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.
25. Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (2001)
Scene: Bilbo’s Transformation
Fewer inanimate objects have driven a physical plot more than the one ring from Peter Jackson’s epic trilogy. The are monsters, walking trees, evil wizards, and the eye of Sauron, but one moment from the first film stands out as a shocking horror moment. The ring in question is in possession of Bilbo Baggins (Ian Holm), who found the ring sixty years earlier. The existence of the evil Sauron is dependent on the ring’s survival, but Bilbo has chosen to leave the ring to his nephew Frodo (Elijah Wood). But in their brief conversation, the ring’s power is revealed, as Bilbo transforms briefly into a monster when he visualizes the ring being taken away from him. It demonstrates the power inherent in the ring, prepares the audience for Smegal, who is basically that monster in permanent form in The Two Towers, but truly sets the audience on edge. Up to that point, we have no expectation that a shock scare like this could even occur. It’s just a mild discussion between uncle and nephew when it turns on a dime into a brief, but an important flash of horror. In most other films, it would be a throwaway scene in a bigger explosion of effects and staging. But in this film – the one that needs to put the details in place to justify two more films – this little psychological breakdown is more than enough to show the audience just how much power the ring has and how important it is to destroy it.
24. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Kahn (1982)
Scene: The Brain Eels
After the first Star Trek film was a failure, creator Gene Roddenberry was forced out, leaving executive producer Harve Bennett to sketch out a story outline and hand it off to writer Jack B. So wards and director Nicholas Meyer. Together, they created a more exciting sequel, resulting in the best of the film series. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan follows Captain Kirk (William Shatner) and his crew as they fight a tyrannical ruler named Khan (Ricardo Montalbán). Commander Chekov (Walter Koenig) takes the USS Reliant to search a planet for testing, meant to create habitable environments from originally barren lands. There, they encounter Khan, who was exiled there fifteen years earlier by Kirk after they tried to take over the Enterprise. When Khan and his crew arrived on the planet, their ship exploded, causing a rift that ruined the ecosystem and led to the death of Khan’s wife. Khan takes them hostage, leading to the scene that is both horror and gross-out. Khan looks to a plate, where he sees a large, wiggling eel/slug type creature. He removes tiny maggot-looking things from its skin and explains that they provide mind control powers. We watch as Khan – Bond villain style – explain his every move as his henchmen drop Chekov and Terrell (Paul Winfield) to their knees and these maggots are inserted into the helmets, making their way into their ears. It’s graphic, monster-movie style suspense and imagery. Montalbán’s calm demeanor only makes it worse.
I won’t even dance around it – this is a horror film. Not in the sense that disqualifies it from this list, but this is a film I plan to show my children when they get a little older just to keep them off of drugs. Darren Aronofsky is akin to using nightmarish images and, while some of his other films explore the paranoia more heavily, Requiem for a Dream struck a cord that, while aggressively depressing and hollow, provided a look into the world of drug addiction like nothing before it. The film follows four characters: Harry (Jared Leto), his girlfriend Marion (Jennifer Connelly), his best friend Tyrone (Marlon Wayans), and Harry’s mother Sara (Ellen Burstyn). The three youths decide the only way they can survive financially is to enter into illegal drug trading, hoping to raise enough money to make successes of themselves and get out of their living situations. But, as expected, complications arise, including their own horrific addictions and their effects on relationships. Meanwhile, Sara is an elderly woman who watches TV informercials religiously but decides she needs to lose weight after being invited to appear on her favorite game show. She begins taking amphetamines to help with her weight loss to the point that she becomes delusional. The film is filled with unconscionable images presented in graphic detail, but the closing of the film is what takes the cake for a high intensity, fear-inducing scene. We watch as Sara gets electroshock therapy. We see Harry at the hospital getting his arm amputated after it has become infected due to heroin use. We see Tyrone, now in prison, forced to do hard labor. And we see Marion trying to raise money for the drug trade by working at a midnight sex show for her pimp. These are all fast cut between each other with overlapping audio (Aronofsky uses this technique to the point of attrition in the film) and set to that menacingly dark soundtrack, composed by Clint Mansell. And it’s graphic. Not suitable for work.
