120 Essential Horror Scenes Part 9: Best Jump Scares & False Alarms
The jump scare is a uniquely horror movie convention. Where some movies use it as an excuse to play peekaboo and assault you with noise, others use it as a way to shatter your complacency as a viewer. It’s the purest form of scare: something bursts out of a dark corner, a loud noise cuts the tension, or a jolt to the plot comes on so unexpected, you don’t know what hit you. It may just be a momentary fright, but a good horror movie will put you on edge and keep you there.
Alien (1979)- No blood, no Dallas
Horror purists are of the mind that jumps are cheap, and, for the most part, they are. Yet, in those nerve-wracking scenes, when a director knows exactly what they are doing, it’s riveting. I’ve always prided myself on not being one of those people who gets jumpy during a horror movie, but that streak ended once I saw Alien for the first time.
Captain Dallas (Ted Skerritt) takes it upon himself to man the vent-shaft in hopes of forcing the alien out of the ship. The chestburster that interrupted the Nostromo crew’s peaceful dinner established that from that point on everyone is fair game. Ridley Scott invests most of the film’s 117 minutes into fleshing out the characters before he starts knocking them off one-by-one. Science fiction at the time had programmed viewers into expecting Dallas to be the hero–he is the captain, after all–so it comes as a surprise when he’s killed well before the end.
The dark, grungy setting keeps the audience on edge while Dallas navigates the ventilation, and Lambert (Veronica Cartwright) and Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) talk him through the system. Harsh beeping on Dallas’ motion detector reminds him that danger is imminent. The Xenomorph is only briefly illuminated by the captain’s flamethrower right before it attacks him. With a horrific screech, it’s over in an instant. The audience is shocked, and left with the question of “who’s going to take charge now?” (Colin Biggs)
Audition (1999)- Answering the phone
With Audition, Takashi Miike created a film so unbearably intense, when the infamous torture scene begins it is something of a minor relief for the audience. The tension that drives the movie, a Japanese riff on Fatal Attraction that moonlights as one of the darkest relationship satires ever made, is instantly diminished by the (mostly) off screen violence, only feeling visceral because of the twisted imaginations of the audience. The increasing elements of psychological horror as the movie progresses are to unnerve viewers going in cold, expecting a kooky Japanese romantic drama and getting something far more twisted instead.
Widower Shigeharu (Ryo Ishibashi) has decided to follow through with a friend’s plan to start dating again by holding mock auditions for girlfriends, pretending they are for a film his friend is producing. He becomes obsessed with one interviewee, Asami (Eihi Shiina), despite everything on her resume leading to a dead end. He decides to call her despite this, leading to one of the biggest 180 degree turns in cinema history. As the phone rings, we see Asami sitting like a woman possessed, nothing but a potato sack and telephone on the floor beside her. The phone chime reverberates across the empty room, almost deafening due to the eerily somber atmosphere of the bare bones apartment. Then the bag moves with no explanation, appearing to contain somebody desperate to escape–proof that there is no better jump scare than one in a movie that the audience is not expecting to find one in. Asami adopts a creepily innocent affectation when answering the phone, setting the stage for an unparalleled work of psychological and emotional torture. (Alistair Ryder)
Cache (2005)- Bleeding like a chicken
Austrian provocateur Michael Haneke doesn’t care about your film watching sensibilities. He’ll take his thriller about a bourgeois family receiving creepy video recordings of the front of their house and toss in a gasp inducing jump scare just because he can. His story of a well off couple facing their demons takes a turn when patriarch George (Daniel Autiel) bumps into Majid (Maurice Benichou), an orphaned Algerian boy who stayed with his family when they were both young and who now lives a life of squalor. Dismissive of his current circumstances, George grills Majid about the videotapes, but he denies any part in the scheme. Days later, Majid calls George to his apartment, presumably to reveal the truth. However, instead of an answer, Majid takes a razor to his throat, spraying his kitchen with a fresh coat of blood (the red splatter became the film’s poster art–nice Haneke). The term “shocking” gets thrown around way too much when it comes to horror movies. Take a gander at any Watchmojo list celebrating the “best” of horror and you’ll see how a limited scope of world cinema limits you to experiencing the wonders of actual effective filmmaking. That palpable tension you feel at two characters talking? That’s because there is no musical score punctuating every line. That dread that anything can pop into the frame? That’s the cinematographer sticking to a wide shot and the editor not cutting. That act of violence that actually makes you drop your jaw? That’s a director understanding how human nature is frightening and unpredictable. (Shane Ramirez)
