By John H. Foote
Not films, not scary movies, but the most frightening scenes within.
Scary scenes in movies do not have to be the big scare, the carefully directed and edited jump and BOO! kind. In fact the best for me are the quiet, alarming kind you have to think about and maybe think “Jesus” as they are happening or when they conclude. Those boo moments are fun and often necessary, but too often they are cheap scares because the others are more visceral, psychological, preying on our fears, or having the characters fear projected on us. I remember being terrified by a small scene in The Mummy (1932) as a child, almost a throwaway moment that my brothers and friends miss. The young scientist sits reading the centuries old scrolls, a mummy still in its coffin, centuries dead as the young man reads a passage on the scrolls out loud. Slowly we see the light of life come back into the mummy as it moves, slowly, but alive. The young man looks up and screams, and watches the thing walk out of the tomb. Stunned the young man not likely 30 begins to laugh, maniacally he laughs until his laughter becomes madness and the sight of the mummy coming to life has torn apart his mind forevermore. As his friends get to him he laughs with insanity, “He went for a little walk!” his mind shattered and gone. That scene haunted me for years and proved to me that scary moments do not have to be sudden, shocking scares that make us jump. In fact, sometimes the greatest scary scenes can be quiet, languidly paced, getting under our skin, never really leaving the landscape of our minds.
The young writer portrayed by Jake Gyllenhaal in Zodiac (2007) coming face to face with the Zodiac killer in a hardware store long after the murders took place, knowing it is him with every ounce of his being and the killer knows he knows. Terrifying. Little moments like that I find truly frightening.
So to celebrate Halloween here are my ten most terrifying scenes in film history. Just for fun.
1. JAWS (1975)
Three great scenes actually … I know I am cheating, but hey, it is my piece, right? The first attack on the young girl, swimming alone in the smooth, vast ocean while her just met guy passes out on the beach, drunk. The first violent pull on the leg is visceral, violent yet she does not understand what is happening until the second vicious tug. Then and only then does she understand she is being torn apart, eaten alive by a killer shark. She loses her mind, thrashing around as the creature continues to consume her until she is gone, nothing left but that peaceful eerie ocean, as though she had never been there. The second is the reveal of the shark and those jaws up close and personal as Brody tosses chum into the sea. And finally, and best of all, Quint (Robert Shaw) describes his nightmare when the S.S. Indianapolis was torpedoed by the Germans and began to sink leaving more than a thousand men prone to swarms of hungry sharks. Coming to feast, the sharks attacked, over and over, driven manic by the churning blood in the ocean, yet Quint lived. He has spent the rest of his life avenging those eaten by the sharks by killing any he can find. Shaw acts the scene with simplicity and the simple truth, his stillness perfect, his droll humor alarming in relating the moments that shaped him as a man. The memory of his terror is fresh in the landscape of his mind, never to be forgotten. Terrifying and for this scene along he deserved the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor.
2. LOST HIGHWAY (1997)
A dinner party. A strange looking Mystery Man, pale complexion, no eyebrows, deep penetrating eyes wanders up to our hero. He says they have met before, in the man’s house. The man does not think so, but then the Mystery Man tells him he is in his house right now. He hands him his cell phone and insists he call his home. The man complies, and the Mystery Man picks the phone up at the man’s home. The man is stunned, then frightened and Mystery Man begins to laugh a laugh of the utterly damned. Got to love David Lynch. So bizarrely brilliant. Simplistic, quietly acted, directed and put together, it is a profoundly frightening sequence both unforgettable and unshakable once seen.
3. THE RING (2002)
In this remake of the Japanese horror film Ringu there is a videotape and if anyone watches said videotape they die. Near the end of the film we finally see the tape in its entirety, and I must admit, this caused me to jump and be totally freaked out. The grainy scratched tape shows a well, and from that well a filthy young girl begins to climb out. Her dirty hair covers her face, but once out of the well, she begins walking towards the viewer. Then, she begins climbing out of the television, descending upon the viewer. My wife jumped up and shut the TV off it rattled her so. Freaky moment. Try and forget her after she comes that television into this world.
4. THE WIZARD OF OZ (1939)
The Wicked Witch of the West, so brilliantly portrayed by Margaret Hamilton, frightened me from a very young age. I remember thinking that she loved being evil, it was what charged her batteries, she delighted in the mayhem she caused. The most frightening scene in the film comes when the Witch has taken Dorothy prisoner in the tower of the castle. Wanting the ruby slippers for herself, she knows they cannot come off as long as Dorothy is alive. She then curses her, turns an hourglass upside down and tells the terrified girl she has one hour to live. Once the sands are drained, she is dead. Dorothy cries, missing her Aunt Em who appears in the hourglass, a vision quickly replaced by the screeching laughing witch, the personification of evil. Saw it 57 years ago and it scared the hell out of me then and still does.
5. DAWN OF THE DEAD (2004)
They freaking run??!! Though we know something is going very wrong when Anna (Sarah Polley) comes home from her shift as a nurse at the local, oddly very busy hospital, nothing prepares us for the morning. Her husband awakens to find a local child torn up in his home and the girl attacks him, tearing out his throat causing him to bleed to death. A few moments dead, then he rises, hellbent on tearing his wife apart as she gets out of the house through the bathroom, heading towards her car. But he gets out too, and then RUNS towards her. A zombie in full flight, and can he move. The realization that Zack Snyder had just changed the rules of the zombie genre and by doing so made his film 10 times as frightening, was a gasp inducing moment in the sold-out theatre. Elevated by Polley’s brilliant performance.
