Horror is an intensely subjective genre and one difficult to define; it isn’t easy to pinpoint what constitutes something being scary. Does fear come from a sense of brooding dread and atmosphere? Is it the unknown, the barely seen on screen, or the graphic and unpleasant, body-focused horror of physical repulsion? Is it a sense of the uncanny and the mundane slightly askew or all out screaming, fleeing terror? A recent conversation with a friend got me thinking about horror and the scariest scenes in cinema – hence this top ten, in which I’ll look at what personally, I deem to be the scariest cinematic moments with a brief discussion about what makes them work, coupled with videos if Youtube favours me with clips. Looking at similar lists online, I was struck by how non-frightening they were – the problem with most horror movies, as much as I love them, is that they’re not scary. They may be very well made films, with great pacing, creative ideas and unpleasant imagery, but there’s nothing in them to keep you up at night. Case in point, the shower scene in Psycho tends to top these lists, and whilst I agree its a remarkable feat of imagination and editing, brilliantly directed and utterly iconic, it’s really not scary. It’s an amazing scene and probably upsetting at the time, but nowadays it wouldn’t really shake audiences on a deeper, more unsettling level, the way true horror should. The Exorcist shares this kind of fault – it’s a great movie and fun to watch, but far too over-the-top to be scary, and somewhat a victim of its own success – the possession genre completely saturated to modern audiences. The film is scary, but only in it’s more restrained moments – the eerie statue at the start, Ellen Burstyn’s venture into the attic, the flash-up face and Regan’s tortures in the hospital. These quieter moments contain a greater sense of dread than the standard head-spinning scenes. And so The Exorcist will not feature on this list. Similar movies which tend to top these lists won’t appear either – Jaws is more a measure in suspense than fear, so the opening swim won’t be appearing. The opening to Scream, whilst a brilliant scene, is more intense than it is scary, though it did come close to making the list. There’s also actually 11 entries here; I cheated.
11. Pan’s Labyrinth – The Pale-Man Pan’s Labyrinth is a good movie without being a great one – the fantasy elements are far stronger than the war side of things and unfortunately, the war is where we spend most of our time. I was hoping for something more like a live-action Spirited Away. The highlight of the whole movie, however, is the infamous Pale-Man scene, one of the most surreal and unsettling cinematic scenes of the last decade. The horror here works on a few levels – Pan pre-warns Ophelia about eating the food and so the audience is already aware of the threat; there are horrific images of the Pale-Man eating babies on the walls and the soundtrack is eerie throughout the scene. The Pale-Man himself is a great movie monster, wonderfully designed by Del Toro, with creepy jerky movements and moaning sounds; unnatural movement and sound being key to horror success – things have to move and act in non-human ways, despite having human elements to them. As Ophelia races to escape (via a rapidly closing exist) the scene reaches its feverish peak, and it’s very intense. There’s an element of the nightmare to this scene, something which will come up repeatedly on this list, and a touch of childhood fairytale dread which really sells the moment. It’s the best scene of the movie and easily the scariest.
10. Ringu – The EndingThe horror movie ending fake-out is a tired technique; threat is defeated, happiness ensues, and then oh wait, the threat returns for one final scare/kill. Some movies – such as Alien – manage to do this fantastically, as does Japan’s infamous video-tape horror flick Ringu. The entire film is fairly unsettling – lo-key throughout with a sense of simmering dread and tension, but it’s the ending where the horror truly strikes. The strength here comes, like the Pale-Man, from music, design and movement – the soundtrack is brilliant, screeching and metallic and harsh on the ears, it sounds wrong from the start, and it’s added to visually by Sadako’s hideous, twitching movement – the effect created ingeniously by filming the actress walking backward and then playing the tape in reverse. It’s an eerie and unpleasant scene with the great surprise moment of Sadako coming through the screen – audiences didn’t expect that; the screen was supposed to be their safety net, and of course, the final shot with the eye is pretty horrific. Whilst I do enjoy Gore Verbinski’s American remake – some elements of it are actually stronger than its Japanese counter-part – its final scene is awful compared to this, far too stylised with mood-killing teleportation, lack of scary soundtrack and a sillier version of the eye. The original did it best:
