120 Essential Horror Scenes Part 6: Stalkings
Horror films are built on our voyeuristic impulses. Our desire to witness or experience the obscene, the taboo and the grotesque draws us into films about crazed killers or unseen forces. We don’t just want to be shocked, we want to be vulnerable. The stalking scene is a staple of the genre because it involves us in the filmmaking process by providing us a point of view: usually third person from a victim or first person from a killer. Unlike a chase scene, where both parties are aware of the game, the stalking often involves an oblivious participant. These are the slowest and most methodical scenes. There’s no rush to where we’re going because there is no destination to get to. Once the participant becomes aware, there are only four options: run, hide, fight, or die.
The Birds (1963) – Bird’s eye view
Although not as shocking as Psycho, The Birds is a far more complex, ambitious, and sophisticated film, representing a high watermark in the prolific career of the master of suspense. Alfred Hitchcock’s inspiration for the film was a news report about a bird attack that occurred for unknown reasons, more specifically, a bird that was known to be the prey and not a predator. The Birds was as much a precursor to nature vs. man horror films as Psycho was to slashers. It is also Hitchcock’s second masterpiece in the small-town thrillers subgenre (the first being Shadow of a Doubt).
The Birds is almost one big, long chase, and for most of the running time, Tippi Hedren and the local townspeople must run and hide from the savage feathered beasts that are stalking them. One of the many standout scenes comes when Melanie Daniels (Hedre), Annie Hayworth (Suzanne Pleshette), and the children take refuge in the school. Realizing the birds are surrounding the building in large numbers, the ladies lead the kids out in hopes that they can run to a safer place. Except the birds are everywhere, and as soon as they step outside, the deadly seagulls swarm down and attack.
Although the special effects are dated, they were impressive for the time. Ray Berwick was responsible for training hundreds of birds, gulls, crows, and more to act like they were attacking without hurting anyone (although apparently they did). By employing thousands of real birds intermixed with fake ones, Hitchcock was able to create the illusion of a mass attack on the quiet community. The result is remarkable, featuring 370 effects shots. At the time, Hitchcock was also experimenting with the idea of not including a score in his film, instead opting for sounds created on the mixtrautonium, an early electronic musical instrument invented by Oskar Sala. Along with Remi Gassmann, they composed a piece that consists primarily of screeching bird sounds, which provides a nerve-wracking, surrealistic backdrop to the sordid proceedings. Watch the scene and you’ll understand why Hitchcock is a master of suspense. Everything–the close-ups of the children screaming in terror, the long tracking shots as the children run through the streets in panic, the sound of the screeching seagulls, and the bird’s eye view shots–is pitch-perfect. (Ricky D)
Halloween (1976) – A surprise for Bob
Michael Myers is cinema’s original boogeyman. His purposes for stalking and killing the township of Haddonfield is never clearly illustrated, but that doesn’t make him any less of a killing machine. Bob’s death is the most revealing about Michael’s predatory abilities, which consist of patiently observing his victims before striking at their most vulnerable moment.
In Bob’s case, Michael strikes the poor fool when he is at the fridge looking for beer for his girlfriend upstairs. Michael manhandles Bob, lifts him in the air and plunges a knife through him and into the wall behind him, effectively pinning him to the door. John Carpenter establishes two things in less than a minute. 1) Michael is a behemoth. 2) Michael is one vicious S.O.B. This killing is largely bloodless, yet it feels significantly more violent than the other murders of the film. A lingering shot of Bob’s dangling feet, in particular, heightens the impact of the stabbing. How much brute force must have been present to keep him suspended that way? Michael is even impressed, as he stands back to admire his handiwork. If viewers weren’t already afraid of boogeyman earlier, they certainly are now.
Going down to the kitchen to grab a drink late at night is a fairly routine experience, but I sure haven’t trodden down the stairs comfortably ever since. (Colin Biggs)
I Saw the Devil (2010)- The mouse catches the cat
South Korean Jee-woon Kim made a big name for himself throughout the first decade of the new millennium with bold, fresh films such as A Tale of Two Sisters, Bittersweet Life, and The Good, The Bad, The Weird. A bit of eccentricity, a lot of genre-bending and wonderful casting made his movies the talk of the town whenever they made it over to Europe and North America. His most deceptively complex film was still to come, however. In 2010, I Saw the Devil made it to theatres and audiences were shocked, to say the least.