22. Labyrinth (1986)
Scene: Helping Hands
Another Jim Henson-directed film, this one executive produced by George Lucas, written by Terry Jones, and starring David Bowie (oddly enough, also starring Jennifer Connelly…that wasn’t planned). Labyrinth was the last feature film Henson directed and was a commercial failure, only making about half of its budget back. Love has grown for the film, though, thanks to the cult fantasy themes and the growing respect for the puppetry. Sarah (Connelly) tells her brother a bedtime story to calm him down, but with no success. In a fit of rage, she wishes him away, only to see him disappear. The Goblin King Jareth (Bowie) appears, informing her that he has agreed to her wish, but Sarah begs for his return. Jareth promises he will return him if she solves the Labyrinth and makes it to his castle within thirteen hours. Otherwise, her brother will become a goblin forever. She makes her way through the maze with the help of a dwarf named Hoggle, running into many traps and visions along the way. But of all the creepy moments along her journey, none was more memorable and unsettling than the Shaft of Hands. Sarah falls into a hole and is caught by hundreds of hands coming out from the sides of the tunnel. Now, they claims to be helping hands, but the way they speak and forms hands into broken faces is just terrifying. In a strange way, it’s basically puppetry without the puppets, which adds even more eeriness to it. It’s a brief moment in a larger, more puppetry and fantasy driven film, but it’s one of the most equally inventive and creepy moments in Henson’s film history.
21. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk with Me (1992)
Scene: BOB’s Appearance
Couldn’t make it through this list without a David Lynch movie. And no, it’s not a great one. Just as every other Lynch film, it could be argued as a horror film. But, there’s not much real horror to it beyond the psychological thriller aspects. Regardless, this poorly received prequel to Lynch’s well-loved, short-lived television show Twin Peaks extended a story that, while a little misguided and bumpy, was still a welcome addition for die-hard fans. It centers on the murder of Theresa Banks (Pamela Gidley) in Washington state and the final days of Laura Palmer’s (Sheryl Lee) life, whose murder sets the television series in motion. It is slowly revealed that Laura fears she is being stalked and will be killed by a man named BOB, though her friends tell her that he isn’t real. But the moment that sets the whole crazy, unfocused film into a tailspin is BOB’s first appearance. Laura returns home after her shift at Meals on Wheels and enters the house, a little uncertain about her surroundings. She slowly walks around the house to her room. The camera slowly pans left and right, following Laura up the stairs. She slowly opens the door of her room. And it happens. A jump cut to Laura screaming and BOB hunched behind the dresser. BOB then screams and we jump to inside his mouth. We then jump to Laura running out of the house. In a completely insane film, this is the moment that, while not graphic or ending in someone’s immediate death, is always the memorable scare moment. Note: David Bowie has a bit part in this film. I did a chain reaction thing here unintentionally. Clever.
20. The Godfather (1972)
Scene: The Horse Head
It’s the sweeping epic that eventually spanned three films. But, without the sequels, the first still stands as one of the greatest cinematic achievements of all time. The Godfather is a crime drama, a family drama, and a warped version of the American dream. The story focuses on the Corleone family, beginning at the marriage of his daughter, an expansive reception that serves as a wonderful introduction to the characters we would grow to love. Part of this intro is to demonstrate how ruthless the family could be if called to. Vito (Marlon Brando) will grant requests on this day, as it is his daughter’s wedding day. One of those requests comes from Johnny Fontane (Al Martino), Vito’s godson and a professional singer. He wants to land a contested part in a film, so Vito sends Tom Hagen (Robert Duvall) to Los Angeles to meet with studio head Tom Woltz. Woltz is less than enthusiastic about the request. That is, until the next morning. It’s not embedded within the larger plot of the film. But when Woltz awakens and finds that severed racehorse head in his bed, it’s frightening in a way that sets the tone for the rest of the film and the subsequent sequels. It’s chilling, thanks to the image itself and the realization that something this damaging can be done so simply by a family with this much power.
19. Bambi (1942)
Scene: Bambi’s Mother is Killed
Five years after Disney’s first animated feature-length film, old Walt decided to destroy as many happy childhood memories as he could with a story about an adorable baby deer. Bambi centers on the title deer, a young fawn who grows up destined for greatness. He will one day become the prince of the forest, following in his father’s footsteps. He is befriended by a young rabbit named Thumper and a skunk he calls Flower. But, all the while, Bambi is really just a mama’s boy, attached to his mother for much of the film. Then, winter comes. And sure enough, since we have gotten used to their relationship and Bambi being happy, it was only a matter of time until that happiness was destroyed. So, Bambi’s mother is shot while trying to find her son food. Which makes it even better. Sorrow aside, the entire moment is terrifying, with shadowy figures in the woods and the realization that the villain is “man.” And hundreds of vegetarians were born.
18. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984)
Scene: The Heart Removal
A few years after Steven Spielberg and George Lucas struck gold with Raiders of the Lost Ark, they returned to the gold mine and brought back the most adventurous paleontologist the world has ever seen. Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom picks up with Indy (Harrison Ford) escaping a crime boss in Shanghai, with a nightclub singer (Kate Capshaw) and tween sidekick Short Round (Jonathan Ke Quan) in tow, only to board a plane owned by that crime boss. They escape to a remote area of India, only to be pulled in to a mission to retrieve a stolen stone for a native tribe. When they find the stone, it brings them to a cult that enslaves children and performs human sacrifice. The ceremony that demonstrates the sacrifice involves an incredibly graphic moment where cult leader Mola Ram chants and rips the heart out of a live person. I remember seeing this scene as a child out of context and having nightmares for weeks. The scene and the other violence prevalent in the film helped bring about the PG-13 rating, which basically means super violent without nudity or the “f” word used in a sexual sense. But that heart removal takes the cake in a film that Lawrence Kasdan (writer of Raiders) called “very ugly and mean-spirited.”
17. Se7en (1995)
David Fincher is a notoriously dark filmmaker, even injecting his character studies will a layer of unease and depression that twists the film’s position in multiple genres. While Se7en has the makings of a horror film, it’s really a neo-noir thriller; an entry into the cop/serial killer drama sub-genre alongside Fincher’s other entry on this list, Zodiac. The film focuses on retiring Detective Somerset (Morgan Freeman) and his new partner, a young headstrong idealist detective named Mills (Brad Pitt) as they track a series of murders connected murders, all seeming to revolve around the seven deadly sins. After finding victims associated with gluttony and greed, they find themselves led to an apartment filled with hanging air fresheners. They find the body of a man who appears to be dead, starved to death, and emancipated to the point of nausea. This victim represents sloth, a man who was a drug dealer and child molester before meeting his fate. But, when Somerset and Mills investigate the scene, they learn that this pile of ragged human remains isn’t exactly remains. It’s a simple jump scare, but the moment stands out among a truly stark, unhopeful films. The famous ending does less to encourage fear that rage, but this shock within the narrative shows that even the most cerebral filmmakers can throw a cheap scare in every once in a while to great effect.
16. Pinocchio (1940)
Scene: Pleasure Island
I once called Pinocchio the definitive animated film of all time. I stand by that statement, mostly because of the honest impact Disney created with such a beautifully wrought main character and morality that doesn’t feel as saccharine as it could. Geppetto is a toymaker who dreams of having his own child. He carves Pinocchio, a wooden marionette, and goes to sleep wishing he would come to life. Sure enough, the Blue Fairy makes it happen and Pinocchio is given life. But, before he can become a real boy, he must prove himself to be brave, truthful, and unselfish. Well, this becomes more difficult than expected, as Pinocchio gets pulled into the world of entertainment, joining a traveling puppet show. Even worse, he finds himself sold to an evil coachman who takes him to a place called Pleasure Island. First, the coachman is terrifying. Second, when it is revealed the true purpose of Pleasure Island, the transformations themselves are an animated nightmare, as we watch these bad eggs sprout tails and ears, working their way toward full jackasses. Disney’s early animated films didn’t hold back (see #19); they took adult themes and embedded them within childhood fairy tales without any attempt to shelter them for political correctness. We see young children smoking, swearing, and making real mischief. Their punishment: a trip to a place filled with worldly goodness before they become simple donkeys.