9. The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – The Meat Hook Scene There had to be one slasher movie on the list and Texas stands out as the most brutal, with the brilliant meat hook murder making the cut. Halloween, for all its genre defining brilliance is again, one of those horror movies which I absolutely love, but which I don’t find scary on any level – with the possible exception of Michael Myers standing by the hedge, which is a pretty eerie shot:The Texas scene works because of how random and insane it is – to this point, the film has been undercut with a sense of dread, and we know something bad is going to happen. Then suddenly, Kirk gets hammered and the tone drops completely – left alone, Pam creeps into the mysterious house and stumbles into a room of bones; terrified, she tries to escape, only to be caught by Leatherface and slapped on a meat hook. Again, what makes this scene work so well is the pre-provided tension – the audience has seen Leatherface kill Kirk and knows he’s in the house, and this, coupled with a brilliant sense of escalating horror, first bodily and built on repulsion (complete with vomit) which then spins into pure and utter terror as Leatherface chases Pam. The contrast of Pam’s slender frame with Leatherface’s beast body and skin-mask is startling, the horror here working on the mundane suddenly confronted with something inhuman and wrong. The metallic, clanging soundtrack works wonders too and Leatherface’s lumbering movement sells the terror; he’s like a nightmare figure, slow and stupid but you know he’ll catch you. Watch it:
8. The Shining – The Twins The Shining is one of my favourite movies but I wasn’t initially going to feature anything from it on this list. Generally, as much as I love the film, I see it more as an exercise in atmosphere, building dread, and tension. It doesn’t outright scare me, though it’s very intense, but as I thought about it, it seemed shameful not to include it, and building dread and atmosphere are key components to horror. This scene is fairly infamous and probably the scariest in the movie – though not as intense as the bathroom climax, it’s the first ‘big’ scare we’re given, and comes out of nowhere too. Kubrick was a genius of sound and composition and both are used excellently here – the rolling churn of Danny’s tricycle and building screeching soundtrack – Penderecki’s terryfing ‘De Natura Sonoris’ – combined with the harsh right-angles of the Overlook, sudden shock of the twins and added horror of their subliminally flashing, brutally murdered bodies. It’s a great scene from one of cinema’s greatest directors, and another indication of how vital sound is when it comes to scares:
7. Inland Empire – Susan Running David Lynch is going to crop up on this list a few times. His films tend to contain deeply unsettling elements; he’s the world’s greatest director when it comes to dream atmosphere and falls into nightmare mode so easily, with this scene from Inland Empire standing as one of his most unsettling moments. Inland Empire is essentially, like being trapped in someone else’s nightmare and whilst it’s far from my favourite of Lynch (its way too long, unfocused and a poorer version of Mulholland Drive – though many would call it an underrated masterpiece, it’s a very dividing movie) it does contain some excellent scares, such as this bizarre scene, in which Laura Dern’s Susan creeps towards the camera, breaks into a strange run, at which point we notice her eerie wide smile and then bang, the camera throws her forward. If you’ve never seen before it it’s here:
This works purely on its surreality and nightmare elements – everyone’s probably had an unsettling nightmare like this, where the horror is slightly difficult to describe. Is it the lack of sound? The weird run and grin? Or the sudden smash zoom? Lynch certainly knows how to make unsettling, creepy horror, with this scene making it just ahead of another weird Inland Empire moment, again involving Laura Dern’s face: That flashes up suddenly towards the end of the film. It’s horrific.
6. Jacob’s Ladder – The Car
Jacob’s Ladder is an underrated movie, not strictly a horror film despite containing some of the creepiest scenes ever put on film. It’s a very unsettling, uncanny movie, playing on what’s unseen, and what’s slightly off-centre – humans with tails, briefly glimpsed, nurses with strange teeth in their heads, subway trains filled with motionless, unmoving faceless men. All of these scenes have a nightmarish quality but it’s the car chase which stands out.
This isn’t the first scare in the movie but it’s the most intense up until this point. It works by taking something human – a face – and perverting it in a unnatural way, making it deformed and monstrous but glimpsed so briefly that the audience barely have a chance to register it. Jacob’s Ladder works on glimpses and this is the first of such scenes to really make audiences sit up and go, ‘what did I just see?’ The infamous hospital/hell scene later on tends to get credit as the scariest (and indeed, is the cover photo to this post) and very nearly made the cut, as did the sudden jump cut later of the shakey-head man when Jacob is sat on his bed. The film also inspired the look and atmosphere of the Silent Hill games, which are fairly terrifying themselves.