The film begins by adhering to the familiar slasher template. Kyung-chul (Choi Min-sik) kidnaps and brutally murders a beautiful–and pregnant–young woman. The victim’s lover, Soo-hyun (Lee Byung-hun), just so happens to be a secret service agent. Through stout sleuthing and some gadgetry, Soo-hyun finds his target’s location and sneaks inside. I Saw the Devil then throws convention out the window when Soo-hyun assaults Kyung-chul, beating him to a pulp in an unfair fight. It turns out that the titular devil may not be Kyung-chul but rather Soo-hyun, who subsequently releases his victim, leaves him with tons of money to recover from his wounds, and keeps a trace on him. So begins a twisted game of cat and mouse in which the original monster becomes the prey of the monster he helped create. It’s a skin-crawling form of punishment that would be difficult to inflict on even the worst psychopath. (Edgar Chaput)
It Follows (2015) – Invisible haunting
Very few films can pull off something so chilling with relatively minimal aesthetics. The opening scene from David Robert Mitchell’s indie favorite It Follows accomplishes exactly that. As far as stalking scenes go, this is perhaps an unconventional entry, precisely because we never see who or what is doing the stalking. Although to be fair, we aren’t supposed to.
The scene begins with a long shot of an average suburban neighborhood street in the early quiet of the evening. The camera slowly pans to a normal looking two-floor house, where a teenage girl frantically runs out of the front door. The petrified girl stops in the middle of the street, keeping an eye on something out of frame. A neighbor asks if she needs help, but she insists that she is fine. The film’s signature retro electronic score kicks in, as the camera keeps its hold on her while she bolts from the scene in her car.
If this opening sequence is a curiously subtle pinch to the arm, then what follows is a real gut-punch. At the beach, the girl calls her parents to apologize to both of them. Whatever was following her has not caught her yet, but the long shot of her car, headlights beaming on her like a spotlight, suggests the inevitable. Jump cut to her dead body and the abandonment of hope for the film’s central characters. “It” is coming for them. (William Penix)
Jaws (1975)- “Get out of the water!”
We’re tense even before John Williams’ iconic string motif begins to play. Chief Brody (Roy Scheider), convinced another shark attack will take place, can’t help but stare off into the ocean from the safety of his lawn chair. He’s jumpy at every aggressive splash and holler, and he couldn’t care less what small talk beach patron Harry is trying to dredge up. Not even the comforting hands of his wife loosening up his shoulders can divert his eye from the horizon. Then we cut to underneath the water, helpless legs dangling and Williams’ score thumping like our quickening heartbeats. For all of Brody’s steely-eyed devotion to public safety, he can’t save a child from being dragged under the water. Director Steven Spielberg smartly keeps the shark hidden, only it’s point of view present. As for the attack, the boy gets swallowed up in a long shot from the beach, as if even the audience can’t do a damn thing. Brody yells for everyone to get out of the water, and sure enough, everyone clears out. The red in the ocean dissipates and all that’s left of the boy is his deflated raft. That and the boy’s mother, who calls out for the son who will never come home. Jaws is as much about the economy of Spielberg’s filmmaking as it is a story about powerlessness in the face of nature. (Shane Ramirez)
Night of the Living Dead (1968)- “They’re coming to get you, Barbara.”
Although George Romero’s classic has been remade and rebooted, nothing beats the original Night of the Living Dead. The opening cemetery scene really sets the tone and rules for all future zombie movies. It starts off with Barbara (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Streiner) putting flowers on their father’s grave when suddenly they get attacked by a zombie. In a flash, the horror world entered a new and exciting era of the zombie sub-genre, a trend that is still kicking with sensations such as The Walking Dead and World War Z. The scene plays on pacing beautifully, as we see the lone zombie stalk our victims from afar. What could be mistaken for another gravesite visitor becomes a threat once it gets at arm’s length. Johnny struggles with the undead until he smashes its head into the tombstone. Thus, one of the greatest horror threats entered the cultural zeitgeist for good. Of course, Johnny shrugs off the encounter with his infamous line, “They’re coming to get you Barbara.” Foolish words that Johnny won’t live long enough to regret. (Christopher Clemente)
Peeping Tom (1960)- Night stalker
Michael Powell’s Peeping Tom is a methodical look at the psychology of a killer as well as a meditation on violence and voyeurism. The extremely controversial picture was branded as “sick” and “nasty” by critics upon its 1960 release and banned in the UK. These harsh and despicable responses effectively destroyed Powell’s career, but later generations have embraced the film, regarding it as a chilling work of voyeuristic cinema. The film revolves around a serial killer who murders women with a blade hidden in the tripod of his portable movie camera. In doing so, he is able to record their dying expressions of terror.
The opening scene alone is a stroke of genius. Beginning with a close-up of the killer’s pupil, we cut to an establishing shot of a street. A thoroughly opaque and gritty London atmosphere permeates the soon to be grisly proceedings, as we transition to the point of view of the stalker’s camera lens. By playing with the gaze of our cameraman, Mark (Carl Boehm), Peeping Tom implicates the viewer in his crimes. The camera becomes not only a literal weapon of voyeurism but a symbol of our movie-going proclivities.
Peeping Tom has been praised for its psychological complexity and its deeper commentary on the male gaze. But it is Powell’s roaming camera and Otto Heller’s shadowy cinematography that makes the scene a work of cinematic art. (Ricky D)
Rituals (1977)- Nowhere to hide
A group of doctors stranded in the wilderness are hunted by an unseen killer in director Peter Carter’s rural massacre classic. Sometimes titled The Creeper, the entire film is one protracted stalking sequence. The suspense reaches its peak during the film’s climax as Hal Holbrook’s Harry attempts to take refuge from a hulking murderer in an isolated cabin. As Harry tries to stop the gushing blood from a severed artery in his leg, the killer tries to draw him out of the cabin by hanging one of his fellow doctors and setting him on fire. It’s an intense sequence from one of the most underrated horror films of the 1970s. Anchored by the haggard, cerebral presence of Holbrook, Rituals deserves mention alongside other genre classics like Tobe Hooper’s The Texas Chainsaw Massacre and Wes Craven’s The Hills Have Eyes. (Terek Puckett)
The Silence of the Lambs (1991)- Shooting in the dark
Director Jonathan Demme is fascinated by points of view. His signature style is to have his actors perform directly to the camera. It’s a jarring effect that shows a great deal of trust in his audience. By nearly breaking down the fourth wall, he is asking his audience to submit to his film as an active viewer. For a story as psychological as The Silence of the Lambs, that can be a tall order to take. But those viewers willing to be vulnerable will better appreciate the craftsmanship that goes into creating a pitch-perfect suspense thriller with an unforgettable stalking scene.
On the trail of the killer dubbed ‘Buffalo Bill,’ FBI agent Clarice Starling follows up her best lead: the home of Jame Gumb (Ted Levine). Once inside for questioning, Gumb’s nervous answers (and a well-timed moth) tip her off. She follows him down to the cavernous basement where his latest captive is being held. Poised with her gun, she is ready to enter the labyrinth and battle the minotaur…until the lights shut off. A tense scene has just become more tense, and then the screen turns green and we adopt Gumb’s sight through night vision goggles. Now we see as he does: the helpless Starling fumbling in the dark, and most frighteningly, his hand reaching out to her.
Throughout the film, Clarice’s vulnerability has been her greatest liability. But in her literal darkest moment, it is her greatest strength. Attuned to her senses, Clarice hears the hammer of Gumb’s gun, and she fires blindingly into the abyss. She gets her man and releases us from his sick point of view. For a moment, Demme puts us in the shoes of a killer and his heroine’s safety at risk. He gives us power by taking away the vulnerability he spent an hour and a half entrusting us with, thus revealing our true empathy for Agent Starling. Depending on your point of view, of course. (Shane Ramirez)
Tom at the Farm (2013)– Playing hard to get
As a genre game, Tom at the Farm is Quebecois filmmaker Xavier Dolan’s most restrained and focused film. His ostentatious style and aestheticism are pulled back in favor of atmosphere and mood. It works as both an ode to Hitchcock and a persona film; the lead characters Tom (Dolan) and Francis (Pierre-Yves Cardinal) act as reflections of one another, and more so, replacements for their mutual loss (Tom’s lover was Francis’ brother). The appeal of masculine heterosexuality manifests through Francis, while Tom operates as a somewhat more feminine foil.