6. NOSFERATU (1922/1979)
Almost one hundred years ago, think about that, and still the film is among the most frightening ever made. Filled with dread and the sense of foreboding doom, director F.W. Murnau did a near perfect job of adapting the vampire story to the screen. Watching the vampire Orlock (Max Schreck) snap to life out of his coffin like a jack knife was shocking the first time I saw it and has remained so ever since. The silence in the film, they had no choice as sound had not come to the movies yet, actually aided in giving the film that terrible quiet terror throughout. It was remade, superbly, in 1979 by director Werner Herzog and the remake is every bit as frightening as the original.
7. A CLOCKWORK ORANGE (1971)
One of the first images in this perverse nightmare of a film is the baleful, unfeeling glare of Alex (Malcolm MacDowell), the violent leader of a group of Droogs, criminals who do as they please, which means raping, pillaging, murdering by night. On one of their nightly expeditions they bluff their way into a lonely house in the country pretending to have a car accident. When they are in, they realize they are in the home of an older writer and his beautiful wife. Kicked and out of the way at once, Alex focuses on his wife and begins undressing her, planning to rape her in front of her helpless husband. Jaunty and jolly, Alex just cannot help bursting into song while punctuating each stanza of lyric with a kick or a punch to either the husband or the wife. The song which he sings with gusto is the famous “Singin’ in the Rain” from the 1952 film. Perverse? Hellish? You cannot look away though everything in your mind says to do just that, but you cannot. Oddly, as though it were karma coming back at Alex, that very song will be his undoing.
8. THE EXORCIST (1973)
Yes, it has to be on the list, but which scene? Merrin encountering the statue of Pazuzu in the deserts of Iraq? Regan (Linda Blair) being tossed about her bed by an unseen force? The levitation? The vomiting? The language? The horrific face, leaking pus, covered in blisters that pretty little girl gone? For me the single most frightening aspect of the film was the walk to the closed door of Regan’s room, wondering what horrors await the priests and us on the others side? We have seen a child masturbate with a crucifix, slap her helpless mother to the other side of the room, talk in different voices including the dead movie director she has killed, Karras’ mother, vomit across the room, all sorts of horrors have taken place behind that door. So anytime anyone in the film walks towards that door, I tense up, you just never can imagine what might be there this time.
9. MARATHON MAN (1976)
Szell (Laurence Olivier) was known as the White Angel in the concentration camps, a shockingly white-haired man with blue eyes who in life before the war was a dentist. He plies his trade in the camps taking the gold out of the teeth of the Jews, trading it for diamonds, which after the war made their way to New York, while Szall escaped to Paraguay, hiding. When his brother is killed in a car accident, he is forced to leave the secure compound in Paraguay and come to New York to retrieve his immense wealth in diamonds from the bank. But he is afraid that someone, part of his courier system, intends to rob him. He tortures a complete innocent, Babe (Dustin Hoffman), brother to a dead courier because the old dentist believes he might know something. Tied to a chair, Szell unrolls his dental instruments and begins examining Babe’s teeth, asking him over and over, “Is it safe?” He means of course, is it safe to go to the bank? He finds a cavity while checking his teeth, asks again if it is safe, Babe says he does not know, and suddenly Szell rams the probe up into the cavity causing unspeakable pain. Later he drills into a healthy tooth, straight into the nerve. My God, the horror indeed.
10. THE CHANGELING (1980)
One of the simplistic scenes to ever terrify me. A musician has moved into an old mansion, renting the place after the sudden deaths of his beloved daughter and wife in a tragic car accident. Almost at once the spirits ghosts in the home begin making him aware they exist. At the peak of their hauntings, the man hears a thumping coming down the stairs and finds at the bottom, his daughters red rubber ball bouncing down towards him. He picks it up and checks its place on his desk, gone, this is it no question. He takes the ball and heads out in his car to a bridge and tosses the ball into the frigid waters and returns home. Entering the house, he faces the staircase and actually hearing it before it comes into view is the same red rubber ball, coming to rest on the floor in front of him, wet and slick with the water. My blood still goes cold thinking about the moment seeing that for the first time.
- Zodiac (2007) – Face to face, years later with a serial killer in a hardware store and realizing that each other knows.
- Schindler’s List (1993) – The horrors, any of them in the Death Camp.
- Jurassic Park (1993) – The T Rex gives chase, in a visceral terrifying moment.
- The Howling (1981) – Bones crack, are torn out of place, hair covers the body, the jaws cracks and changes as a man changes into a werewolf.
John H. Foote is a well-recognized Canadian film critic/historian who has been an active critic for 30 years. His deep love for the movies began at a very young age. He began his career as co-host of the popular TV show Reel to Real where he remained for nine years. While on TV he began dabbling in education, eventually ascending to Director of the Toronto Film School, where he also taught film history. After leaving the college to care for his wife, he returned to teaching at Humber College where he taught both Film History and Method Acting Theory. John has written two books: “Clint Eastwood – Evolution of a Filmmaker” and the upcoming “Spielberg – American Film Visionary”. He is currently working on two books, one about the films of the seventies and another on the films of Martin Scorsese. Through his career he has worked in TV, radio, print and the web. John has interviewed everyone in the industry (more than 300 interviews) except Jack Nicholson, he says sadly. Highlights include Martin Scorsese, Tom Cruise, Meryl Streep Robert Duvall, Jane Fonda, Francis Ford Coppola and Kathryn Bigelow.