15. Barton Fink (1991)
Scene: Hotel Aflame
Maybe the best film of all time about the screenwriting process, Barton Fink is one of the Coen Brothers’ more critically acclaimed, but general publicly ignored films, despite a riveting concept with brilliant performances. It swept the Cannes Film Festival awards but only made back about two-thirds of its budget. The titular character (John Turturro) is a skilled playwright, earning huge raves for his first play. This success leads to him accepting a job writing scripts for a movie studio in California, despite his concern that it would cloud his dedication to writing. He checks into the Hotel Earle, a mammoth building that seems mostly deserted. Barton begins to suffer writer’s block, distracted by the noise from his neighbor Charlie Meadows (John Goodman). Charlie extends an olive branch to Barton, but secrets about the business and this new acquaintance slowly begin to seep out. This eventually leads to a showdown involving police, Barton being handcuffed to a bed, and Charlie approaching them all while the Hotel Earle goes up in flames. It’s a haunting image that just caps off a weird film that takes place more in Barton’s inner psyche, but isolated, Charlie’s persona, and this scene creates what very well could be a horror film villain.
14. Trainspotting (1996)
Scene: Baby on the Ceiling
Long before Danny Boyle made heartwarming films about star crossed lovers and adventure seekers cutting off their arms, he made heartwarming films about heroin addicts in Edinburgh. Trainspotting was Boyle’s first major mark on the world of cinema, having become a cult classic since its release. It tells the story of five friends – Renton (Ewan McGregor), Murphy (Ewen Bremner), Sick Boy (Johnny Lee Miller), Tommy (Kevin McKidd), and Franco (Robert Carlyle) – all of which are in some stage of heroin addiction. Renton tries to get clean eventually locking himself in a hotel to go through withdrawal on his own, only to relapse along with all his friends. Their lives are spent in a constant state of hallucinatory stupor, stopped abruptly one day when fellow addict Allison (Susan Vidler) informs them that her baby has died due to neglect, blaming them. Renton and Murphy are caught stealing, but Rentin avoids jail time by entering a drug program to get clean. Despite the best effort of the program and his parents, he escapes to his dealer’s house and nearly ODs, prompting his parents to lock him in his old bedroom to force him to go cold turkey. The most difficult stages of the withdrawal this time are accompanied by graphic hallucinations, including his friends, his parents, a game show, and, worst of all, Allison’s dead baby crawling on the ceiling, head-spinning fully around to lock eyes with him. Boyle’s imagery throughout the film is something to behold, but this vision is near traumatic. The crab walk of this imagined baby is enough to make your skin crawl; then it turns and looks straight at the audience, seeing it through Renton’s eyes. A shocking, unnerving site.
13. Jaws (1975)
Scene: The Severed Head
I’m close to standing as one in the camp that claims Jaws is Steven Spielberg’s best film, even close to 40 years and countless other great films later. But Jaws was the first indication that Spielberg was an incredibly capable filmmaker, especially compared to his recent fare, which tends to lean a little too misty-eyed for my tastes. Jaws is universally agreed upon as a scary film, but that doesn’t make it a horror film. The movie begins with a skinny dipper getting dragged under the water, presumably by the shark that drives the plot. This sets into motion investigations but attempted cover-ups trying to keep the general public from avoiding the beach, it being the town’s main source of summer income. Eventually, police chief Brody (Roy Scheider), oceanographer Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), and shark hunter Quint (Robert Shaw) come together and head out on a boat to find the shark. At that point, it follows the three men as they track down the shark on the ocean, eventually coming upon a shipwreck. The boat belonged to local fisherman Ben Gardner and Hooper decides to investigate the underwater wreckage. He discovers a giant shark tooth embedded into the hull of the boat but then scans the further to find Gardner’s head and corpse among the boat’s ruins. The moment is another jump scare, but combined with the fact that we don’t see the shark for so long in the film only adds to the excessive intensity Spielberg injects into the film. Jaws is a landmark of American cinema, but it wasn’t free of the cheap, but effective jolts.
12. Fatal Attraction (1987)
Scene: Cooking the Family Pet
The definitive “don’t cheat on your wife” movie, Fatal Attraction is a high-intensity psychological thriller that, many forget, was nominated for Best Picture (lost to The Last Emperor). Dan (Michael Douglas) is a married lawyer in New York. When his wife (Anne Archer) and daughter are gone for the weekend and he meets Alex (Glenn Close), an editor, through business. He engages her in what he thinks is a one night stand. She apparently feels differently. Alex begins stalking Dan and his family, claiming she is pregnant and he must take responsibility for it. He tries to shake her, to the point that he moves his family out of the city and into the suburbs. Alex refuses to be ignored, sending tapes to his house and badly damaging his car. All the while, Dan has kept the affair a secret from his wife. Then, one day when Dan and his family are not home, Alex breaks into the house. And what she does is just horrifying, as the family pet – a rabbit – ends up dead and in a pot, boiling on the stove. It’s one thing to torment a man who, understandable, deserves a little of what he gets. But when Alex begins intruding on his family, it goes from sociopathic to downright psychotic. If she wasn’t scary up until that point, Alex’s heartless murder of that poor bunny just ruins any chance she had with Dan.