Carrie (1976) – Carrie’s terror carries on
Jump scares sometimes can be used as a theatrical device used to create a quick thrill from audiences in horror films. This is especially seen in large franchise horror films like Friday the 13th, Scream, and Nightmare on Elm Street. When done wrong, it can feel as cheap and flat as a fart joke in a screwball comedy. When done right, on the other hand, the jump scare doesn’t only capture fear on screen, but viscerally places the audience in the mindset of the film’s victim. Many one off horror films do this particularly well, like The Sixth Sense, Let the Right One In, and Carrie. Carrie waits to the very end of the film, to pull a fast one on the audience. After the climax of prom night is done, after the wreckage has destroyed the school and buried her, the audience is lead to believe the worst is behind them. Yet in a split second, as the camera zooms in on the demolished junk and dirt, Carrie’s hand pops up and grabs one last helpless victim. Not only does it give the audience a jolt, but it gives off a lingering impression that Carrie is not done terrorizing, even when dead. (Christopher Clemente)
Cat People (1942) – The Lewton Bus
One of the first films to reference the work of Sigmund Freud was Cat People, a story about an American man who marries a Serbian immigrant who fears that she will turn into a cat-like person if they are sexually intimate. Cat People plays out as a dark and fearless study of sexual repression and anxiety, underlining what would later make psycho-sexual supernatural horror popular. It was ahead of its time in many ways, and it was also the first film in a series of nine brilliant literate horror films produced by Val Lewton in the ’40s. Of the nine, it is arguably the best, an evocative reminder of how powerful ‘less is more’ can be. Take for example the scene in which Alice is stalked by the feline Irena through the city streets at night. Just as the threat seems to creep up behind her, the sudden arrival of a bus terrifies her. It’s so simple yet so effective because Lewton is a master at creating mood and atmosphere. After Cat People was released, cinephiles would refer to jump scares as the “Lewton Bus” moment. (Ricky D)
The Exorcist III (1990)- The nurse’s station
Jump scares are the bad puns of the horror world: cheap, easy, often effective but seldom necessary. Once in a while, though, one rises above the fray to prove itself worth a call-out. In The Exorcist III, a young nurse making her rounds awakens a patient, who suddenly jerks into frame, scaring the hell out of her and the audience. Okay, movie, that was a good one, you got us. But no more nonsense, all right? We then spend nearly two silent minutes watching the nurse from far down the hallway as she goes about her duties at the nurse’s station. We faintly hear her small talk with a security guard. Though her red sweater makes it clear that she’s the center of attention, we begin to wonder if William Peter Blatty simply went home and left the camera rolling. Then, the young nurse checks another room. She shuts the door behind her and turns around. With an ungodly symphonic wail, the camera zooms onto a white-cloaked figure emerging from the closed door, holding a set of autopsy bone-cutting shears just behind the nurse’s neck. Blatty instills a false sense of security with the first jump, the angry patient. After we catch our collective breath, he plays with our expectations with the drawn-out business at the nurse’s station. We stop preparing ourselves for another scare and start wondering why we’re watching this. Then Blatty pulls a rug out from under us that we didn’t even know we were standing on. When the movie’s uneven tone and tacked-on exorcism scene are long forgotten, this indelible shock lingers. (Robert M. Grunwald)
Friday the 13th (1980) – Jason’s early morning surprise
Friday the 13th is known for many things: helping kick start the slasher craze of the ’80s, briefly introducing us to one of the most iconic villains in pop culture, and offing Kevin Bacon with an arrow through the neck post-coitus. What it’s not really known for is being scary. It contains an ominous message from one ‘Crazy Ralph’ and some other memorable kills, but that’s all the film really strives for. That doesn’t stop one particular moment from successfully giving the audience a good fright.
