief to evacuate the warren. After the refusal, eight of the rabbits manage to escape, but lose one in the morning, leaving them without a female. Violet is the only female in the group, and the rabbit culture of Watership Down views them almost as a commodity. But the terror behind this moment is the sheer unexpected nature of it. They’re all relaxing and Fiver – the youngest, panicky rabbit – wakes up to watch a hawk swoop down from the sky and attack Violet. Mind you, this doesn’t happen in Richard Adams’ novel. Violet isn’t even a character in the novel. So this moment was conceived in addition to the already graphic nature of this animated film. There are lots of other dark, bloody moments dealing with these anthropomorphized bunnies, but this shocking moment with a trickle-down horror effect feels like the most unwieldy.
David Fincher’s filmography is phenomenal, with broad shifts between genres, but always with a signature style. After early gems like Se7en and Fight Club, Fincher was still working out the type of filmmaker he would be and the types of stories he wanted to tell. In 2007, he delivered what was at the time his cleanest, most complete film with Zodiac, a dramatization of the zodiac killer who stalked the San Francisco Bay Area in the late 1960′s and early 1970′s, based on the nonfiction novel from political cartoonist and novelist Robert Graysmith. Centering on Graysmith (Jake Gyllenhaal) and his obsession with decoding the killer’s messages to the San Francisco Chronicle to the point that he forms a somewhat reluctant partnership with Paul Avery (Robert Downey Jr.) as they continue to investigate, causing headaches for the police department, particularly Dave Toschi (Mark Ruffalo), who had been leading their efforts to find the killer. While Fincher’s brilliant focus on the investigation is what makes the film so compelling (the performances are fantastic), it’s the dark moments when he shows the unseen killer at work that drives the horror elements. There are three or four moments that could qualify here, but I’m going with the moment where a woman picks up a hitchhiker in the dark outskirts of San Francisco. He sits in the car, completely shrouded in darkness, and tells the woman that he will throw her baby out the window before he kills her. It’s one of the least enjoyable line readings in film history and it breeds disdain and fear in the pit of your stomach.
It’s a science fiction film that’s also a film noir. And it may be Ridley Scott’s best film, despite it being a flop when it came out. Blade Runner shows us dystopian Los Angeles in 2019, where the exo-world is kept afloat by replicants, which are android-type creatures manufactured by the Tyrell Corporation. They are sent to other planets to do menial work, but a limited few escape and go into hiding is Los Angeles. Police officers are sent to find and “retire” them, including Rick Deckard (Harrison Ford), who takes the assignment despite his exhausted mind and body. Among the replicants is Roy Batty (Rutger Hauer), an agile, brilliant man with a penchant for poetry. Roy is aware that he has a shelf life, so he and his team go searching for the creators to force them to extend their lives. Meanwhile, Deckard is hunting them down. Roy finally arrives at the home of Tyrell himself, accompanied by eye designer Sebastian. He demands to be given a longer time on this planet, to which Tyrell confesses it isn’t possible. Roy confesses to some mistakes and poor decisions. Tyrell still views him as a great achievement and tells Roy he should be proud of himself. Roy kisses Tyrell and, well, ends his life in one of the most graphic non-horror deaths of all time, long before Game of Thrones made it “cool.” It’s a menacing scene that shows the lengths Roy will go to in order to gain life, while at the same time adding a layer of pain and humanity to Roy that hadn’t yet been seen. He’s a replicant, but he still feels emotions, whether they are manufactured or not. Vengeance is driven by hatred and pain, both of which Roy possesses.
30. No Country for Old Men (2007)
Scene: Coin Flip
There was a brief period of time from 2006-2009 when the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences made some more daring, but wholly deserved choices for Best Picture. It began in 2006, when Martin Scorsese finally won for The Departed which, while not his best and not nearly as dark as, say, Taxi Driver or Raging Bull, still leaned that direction. Three years later, they handed the Oscar to The Hurt Locker over the blockbuster Avatar, rewarding quality over audience love. But in between the two, it was given to No Country for Old Men, an incredibly dark neo-Western based on the Cormac McCarthy novel of the same name. It’s still one of the Coen Brothers’ best films, an incredible cat-and-mouse journey through West Texas in the 1980′s. The film stars Josh Brolin, Tommy Lee Jones, and Javier Bardem, in what has become his signature performance, for which he won the Oscar for Best Supporting Actor. In the film, Bardem plays a hitman named Anton Chigurh chasing Brolin, who found a bag of money at the scene of a drug deal gone wrong. Chigurh is ruthless, moving from place to place with a captive bolt pistol, killing innocent people while searching for the money. Most of what Chigurh does in the film is terrifying – strangling a sheriff deputy, using this trademark weapon, sharing a phone call with his prey. But his most memorable and eerie moment comes at a convenience store Moss (Brolin) may have been. He questions the clerk, where they engage in a weighty discussion about chance and fate in reference to a coin flip which will determine the clerk’s survival. While the Coens deliver plenty of shock scares with that bolt pistol and its aggressive sound, this quiet moment dripping with suspense is what truly defines Chigurh and truly demonstrates what a menacing figure he is.