5. [Rec] – The AtticI’ve reviewed [Rec] previously here – it’s an intensely brilliant horror movie and the finest of recent cinema, as well as a masterpiece of pacing. The scares become increasingly scarier as the stakes are raised and the situation becomes more hopeless – the final half hour is horror gold, and the last ten minutes or so are extremely frightening, with Ángela Vidal locked in the attic with her cameraman. Things get worse when the lights go out, leading to a brilliant Silence of the Lambs-throwback using nightvision lenses – here however, the horror is a hideously deformed zombie monster lurking in the dark with a hammer. This a fantastically directed scene which works by using the handheld camera and nightvision to limit both the character’s and the audience’s vision – we can’t quite see what’s happening – and of course the brilliant monster design works wonders too. This final fright is one of the creepiest cinema nasties in recent memory, and makes some horrific noises which really unsettle. It’s the perfect, horrific end to a very claustrophobic and terrifying movie:
4. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me – Bob in the BedroomThis is another terryfing moment from David Lynch, from his prequel movie Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me. I stand by Fire Walk With Me as one of the greatest horror movies ever made – it’s an intensely disturbing, upsetting look at abuse and molestation and very unpleasant to watch. The scene where Laura Palmer (Sheryl Lee) returns home to find Bob in her bedroom is hugely upsetting; Lynch builds tension by having another character tell Laura about Bob’s presence in the room, and then slowly allows her to creep up the stairs. We know Bob will be there and so does Laura, but neither audience or character want him to be, and the Lynchian music which builds throughout the scene is very creepy. Worse still, the unusual way Bob is stood in the room, his scream, and the horrific realisation on Laura’s part that this monster is actually her father. This is the moment when the film really takes a darker turn and its one of the finest horror scenes in movie history:
3. Insidious – The Visitor Insidious received a fair amount of negative criticism on its release but I stand by it as one of the greatest horror movies of recent memory. It has flaws yes, such as heavy exposition, and falls apart towards the end by turning into an entirely different kind of movie, something more in line with the silly Poltergeist franchise. But the first half in particular is hugely unsettling, laced with a frightening old fashioned score and some amazing jump scares. The film is clever and plays on audience expectations – for example, in one scene, Rose Byrne walks into her baby’s room – the baby starts crying, there’s a dramatic music sting, but the camera doesn’t move, the audience don’t jump but know something is wrong, and it takes an added second to notice the man stood behind the crib. That’s when the jump comes. That’s a fantastic scare set up, and the film has a few similar scenes. The best of the entire movie is Barbara Hershey explaining her dream. This works on a few levels – the eerie, dreamlike quality to the scene, and the frankly horrific image of the demon stood in the corner of the bedroom. We can only see its silhouette, but it’s clearly tall, clawed, and inhuman, and the sounds of the scene, the echo of the clock, the icy creaking of the monster, really help. The scene works on what’s unseen – Hershey describing it as a visitor, telling us how horrid its voice was and letting our imagination’s fill in the rest. And then, in what is already a hugely frightening tense scene, we’re given a fantastic and terrifying jump scare to end on. I find this scene fairly difficult to watch. It’s brilliant:
2. Mulholland Drive – The Man Behind the Diner The third and final Lynch scare on the list, and easily the best. Mulholland Drive is an amazing movie with some truly strange imagery, but this scene stands out as the scariest moment of the film, narrowly beating out the demonic elderly couple near the end. It’s essentially a recreation of the Bob seen mentioned above – we’re told about the monster waiting, and then sent to see it, knowing and not knowing it’ll be there. As Patrick Fischler describes his dream, it becomes clear he’s on some level, actually within it, and the scene takes on a horrendously creepy tone as the two men leave the diner. Music is vital here and gives the scene a very creepy, very tense edge – it is literally like watching someone else’s nightmare, leading to a brilliant jump scare, which almost comes as a relief for cutting the unbearable tension. The full scene wasn’t available on Youtube and you really need to watch it all to get the full impact, but here’s the tail end:
1. The Blair Witch Project – The Ending I would say easily, this is the scariest cinematic scene I’ve ever seen. The Blair Witch Project is a remarkable horror movie and one I’ve discussed in detail before. It’s a very unnerving, frightening film throughout, relying on the audience’s imagination, but it’s the final desperate few minutes which really make an impact. When Heather and Mike reach the house the movie takes on an even scarier tone and this is difficult to watch; extremely tense, the audience scan the frame looking for anything, and of course, it all kicks up as Mike gets grabbed by something off screen and Heather is left alone screaming. The final grainy image, coupled with Heather’s screams and the abrupt end, leave the audience feeling shaken as the credits roll. This is horror at its absolute finest, relying on subtly but building an impeccable sense of terror. I’ve never had a horror scene shake me like this one:
And that’s my list. Feel free to comment on whatever you agree or disagree with. Hope you enjoyed the scares.
If you liked this, check out some of my other Top 10 Lists: