120 Essential Horror Scenes Part 10: Legends & Omens
Almost every horror movie stops for a moment of exposition that sets up or explains the horrors that await or that have been endured. These are the scenes where directors can either conjure their inner cheeseball and pump up the spooky music or prepare the audience for more than what they bargained for. The legend of the monster, the backstory of the slasher, the warning to the meddling teenagers, these are all elements of atmosphere designed for one thing: to make you squirm before the real scares begin.
American Werewolf in London (1981) – Beware the moon
The horror genre is at its most impactful when leaving exposition to a minimum. Prioritizing narrative clarity over effective scare-mongering may ensure a tight narrative that can’t be held up to scrutiny, but it also ensures that the audience knows what to expect, all but draining the movie of tension. In An American Werewolf in London, John Landis delivers all the exposition the characters and the audience needs to hear in three simple words: “beware the moon.” It’s an effective economic way of storytelling; there is the implication the patrons at The Slaughtered Lamb pub have extensive knowledge of the beast prowling the Yorkshire moors, but Landis’ refusal to make them give anything other than the basest of explanations amplifies the tension. Due to the title of the movie, no audience member is in doubt about what is to come when David and Jack leave the pub, but due to the ambiguous nature in which the information is presented (as well as how swiftly they are thrown out for asking questions), it isn’t instantly clear whose side the townsfolk are on.
Landis’ balancing of underlying tension mixed with broad comedy is perfected here, with every joke being told by the pub-goers being played at the expense of their foreign visitors. It’s funny while giving the effect that their insular community is far more interested in harboring the wolf than any overseas travelers. The laughs and shrieks come from the same source; the underlying threat beneath the jokes acts as a counterpoint to the warning about the moon. In a community where gothic horror is so commonplace, the directness about it is as alien to us as a werewolf is to passersby. (Alistair Ryder)
The Babadook (2014)- A bad book
Jennifer Kent’s film about the horrors of parenting has no harbinger to announce to Amelia (Essie Davis) that her world will soon be upended; she has to read the book herself to find out. Amelia is critically sleep-deprived and hopes that reading a mysterious pop-up book will put son Samuel (Noah Wiseman) to sleep. The first few pages start off pretty unassuming–a silly name like the Babadook lends itself to a child’s story–but the warning comes quickly enough. The shy, little silhouette that accompanies the line “A friend of you and me” becomes a towering figure that looms over a small drawing that looks a lot like Amelia’s son. Each illustration is designed to haunt your dreams, and Jennifer Kent builds on that dread by obscuring most of her frames with shadows. The choice to tell the Babadook’s legend through a seemingly benign book is more effective than letting an old crank on the street warn Amelia. What we can’t see is always more frightening than what is on screen. Like Samuel, who’s afraid of the dark, audiences let the legend of this sinister character only grow in the recesses of nighttime. “If it’s in a word, or it’s in a look, you can’t get rid of the Babadook.” (Colin Biggs)
The Cabin in the Woods (2012)– The harbinger
Here is an old man who looks like an archetypal red neck. His thinning straw-colored hair reveals many a bald spot. His mouth is full of tobacco, not of teeth. His face is crag like fitting given the decrepit gas station he owns. He makes for quite a surprise for the group of teens headed out for a weekend. But it’s all a game.
Mortdecai, the Harbinger (Tim de Zarn), is nothing but a pawn, the obligatory old person who warns the children of their doom. The very facile nature of the archetype is amusing, as he says, “I’ve seen many people come and go. I’ve been here since the War.” It’s vague, and careful focus is put into his tone of voice and his gait, even when he spits out some of the tobacco. But not to be fooled, Jules (Anna Hutchison) asks, “Which war?” Deflecting, the Harbinger spits, “You know damn well which war!”