In what is widely recognized as Gregory Peck’s greatest role, Atticus Finch (Peck) may be the “hero” of Robert Mulligan’s adaptation of the Harper Lee novel, but the protagonist is Scout (Mary Badham), Atticus’ daughter. Over the course of a few years in 1930s Alabama, we follow Scout and her brother Jem (Philip Alford) as they play games together and spy on their neighbor, a shut-in named Boo Radley (Robert Duvall). Their father is an honorable lawyer, accepting small offerings rather than money sometimes for his services. But when Atticus is asked to defend a local black man named Tom (Brock Peters) when he is accused of raping a white teenage girl, Scout and Jem quickly begin to learn about the racism and poverty in their town and how it drives much of the action and behavior they see around them. The courtroom scenes are riveting and well-developed, with each of the witnesses telling their own story to Atticus as he rifles through testimony and evidence. The end of the film sees Scout and Jem walking home from a Halloween pageant at night, Scout having misplaced her dress and shoes, now walking home dressed as a ham. During their walk, they begin to suspect they are being followed and are eventually attacked by a stranger who, in his struggle with them, knocks Jem unconscious while they are being defended by another mystery man. Being in black and white, the shadows and contrast between light and dark during the walk adds another layer of discomfort, only compounded by the performances of Badham and Alford. It’s a horror-style pursuit moment that, while it may elicit a jump scare, is nowhere near as terrifying as the reasons and societal norms surrounding the incident.
The consensus reaction when it was revealed that Christopher Nolan had cast Heath Ledger as The Joker in his follow-up to Batman Begins was something like “What now? The Australian guy from A Knight’s Tale?” Ledger had proved himself as a competent actor a few years earlier with his heartbreaking turn in Brokeback Mountain, but it still looked like a drop in an ocean of mediocre work. But Ledger’s performance (which won him a posthumous Oscar) as the classic DC Comics villain was something to be reckoned with. While Jack Nicholson’s portrayal in the Tim Burton Batman film was hysteria and hilarity entangled, Ledger’s role became a much more unhinged version, relishing the chaos at a level yet to be seen on the big screen. As Alfred (Michael Caine) says, “some people just want to watch the world burn.” And that was what made The Joker so terrifying; his uninhibited drive to destroy the world, while never fearing death. Of all the tricks and soliloquies delivered by Ledger in the film, the one that really touches a nerve doesn’t have him on screen. As part of his plot, he is tying up victims and dressing them up as Joker/Batman hybrids and killing innocent people unless Batman unmasks himself. Early on, he leaves a video, showing the eventual victim the tape was tied to a chair in a Batman outfit. We hear The Joker off-screen, questioning him and laughing in his menacing manner. It’s horror villain level psychopathy, turning his emotions on a dime. But then his victim slumps. When his first request is ignored, his follow up “LOOK AT ME” is spine-tingling, almost like a demon is coercing from off-camera. It sets the film in motion and is all Nolan and Ledger needed to kick off what would become one of the most iconic (and sorrowful, in the end) performances of the last 20 years.
My memory of The Dark Crystal involves watching it in the basement of a family friend’s house, getting a migraine, and throwing up on/near my brother’s head in the middle of the night. All that aside, this fantasy film co-directed by Frank Oz and Jim Henson is incredibly creepy, especially given it’s geared toward children. Henson’s creature shop had created unsightly things before, but the villains in The Dark Crystal are among his worst. Long ago on the planet Thra, the title crystal broke and created wizards called Mystics and these horrible vulture-style creatures called Skeksies, who use the power of the crystal to stay alive. The film follows a Gelfling named Jen as he looks for the broken piece of the crystal to the Mystics to restore their power. He meets up with another Gelfling named Kira, who joins him on his journey. In the midst of all this, the Skeksies are sending creatures to hunt Jem down and attempt to capture them when they reach the castle. In order for the Skeskies to maintain their visages, they drain Podlings (another race) of their life forces and drink it like vitamin water. In addition, they decide to perform the same experiment on Kira when they capture her, hoping it will extend the potency of the potion. The film premiered before the advent of the PG-13 rating, but it veers dangerously close to R, just from the graphic nature of the scene. There isn’t any body horror; it’s puppets after all. But the visual draws comparisons to A Clockwork Orange in its style and surely created nightmares upon nightmare after its original release.
Not since Jaws had Steven Spielberg really given us an action movie that had such heavy elements of horror in place; a monster movie for the modern error, if you will. Jurassic Park was a box office behemoth – a critical success that also struck home with audiences, thanks to the brilliant source material and state of the art special effects. In the film, a billionaire (Richard Attenborough) has been working with a team of geneticists to clone dinosaurs made from millions of years old DNA found in fossilized mosquitoes. After a worker is killed, John Hammond (Attenborough) is forced to bring over field experts to measure the safety of the island, which is being marketed as a wildlife safari park, of sorts. Drs. Grant and Sattler (Sam Neill and Laura Dern) and mathematician Ian Malcolm (Jeff Goldblum) arrive at the island and witness the wonder and walking, breathing dinosaurs. But when a computer programmer tries to steal some embryos, he ends up shutting down the entire security system for the park, allowing the dinosaurs free reign. In the trademark moment from the film, we see our main characters in the shroud of night and rain, in electricity-powered jeeps that can no longer move due to the grid being shut down. Then it happens – the ripples in the glass of water. The approach of the Tyrannosaurus Rex is suspenseful and frightening, made even more successful, thanks to the child actors (Ariana Richards and Joseph Mazzello). Its emergence is breathtaking, while at the same time incredibly scary. Spielberg paces the scene so well and refuses to rely entirely on the special effects, instead creating an environment that only builds the fear to the point of explosion.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.
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