Alice has had a rough night. She’s found the dead bodies of all her friends and cut off the head of Jason Voorhees’s mother, the one responsible for the murders. The scene fades out and then fades in on a long shot of Alice fast asleep in a canoe, floating in the middle of the lake. A calm, peaceful piano tune accompanies the placid cinematography. Just as Alice slowly begins to awaken, the camera slowly zooms in on her, and she starts believing that everything from the night before is behind her. Then a young, decaying Jason jumps out of the lake from behind, and pulls Alice underwater.
First of all, the slow zoom-in lulls the viewer into a sense of calm, making Jason’s surprise all the more unexpected. Additionally, until Jason jumps out of the lake, the scenery feels oddly pastoral, a stark contrast from its current image as a site of mass murders. Everything from the glass-like water and the trees in the distance feels warm and inviting rather than imposing, a bit ironic given Jason’s mother using the surroundings for cover. Too bad for Alice, and every other teenager, that Camp Crystal Lake could never regain its former innocence due to one act of counselor negligence. (William Penix)
Inland Empire (2006)– Burning face
David Lynch has played with identity and faces throughout his filmography, but never as terrifyingly as in his last film, Inland Empire. The enigmatic and labyrinthine film takes pleasure in the reversal of using digital as opposed to shooting on film. Lynch’s oeuvre has explored the tangibility and intangibility of the image, but the DV shot Inland Empire allows him to further tinker with that. Scenes look grainy, even washed out, but it makes the manipulation of images easier, even scarier.
We follow Laura Dern’s Nikki Grace, an actress in search of a comeback, down a dark hallway, as she looks for the Phantom. The camera accentuates the noise in the image, highlighting the incongruous editing and creating a feeling of unease. We arrive at Room 47, and a figure walks toward Nikki. She shoots him in the face, a bright light filling the screen. He remains standing. Throughout the film, Lynch intentionally creates gaps in reactions, for characters and shots, making sequences and narrative flow seem disjointed and foreign to viewers.
With this rhythm, or maybe lack thereof, the following reverse shot seems all the more startling. Where the face of the Phantom should be, there is now a hole, scrubbed out like a cigarette burn. In its place is Nikki’s face: wide, pale, hysterical, horrifying. Lynch builds up the tension for three hours, and most of Inland Empire’s pleasure is in its elusiveness and calculated dread, but he plays one jump scare in the entire film to make it as effective as possible. It’s such a strange image and technically “impossible” given the film was shot digitally. A cigarette burn resembling the same kind of burn that a projector would make seems to suggest that Lynch will never be done with cinema, no matter its form. (Kyle Turner)
[REC] (2007)– Dragged to hell
This brilliant found footage thriller may start slow, but it eventually accelerates to a fever pitch of complete and utter terror and hysteria. Directors Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza became rising stars in the Spanish horror scene with this short, stripped-down, first-person horror picture that delivers some unforgettably effective shocks while gradually building a haunting atmosphere of ever-increasing panic and despair. In its swift 85 minute runtime, [Rec] contains such a high scare rate, I guarantee you’ll jump out of you chair at least once. The merciless undead, relentless pace, claustrophobic apartment block setting, and impressively choreographed attacks all help make this one hell of a scary film. In the film’s final reel, Ángela and Pablo are chased upstairs, where they are forced to take refuge in the penthouse. They discover a tape recorder which explains that its owner was an agent of the Vatican who was tasked with researching and isolating an enzyme believed to be the biological cause of demonic possession. It was later confirmed to exist in a young girl named Tristana Medeiros, who was raped by a group of priests. As Pablo grabs his camera to record inside the attic, an infected boy knocks the it out his hands, breaking it then viciously killing him. Ángela is then left to stumble around the pitch dark apartment in hopes of finding the camera so she can use its night vision to find a way out. As she edges closer and closer, a pair of hands reach out and grab her, dragging her into the darkness. The first time I watched [REC] was at the Fantasia Film Festival, and the three young ladies sitting behind me left the theater in tears after watching the final scene. I’ve never since witnessed people so frightened from watching a movie. (Ricky D)
Shutter (2004)- Say cheese!