“You got enough [gas] to get you there. Getting’ back, that’s your concern.” Foreboding or silly? It’s both. Director Drew Goddard and co-writer Joss Whedon have designed The Cabin in the Woods as a “love-hate letter” to contemporary horror cinema, and it presents itself in the form of a game. Guess the reference, mostly, but more intriguingly, guess how these clichés will be subverted or commented upon. The impact the Harbinger has is minimal for the group–characters of above-average logic for a horror movie–especially given the fact that he relays no information about the dangers, and his success is contingent on creating atmosphere and tone. But for the audience, it reads like a play on the cliché and a comment on the contrivance of the archetype itself. The Harbinger and his ilk in other horror are exposition dumps. And Goddard and Whedon enjoy subjecting him to the mercy of their pens. (Kyle Turner)
Candyman (1992) – Candyman’s backstory
Every slasher needs a backstory, and Candyman’s origin is one of the most clever in the horror pantheon. And no wonder; his origins were first related in a novel by Clive Barker. 100 years before grad student Helen Lyle (Virginia Madsen) tried to disprove the urban legend that bears his name, the phantom killer was an accomplished young painter. The son of a slave, he made the mistake of deflowering the virginal white subject of his latest portrait. The outraged townsfolk descended on him, sawing off his arm before slathering him with honey and leaving him for the bees to finish off. The revelation of Candyman’s origins turns him into something much more complex than the next multiplex murderer. In light of what we know of our nation’s past, it’s not a stretch to imagine such an incident. We immediately realize that the hook, the bees, and other trappings are all just window dressing for a phantom who would fight his entire afterlife not to be forgotten. In a bleak Chicago housing project, this story of a young black man cut down for indiscretion with a white girl takes on special significance. Candyman holds his believers, his “congregation,” in high regard and targets those who claim that he’s simply a legend. Candyman isn’t out to kill the nonbelievers; he’s after those who would deny him his very existence all over again, even as a phantom slasher. Freddy and Jason may have their own twisted origin stories, but Candyman’s the only screen baddie who carries the weight of history with every kill. (Robert M. Grunwald)
The Evil Dead (1981) – Words of the Dead
One of the best scenes in The Evil Dead is actually one of the quietest moments. When the trapdoor to the cellar mysteriously flies open during dinner, Ash (Bruce Campbell) and Scotty (Richard DeManincor) go down to investigate and find the Naturom Demonto, a Sumerian version of the Book of the Dead, along with a tape recording of incantations, which, when played, unleash evil demons and spirits.
Of course, the group of friends doesn’t know the danger that lies ahead, so they do what any normal curious human would and play the recording. This scene in particular is a prime example of why Evil Dead is in many ways better than it’s more popular sequel. As Ash and his friends listen to the creepy tape recording, the camera slowly circles around the group of friends while violent bursts of thunder light up the room and capture their fearful expressions. Cheryl (Ellen Sandweiss) gradually becomes hysterical, begging Scotty and Ash to turn the recording off, until the branches of a tree crash through the window and startle everyone. Of the many legends and warnings from horror movies that fans can recite word for word, the legend of the “Naturum De Montum” is one of the most famous, perhaps second only to the myth of Michael Myers.
One of the most remarkable things about The Evil Dead is how much Sam Raimi was able to accomplish on such a small budget. The film was shot on 16mm in the woods of Tennessee for around $350,000, and yet the final product looks five times more expensive than the cost. The woods come alive with the imaginative camerawork devised by Raimi and cinematographer Tim Philo. During this scene, in particular, Raimi cuts several times to the outside and gives us a view of the house from a distance. Based on the extremely high angle, it’s clearly the point of view of something and not someone. We know something bad is about to happen, but we just don’t know when. Everything from the sound design to the lighting to the handheld camera helps make the legend ever more terrifying while perfectly setting the tone for the horror that awaits. (Ricky D)
Halloween (1978)- Pure evil
Before he was known as Michael Myers, he was known as ‘The Shape,’ and, most notably, ‘The Boogeyman.’ Since the release of John Carpenter’s Halloween, subsequent films have gone to great lengths trying to explain the method to Michael Myers’s madness, as if to make him scarier, or perhaps make him scary again. But sometimes the scariest attribute of a psychopath is the lack of any motive. Dr. Samuel Loomis (Donald Pleasance) does exactly that in his famed monologue about the iconic holiday slasher.