So there’s a compulsion in the way that the two interact with one another, and the stalking exists as a critique of the need to treat humans on a binary scale. While this subtext is evident, Dolan leans back and lets the dangerous dance play out (literally and figuratively). The film’s most thrilling sequence is in a corn maze after a provocation. After a lengthy pursuit, Francis gets the drop on Tom, pinning him to the ground in a show of homoerotic dominance. The aspect ratio becomes narrower, creating a sense of claustrophobia, and pushing the two closer together. The persona dynamic becomes clearer, more perilous, and more desirous.
This scene is mirrored at the end of the film, when Francis screams, “I need you!” Their sadomasochistic relationship reaches its apex, built on power, control, abuse, and stalking. Here, too, the aspect ratio shifts, and it’s a matter of to what degree Tom will buy into Francis’ twisted fascination with straightness, even though the dynamic as it exists is queered. Underneath this exploration of abuse and identity, there is potent vulnerability and eroticism. It’s the thrill of the chase that people refer to when courting someone, but articulated literally, it becomes something much more frightening and taboo. (Kyle Turner)
Under the Skin (2014)- Compassion seeps through
The first half of director Jonathan Glazer’s ambitious sci-fi art film acts as one long stalking sequence. Filmed with hidden cameras and bystanders who didn’t initially realize they were being filmed, Scarlett Johansson’s alien stalks her human prey across the city of Glasgow, intending to lure them into some abstract metaphysical space where their naked bodies will be harvested by an alien life force. The most unsettling of these sequences come divorced from the horror and intrigue of the earlier stalkings–the alien picks up a man with facial deformities. It is in this sequence that she begins to develop some understanding of human emotion. Earlier, in the most harrowing scene, she coldly watches three people drown, leaving the child of one of the victims abandoned on the shore.
In a brief conversation with the disfigured man (played by Adam Pearson, one of the few actors amongst a cast of nonprofessionals), she still seems detached, merely emulating empathy for his condition. Her compassion and “inexperience” is learned behavior from her short time on Earth. The scene feels creepier and more cold-hearted than her other seductions precisely because of the underlying tension that she would “harvest” a disabled man with limited life experience. Later, when she sets the man free, it suggests something else entirely.
In a movie about how horrifying the world is through the lens of an emotionless alien, we see the development of a greater conscience. The unassuming empathy and increased lack of interest in disingenuous mating rituals eventually seal the character’s fate. As she becomes more human, she comes to realize that empathy isn’t a character trait that defines our species and that we aren’t all as warm-hearted as the man she sets free. (Alistair Ryder)
Wait Until Dark (1967)– The final showdown
A doll stuffed with heroin is stashed in the apartment of Susy Hendrix (Audrey Hepburn), a woman recently blinded in a car accident. At the film’s climax, the heroin’s psychotic buyer, Harry Roat (a freaky Alan Arkin), stalks Susy alone in her apartment. To play this end game on equal footing, she breaks all the light bulbs in the apartment, all except the easiest one to forget: the refrigerator light. In a genius bit of foreshadowing, we’re told early in the film that Susy’s fridge needs defrosting, and shortly after the door opens, the compressor starts and she can hear her own mistake. Hepburn’s response is heartbreaking. It may be the final advantage Roat needs to end her life, but he forgets that, blind or not, she knows where the butcher knives are kept. While the device of the mortally-wounded-killer-makes-one-last-attack is almost hackneyed today, in 1967 it was rare, and the sudden appearance of Roat, first leaping like a panther at Susy then crawling like a snake, is still terrifyingly effective. In the end, we realize how much of the movie’s expository dialogue has set us up for this final showdown. That attention to detail gives Wait Until Dark its edgy reality and enduring status as a classic. (M. Robert Grunwald)