11. Full Metal Jacket (1987)
Scene: Private Pyle Finally Cracks
A late entry in the great Stanley Kubrick’s filmography, Full Metal Jacket is a hellish nightmare depicting not the horrors of war, but the horrors of preparing for war, focusing on the development and lifecycle of young soldiers before, during, and after they get thrown onto the battlefield in the Vietnam War. It centers on (and is narrated by) Private James Davis (Matthew Modine), affectionately nicknamed “Joker.” He arrives at boot camp and meets Senior Drill Instructor Hartman (R. Lee Ermey), who immediately takes to berating his soldiers, specifically the overweight, clumsy Leonard Lawrence (Vincent D’Onofrio), whom he nicknames “Gomer Pyle.” Pyle doesn’t respond well to the treatment, eventually being paired up with Joker in an attempt to improve his work ethic. When that fails, Hartman adopts a new tactic, where every time Pyle screws up, he punishes every soldier but him, hoping to create a group motivation scenario. The other soldiers revolt by beating Pyle with bars of soap. While it appears to work, Joker notices the determination is veering dangerously close to insanity for Pyle. All this comes to a head when, on the final night at boot camp, Joker discovers Pyle in the latrine loading his rifle with live ammunition. Joker tries to calm him, but Pyle reacts loudly, reciting the Rifleman’s Creed and opening fire on Hartman, then taking his own life. The entire sequence is terrifying, thanks to D’Onofrio’s magnificent work as Pyle. Kubrick was meticulous to make his descent into madness palpable, pitting Emrey’s drastic motivational tactics clearly against a man not stable enough to hold onto the threads of reality. It’s dark. It’s not hopeful by any stretch of the imagination, but, most of all, it’s incredibly frightening.
10. Deliverance (1972)
Scene: Squeal Like a Piggy
Word to the wise: just because someone plays a mighty fine banjo, it doesn’t mean he or any of his kin should be invited to your family picnic. Based on the James Dickey novel of the same name, Deliverance follows four businessmen as they decide to spend a weekend canoeing down a fictional river before it needs to be flooded. Lewis (Burt Reynolds) leads the crew as the most experienced, followed closely by Ed (Jon Voight). The two novices Bobby and Drew (Ned Beatty, Ronny Cox) also join them. So, in remote Georgia, the four men set out to take in the beauty of nature. Before setting off, they come across a group of mountain men, all of which appear to be inbred. Drew engages in a banjo duet with one of the teenagers, but he doesn’t return Drew’s offers of pleasantries. The second day out, the two boats get separated, forcing Ed and Bobby to pull ashore. There, they encounter two of the mountain men from the morning before, wielding shotguns and claiming Ed and Bobby have accused them of running an illegal still. To retaliate, they tie Ed to a tree and he is forced to watch as the men force Bobby to the ground and violently rape him, screaming for him to “squeal like a piggy.” It’s a graphic, uncomfortable scene to sit through and a landmark moment in American cinema history; one of those “you can’t shake this image” moments. In the context of the film, it’s even worse, as you feared these people from the beginning, especially since our protagonists appear to devalue them as humans. You just don’t expect it to come to this. His debut film, this was quite a way for Ned Beatty to kick off his career.
9. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure (1985)
Scene: Large Marge
Tim Burton’s feature length directorial debut was also the film debut of one of children’s television’s favorite characters. Pee-Wee’s Big Adventure follows Pee-Wee Herman (Paul Ruebens) as he scours the country, looking for his favorite bike. His journey crosses the United States, from boxcar to motorcycle hitchiking to riding with a fugitive. One of these friendly drivers is a woman named Large Marge (Alice Nunn), a truck driver who picks up Pee-Wee to take him to a diner where he can find further transport. Upon their arrival, Pee-Wee learns that Large Marge isn’t who she appears to be. In the first indication that Burton was a different direction in visual filmmaking, we watch as Marge’s transforms into a nightmarish stop-motion, claymation monsters, seemingly out of nowhere. Up to that point (and after), the film feels a little off, but Marge’s transformation is so alarming and terrifying that it just adds a second layer of darkness to a film that you would think was made for children.