Loomis and Sheriff Brackett conduct a search of the old Myers home, including the room where Michael murdered his older sister, Judith. They find nothing except for the remains of a partially eaten dog. Spurred by his belief that Michael is no mere man, Dr. Loomis describes his experience treating Michael and, ultimately, trying to keep him detained. He describes the then 6-year old Michael as devoid of reason, conscience, and understanding, having “the blackest eyes; the devil’s eyes.” Eventually, he realized the only thing “behind that boy’s eyes was purely and simply evil.” All the while, John Carpenter’s minimal piano score provides a dark, ominous atmosphere.
Pleasance evokes a myriad of emotions in this monologue, but the most telling is a quiet exasperation to his explanation. Explaining Michael to someone who wouldn’t have been aware of him if he hadn’t have escaped, Loomis immediately realizes that lengthy detail is not necessary, that the best way to describe Michael is to keep it simple. There’s nothing overly complicated about Michael, and the “pure evil” descriptor Loomis uses is the best way to highlight the threat he poses. That night, Death came to the little town of Haddonfield, and left nothing but chaos in its wake. (William Penix)
My Bloody Valentine (1981) – The voice of doom
My Bloody Valentine is one of the best in the slasher genre for several reasons: George Mihalka’s direction is first-rate; the score by Paul Zaza is effectively creepy; the small-town location and mining mill makes for a refreshingly unique setting; the film features a decent body count (though not much blood); and finally, the killer has bragging rights on wearing the best costume of all slasher villains (the unstoppable miner’s identity is hidden by a gas mask and he has a construction helmet complete with its own headlight). Like all good slashers, My Bloody Valentine also comes complete with its very own Voice Of Doom: in this case, a gloomy bartender going by the unlikely moniker of Happy. The miners and their girlfriends visit the local bar and as they discuss the upcoming dance, they are interrupted by Happy, who warns them that the town is cursed. He tells them the tale of Harry Warden and the murders that altered the town forever. This is a wonderful sequence, creepy and funny at the same time. My Bloody Valentine is competently made, well shot, expertly paced, and features a great cast along with some creative ways to kill them off one by one. But the scene with Happy is by far the highlight of the entire picture. (Ricky D)
A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – Finding Freddy
A final reveal can either make or break a horror film. Something like The Sixth Sense has such a great twist, it can impact the satisfaction of watching it over and over again. A really good reveal of a character’s legend can ultimately humanize the villain and bring about a common understanding of when the film’s terror initially starts. Such is the case with Freddy’s origin story in A Nightmare on Elm Street. Once the parents open up and confess that they cornered the demonic child molester and burned him alive, the audience’s view of Freddy changes. It humanizes Freddy, whereas up to this point, Freddy has been a figment of teenage nightmares. We come to realize why he looks the way he does, burn marks, and all. The audience also comes to the startling realization that the parents of Elm Street haven’t been oblivious to their children’s nightmares. On the contrary, it’s merely their way of hiding the past and protecting their children. For the audience, it translates to a breathtaking ah-ha moment that lingers in our minds just as much as the legend of Freddy. (Christopher Clemente)
The Ring (2002)- “Have you heard about this videotape…”
You think it’s the setup to another dopey teen horror flick, some forgettable cheapo midnight movie. The teen girls flipping channels on a bed certainly look like your stereotypical slasher fodder: schoolgirl uniforms, near valley girl accents, bored to death attitudes. “Have you heard about this videotape that kills you when you watch it?” the dark-haired one asks the lighter haired one. It’s like “somebody’s nightmare,” and after you watch it, the phone rings and someone tells you that you will die in seven days. Spooky, right? Then Katie, the light-haired girl, begins shaking. “I’ve watched it,” she says. We’re barely a minute into The Ring, and director Gore Verbinski has us hook line and sinker. He ratchets up the unease by dragging the scene out, putting Katie through a living nightmare that makes her the next victim of whatever entity lives on that videotape. The Ring represented the last hurrah for Hollywood backed auteurist horror in much the same way it represented the last gasp of a dying technology. The killer videotape doesn’t date the film some thirteen years later, it freezes it perfectly into place as an artifact of a time when lo-fi could mean high stakes. (Shane Ramirez)