Thai director/co-screenwriter Banjong Pisanthanakun delivers one of the best Asian horror films with Shutter. As people around him are killed by a spectral presence, a photographer (Ananda Everingham) becomes targeted by the supernatural entity. The film builds to a stunning climax featuring one of horror cinema’s greatest and most unclichéd jump scares. Certain the deadly ghost is in his apartment and knowing that he can capture the entity on film, the photographer wildly snaps pictures with his Polaroid camera. When he picks up his last photo, he realizes the ghost is closer to him than he thought–a realization made more shocking by a cut to a wide shot of the ghost giving him a piggy back ride. Horror fans often cite the television scene in Hideo Nakata’s Ringu as one of the most stunning moments in horror cinema history. Pisanthanakun tops that classic moment with his fresh spin on the vengeful ghost story. Shutter is the long-haired Asian ghost girl movie for people who think they can’t stand to watch another long-haired Asian ghost girl movie. Avoid the softened 2008 American remake at all costs. (Terek Puckett)
Signs (2002)- It’s behind!
Believe it or not, there was a time when being a fan of director M. Night Shyamalan was seen as a cool thing. From The Sixth Sense to Signs, his movies were of tremendous quality, reveling in mystery, horror, and genuinely solid character driven drama. Signs, starring Mel Gibson and Joaquin Phoenix, is a really nice, slow-burn alien invasion film, which on paper sounds like an oxymoron considering how most alien invasion pictures are made. But back in 2002, Shyamalan could pull this sort of thing off with aplomb.
Among the many great scenes that put viewers on the edge of their seats is one of the most curiously constructed jump scares in modern cinema. By the middle of the story it has become clear that something has come to our planet, although the nature of the visitors as well as their intent is still a mystery. Merril (Phoenix), already a ball of stress, is glued to the television screen in a darkened closet as a news report covers a story from Brazil. In it, amateur video footage shows a children’s birthday interrupted by some hoopla. The younglings are clamoring that something large moved among the bushes just outside the home. The person holding the camera follows the kids to the window, pointing the frame towards an alleyway beside their house when, all of a sudden, a non-human, bipedal creature quickly walks by, and the children yelp in terror. Rather than make the reveal a big scene adorned with terrific effects, Shyamalan accomplishes the feat by employing crummy camcorder footage, proving that there are definitely unorthodox ways to scare the bejesus out of viewers. (Edgar Chaput)
Twentynine Palms (2003)- Misery loves company
Twentynine Palms is a shitty movie. For two hours, Bruno Dumont’s film plays like a parody of an arthouse movie: a stultifyingly dull couple argues, screws, argues, screws, rinse repeat. That is until two shocking acts of violence turn the film on its head. It’s not enough to save it, but damn it if it isn’t effective. David is a photographer. Katia is his model girlfriend. The only language they can communicate in is French. The two are on a jaunt in California’s Joshua Tree desert for a photoshoot, where their relationship is put to the test, firstly because of the language barrier and secondly because both of them are a couple of bores who bicker to pass the time. Katia’s passing comment about her preference for military men makes David doubly insecure…and then he is sodomized by a couple of backwoods good old boys and something snaps. As Katia rests on their hotel room bed, David bursts out of the bathroom, naked with his head shaved, and stabs her to death. We barely get a sense of what has just happened, as the scene is shot like a blur and scored to David’s psychotic grunting. Dumont doesn’t so much build-up to the horror as he lulls us into being so bored that he startles us with some good old fashioned murder. It’s a definite subversion of the arthouse formula, but too little, too late. One effective act of violence can make a scene but not a movie. (Shane Ramirez)