A screenplay written in part by Roald Dahl, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang is loosely based on the novel of the same name by Ian Fleming (yes, of James Bond game). The scattered, dreamlike film begins with a race car ending up in an old garage in England. Two local children – Jeremy and Jemima Potts (Adrian Hall and Heather Ripley) – have grown quite fond of it, but learn it is to be crushed and melted. They want their father Caractacus (Dick Van Dyke) to buy the car, but he has no dependable income, being an eccentric inventor and all. Eventually, he joins a carnival act and earns enough to buy the car, which he rebuilds in his own special way, with gadgets galore. They take Truly (Sally Ann Howes), a beautiful woman whom they befriended earlier, to the beach, where the seeds of love begin to sprout. At the beach, Caractacus tells a story played out on screen about a world called Vulgaria and an evil ruler who wants to keep Chitty Chitty Bang Bang (the car) for himself. The story contains the four of them, with the car transforming into a boat, a plane, etc. But in this fantasy tale is one little important detail: the evil ruler of Vulgaria, named Baroness Bomburst, hates children. She hates them to the point that she wants them all locked up. So, while the family is in hiding, the Baroness releases the Child Catcher. The Child Catcher drives an odd little car. He lures children to him with the promise of candy. He is a diagram for child molesters. The Child Catcher is played by Robert Helpmann, a classically trained ballet dancer and choreographer. He also appeared in Powell and Pressburger’s masterpiece The Red Shoes, for which he also served as choreographer. His performance in this lighthearted children’s movie is so uncomfortably menacing, even though it’s a story within a story, meant to be as fantastical as possible. Just a memorable image for all the wrong reasons.
7. Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981)
Scene: Opening of the Ark
Much like Jaws, Raiders of the Lost Ark was still in Steven Spielberg’s less audience-pandering stage of his career, where he had a lot of humanity, but in a more realistic way. Indiana Jones (Harrison Ford) is in the pantheon of adventure heroes, but this first introduction to him spent more time developing him, making for the better movie by far. Here, the most adventurous archaeologist in the world sets out his first wild adventure, finding a golden idol in a Peruvian temple in the film’s iconic opening scenes. Upon his return, he learns that Nazis are looking for the Ark of the Covenant, them believing its possession would make them invincible in the early stages of World War II. Indiana heads off to Nepal, learning the headpiece that would lead them to the location of the ark is in possession of his now dead mentor’s daughter Marion (Karen Allen), with whom he once had a romantic relationship. The two escape harm and set off to find the Ark together. This all leads to multiple run-ins with Nazis, eventually seeing them take possession of the Ark and take our two heroes, prisoner. In the final moments of the film, the Nazis have ties Indiana and Marion to a post, so they may witness the opening of the Ark. Indiana warns Marion to keep her eyes closed the entire time, fearful about what will happen to those who look into the Ark. Well, he’s on the money, as the opening of the ark causes a huge wave of flame to come out of it, shooting energy out toward all the soldiers and killing them. Then it gets really graphic. One villain’s head shrivels up. One villain’s face melts completely off his skull One’s head just explodes. Then everything just sets on fire. Of all the death that happens in this scene, that head melting moment has become a weirdly memorable and parodied set-piece, despite it being stomach-turning at the time. One of the great adventure films of all time, with just a little dose of body horror.
6. Mulholland Drive (2001)
Scene: The Man Behind the Diner
There’s plenty of dispute that this is, in fact, a horror film. I beg to differ, as I would argue that most of David Lynch’s films are not horror films, despite their difficulty to watch. But Mulholland Drive is a legitimate nightmare from start to finish, a sort of neo-noir/psychological thriller that never lets its viewers relax. The film follows an actress named Betty (Naomi Watts) and a woman who can’t remember who she is, whom they call Rita (Laura Harring). The two of them try to track down information to figure out Rita’s back story, but they find more twists and turns into dark places and with shady characters. Identities are blurred, dreams take the place of reality, and the narrative structure is thrown out the window. But the scariest moment at first seems to have nothing to do with the rest of the film and happens early on. Two men sit at a diner. One recounts a nightmare he had with a monster he is paranoid exists behind the diner. This prompts them both to get up and walk around the outside of the diner to the back alley. As they reach the back corner, the man/monster abruptly appears, causing the dream teller to collapse in fear. Lynch is known to build terrifying sequences, but they tend to be slow burns. This jump scare is so intense and unexpected, that it overshadows a good bit of the rest of an equally creepy and unsettling film.