Signs (2002)- The UFO book
There is a fine line between foreshadowing and promising something you can’t deliver. A good horror movie will not only deliver on its setup but subvert it. In M. Night Shyamalan’s Signs, it’s obvious that our hero and his family won’t be burned to a crisp by alien invaders. But they don’t know that, and the palpable anxiety they feel transfers to the audience. What if I didn’t know what was going on? What if this wasn’t a movie? Shyamalan exhibits so much empathy and affection for his characters that it’s easy to get caught up in their fear. Mel Gibson’s Graham Hess has spent the entire film refuting all the obvious clues of an alien takeover: the mysterious crop circles in his backyard, bizarre animal behavior, eerie lights in the sky. When he finds his children looking for answers in a UFO book (while they wear tinfoil hats so “the aliens can’t read our minds”), he sits down with them to flip through some of the pages. The book explains that there are two reasons why aliens would visit: to make contact or to harvest our planet. Various illustrations show bug-eyed little green men until they turn the page to a drawing of a UFO leaving the burned wreckage of a farmhouse. “Looks a little like our house, doesn’t it?” utters Graham, saying what we’re all thinking. We pan down the drawing and see three charred bodies on the lawn, two children, and one man. Then the phone rings, and they all jump. It’s an expertly mundane moment of dread captured with master clarity. Who hasn’t gotten wrapped up in conspiracy theories or urban legends one afternoon and transferred that paranoia into the real world? Graham shuts the book and tells his kids to “calm down and eat some fruit or something.” The joke breaks the tension, but the warning sign has been flashed loud and clear. (Shane Ramirez)
Westworld (1973)- Man is obsolete
Richard Benjamin and James Brolin star in Michael Crichton’s directorial debut as a pair of tourists engaging in their Old West fantasy in a futuristic amusement park populated by androids. The machines malfunction and become deadly, most notably a gunfighter android played by the charismatic Yul Brynner. The Gunfighter challenges Benjamin’s Peter and Brolin’s John and, in a shocking turnabout, John is killed. Peter flees with The Gunfighter in pursuit. Moving across the desert, he runs into a terrified park employee who is also trying to escape the slaughter. Peter asks what he can do against the lethal machine, and the park employee tells him he doesn’t really have a chance given The Gunfighter’s technological advantages.
This is a tense, dark, and unforgettable moment in a superb film. Fans of Humans vs. Machines cinema know that this grim warning sets the stage for Peter’s desperate struggle against The Gunslinger. It’s a scene very strongly echoed in Kyle Reese’s warnings about The Terminator in James Cameron’s 1984 film. (Terek Puckett)
The Wolf-Man (1941) – Gypsy warning
Of all the Universal Studios classic monster movies, George Wagner’s tale of Larry Talbot’s (Lon Chaney Jr.) werewolf affliction is the saddest. The Invisible Man and Frankenstein definitely have their moments of tragedy, but The Wolf Man is dripping with a malaise right from the outset when Larry returns to his father’s (Claude Raines) estate following the sudden death of his brother. The viewer is immediately plunged into a world of sorrow and hurt, and just when Larry thinks he might have found a silver lining in Gwen (Evelyn Ankers), he is bitten by a werewolf (Bela Lugosi). Among the film’s key scenes is the harrowing meeting between Larry and Maleva, an old Gypsy woman that explains the curse.
At this point, Larry has mourned his brother’s passing, has discovered that Gwen is engaged to another man, and has had to contend with the public and the police suspecting him for the death of Maleva’s son, who had taken the form of a wolf when Larry killed him. Suffice to say that Larry has had a rough past few days, and now, alone in the tent with Maleva (who holds no ill will towards her son’s killer), he is told that he is soon to become a man-wolf and can only be killed with a silver weapon. It all sounds like madness to him, yet he knows something is different since the incident with the creature a few nights ago.
Not only is the scene extremely well-acted and lit, it represents the pivotal moment when things are about to get much, much worse. This is the moment that reveals his damnation and propels the movie towards its gloomy, heartbreaking finale, one soaked in familial tragedy and the inevitable escape of death. (Edgar Chaput)