5. The Vanishing (1988)
Scene: The Ending
This entire list has hit on a number of spoilers. For that, I apologize. But for this 1988 Dutch film, if you don’t know the scene I’m talking about, please don’t look for a clip. I didn’t include one for that reason. I’ll avoid being clear about what happens, but just go out and see this film. The original, not the American remake. In The Vanishing (Dutch title: Spoorloos), a couple is in France on vacation. Rex (Gene Bervoets) and Saskia (Johanna ter Steege) run out of gas, so they stop at a station to fill up and take a break from driving. After a romantic moment at the foot of a tree near the station, Saskia heads into the store to get something to drink. She never comes back. Thus begins Max’s frantic search, inter-cut with flashbacks that introduce Raymond (Bernard-Pierre Donnadieu), a family man who becomes increasingly obsessed with the idea of kidnapping a woman. Three years after Saskia’s disappearance, Rex is still searching for her, despite the objections of his new girlfriend. Eventually, Raymond finds Rex and tells him that he, in fact, kidnapped Saskia and will take him to her if he comes with him. Obviously, this isn’t exactly the best idea. On the car ride, Raymond explains why he did what he did, how interested he is in Rex’s dedication to finding his missing girlfriend, and what brought him to this stage of a sociopath. He explains how he lured Saskis to his car three years ago but refuses to reveal what he did with her. I’ll leave the rest to your imagination. If you want to spoil it, watch the clip. But I highly recommend finding the film (now in the Criterion Collection), watching the slow burn that leads to the end, and then basking in the sheer terror of what becomes of this great Dutch thriller.
It all begins with Jeffrey Beaumont (Kyle MacLachlan) cutting through a vacant lot on the way home from the hospital in his hometown. On the way, he bends down and finds a severed ear. He turns it in to the local police department, where he gets friendly with the chief’s daughter Sandy (Laura Dern). Sandy lets him in on the details of the case, which may involve a local woman named Dorothy Vallens (Isabella Rossellini). Jeffrey becomes obsessed with the whole scenario, deciding to pose as an exterminator to spy on Dorothy from the inside. He and Sandy attend her nightclub performance, where she sings the title song, but they leave early so Jeffrey can use the spare key he stole to sneak into her apartment. She discovers him there and threatens to kill him, but finds herself drawn to his curiosity and forces him to undress while she fellates him at knifepoint. Then, there’s a knock at the door. She throws Jeffrey into the closet, where he watches closely through the blinds as Frank Booth (Dennis Hopper) enters the room and takes over. Outside of slasher horror films, there will never be a villain more aggressive, more insane, and more fantastically over-the-top terrifying than Frank Booth. Huffing through a gas mask, Frank screams at Dorothy, while also being sexually aggressive toward her. His sadomasochistic tendencies are on display, not only abusing Dorothy but warping her view of the world. Long before movies like American Beauty discussed the dark underbelly of everyday suburban life, Blue Velvet stripped away all hopefulness to deliver a neo-noir of seediest nature, jam-packed with disturbing imagery and dialog. But nothing in David Lynch’s filmography surpasses sitting in the closet with Jeffrey, watching a sociopath work over a terrified single mother just hoping to see her son again.
3. Who Framed Roger Rabbit (1988)
Scene: Judge Doom’s Fate
Robert Zemeckis directed the classic live-action/animation mashup, a comedic fantasy with heavy film noir elements throughout, though mostly played for laughs. Who Framed Roger Rabbit stars the late Bob Hoskins as detective Eddie Valiant, brought in by the owner of a cartoon studio to investigate Jessica Rabbit (voiced by Kathleen Turner), the wife of the title rabbit, whom the owner believes is having an affair. Eddie and his brother Teddy used to love the cartoon community, but Eddie has since turned his back on them, Teddy having been killed by a toon with a dropped piano. Photos insinuate Jessica having an affair with Marvin Acme, owner of Toontown, and the Acme Corporation. After sharing this info with Roger, Roger runs away. The next day, Acme is dead, Roger being the prime suspect. At the crime scene, Eddie meets Judge Doom (Christopher Lloyd), a diabolical man who has found that cartoons can be killed by dipping them into a mixture of Turpentine, Acetone, and Benzene. Twists and turns in the plot and a surprising amount of deaths later (for a children’s film), we end up with a showdown between Doom and Eddie, where Doom is run over by a steamroller. But, when Doom survives and “unflattens” himself, he is revealed to be a cartoon all along and lets Eddie know that he is his brother’s murderer. The regeneration of Doom and those buggy eyes, along with Lloyd menacing performance, are way too much for a child audience to handle, striking fear into me personally as a five-year-old in that theater. The clever back and forth between live-action and animation and the literal interpretation of the rules of each is a fascinating plot device that injects life into what could have been a run-of-the-mill mystery. But the re-inflation of Judge Doom is still a hauntingly graphic line Zemeckis crossed.
It’s the moment that many generations go back to as the one that gave them nightmares as children. At a time when the studio system began pumping out monster movie after monster movie, one of the scariest moments emerged from one of the greatest family films ever made. The Wizard of Oz follows Dorothy Gale (Judy Garland) as she is whisked away to the land of Oz in a tornado and wants only to find her way home. She begins her journey in Munchkinland, and follows the yellow brick road along with her three new friends to get to the Emerald City. The Scarecrow (Ray Bolger) wants a brain, the tin man (Jack Haley) wants a heart, and the lion (Cowardly Lion) wants some courage. On their way there, they are met with a number of obstacles, most presented by the Wicked Witch of the West (Dorothy Hamilton), who swears revenge on Dorothy after her house dropped on top of her sister. After meeting the Wizard, he tasks them with bringing him the witch’s broom. On their way to the Witch’s castle, she releases her flying monkeys to protect her. First off, the idea of a monkey that can fly is horrifying. Second, they have little outfits on. Something about that makes them even more unsettling. They ambush the group, tear the scarecrow apart, and kidnap Dorothy and her dog, Toto. The entire sequence is crazy. It all takes place in a forest which is already a little creepy. The wind is blowing. The trees are screeching. And these little monsters are just terrible. There’s plenty of other imagery from L. Frank Baum’s course material that is probably worse, but of all the visions he had that were brought to screen, this one has probably given more kids nightmares than any.
1. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory (1971)
Scene: The Boat Ride
Has there been a children’s movie made that has a more wicked, sinister underbelly to it than this one? The original adaptation of Roald Dahl’s classic novel is a delightful romp through a candy factory but littered with a dark, twisted humor that, at one point, nears panic level. Charlie (Peter Ostrum) wins a ticket to see the inside of the great Willy Wonka’s factory and takes along his Grandpa Joe (Jack Albertson). They are taken room to room with a bunch of other children, each of which has a particular vice that proves their selfishness and undoes them. And when I say “undoes,” I mean possibly kills them. At least once it most definitely has killed them. But Wonka (Gene Wilder) shrugs it off, chalking it up to misbehavior and poor parenting, illustrated by a song from the Oompa-Loompas. At one point, in order to get to another part of the factory, the crew must jump on a boat in a chocolate river. Now, up to this point, some pretty crazy things have happened. But it’s all been in good fun, with enough whimsy to help you overlook the fact that these awful children may very well be in danger (however deservedly so). But, on this boat ride, they head through a tunnel. Suddenly, the tunnel becomes psychedelic, with technicolor streaks and superimposed insects on the screen, while Wonka recites a twisted poem in his delightfully sinister style:
“There’s no earthly way of knowing which direction we are going. There’s no knowing where we’re rowing or which way the river’s flowing. Is it raining? Is it snowing? Is a hurricane a blowing?
Not a speck of light is showing, so the danger must be growing. Are the fires of hell a glowing? Is the grisly reaper mowing?
Yes! The danger must be growing for the rowers keep on rowing. And they’re certainly not showing any signs that they are slowing!”
And then, it’s over. And it’s never spoken of again. Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory is a morality tale for children, but Wilder’s spin on the titular character is closer to Alex DeLarge than to Santa Claus. And that out of nowhere, terrifying moment is the gold standard for how to freak your audience out. You’d think Tim Burton would have done a better job with the remake. Seems right up his alley.
Editor’s Note: This article was originally published under our old brand, Sound On Sight.