The second instalment of our Most Frightening Film Moments list in the run-up to Halloween. Beware of spoilers…
Se7en is David Fincher’s masterful melding of thriller, horror and film-noir, and has some truly chilling bits through its running time (the custom strap-on, for one), but none more than the discovery of the Sloth victim, for both what is seen onscreen, and the implications. As Tyler Durden, God and Doctor Cox… sorry, Brad Pitt, Morgan Freeman and John C. McGinley descend upon an apartment, believing it to be the location of the biblically-influenced serial killer, they encounter musty rooms curiously filled with air-fresheners, before arriving on a figure hidden under sheets on the bed. Revealed to be just another of John Doe’s victims, the Sloth is emaciated and covered in scars, having been strapped to his bed for exactly a year. Despite being a known drug dealer and child molester, it’s not hard to feel some sympathy on account of the torturous existence the Sloth has lived for 365 days. And then he wakes up…
Rec is a little known treat, a Spanish found-footage film and one of the best horrors of modern times. The tension just builds and builds relentlessly over its relatively short length, reaching near-unbearable levels at the climax in the penthouse. Whilst that final ten minutes is undoubtedly the highlight of the film, a massive jump scare takes everyone by surprise, no matter how many times they’ve seen the film. Whilst the residents of the doomed apartment block squabble and debate on the ground floor, they forget one of their number, fireman Alex, is missing, still dealing with the rabid, feral old woman upstairs. I wouldn’t want to spoil the surprise too much, but let’s just say Alex is brought back to the forefront of the group’s thoughts with a thud.
Buried (2011), The Mist (2008), Saw (2004)
These three films are here not for their onscreen scares (although Saw has a fair few), but for the inference of what happens once the credits roll. The endings act All three hit the point of no return, and their climaxes are so relentlessly bleak, especially after respective hope spots in each; they’re theatrical gutpunches and piss on the chips of anyone who expects their films to have a happy ending.
The Shining (1980)
In this writer’s opinion, The Shining is the greatest horror film of all time. It may not have the body count or bloodshed of more recent films, but Stanley Kubrick crafted a chilling epic over which debates still rage to this day (for instance, check out the upcoming Room 237, a video essay on what The Shining is supposedly really all about). There’s a glut of moments to choose from when it comes to picking the film’s most terrifying, but the one thing that lifts and enhances them is Wendy Carlos’ haunting soundtrack. From the foreboding opening march which follows Jack Torrance’s drive to the Overlook Hotel, to those eerie woodblock hits; a school music lesson staple has never been so chilling. And that cacophony of voices as the blood pours from the elevator, an iconic moment made so by the choice of soundtrack. It would’ve been easy to go for “Heeeere’s Johnny!”, Redrum, the bloody elevator, the woman in the bathtub and all the rest, but it’s the soundtrack which gives Kubrick’s sole venture into the horror genre its nightmare-inducing edge.
American History X (1998)
There are some scenes from films which stick with you for months, years, and maybe even your whole life. Even if the rest of American History X has faded from memory, everyone remembers one particular moment. It’s a moment that makes everyone wince and gurn when recalling it; the curb-stomp. All the gore and graphic ephemera in the world can’t out-shock the sight of Edward Norton’s neo-Nazi thug bringing his foot down upon the head of a black gang-member who’s mouth is clamped around the curb. Even just the thought of the man’s teeth on the concrete is enough to make me cross my legs in pain and empathy. It’s a completely blunt and brutal moment, delivered by a blunt and brutal character.
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968)
Less is more, as the saying goes. So whilst modern directors splatter the walls with blood and crank the Psycho strings up to eleven, Stanley Kubrick once again tops the table for effective spine-chilling. The entire idea of HAL 9000 is quite scary in itself; a sentient machine doing whatever it can to survive, but the supercomputer reaches his apex, a blue screen of death, in fact, with his first kill. After lip-reading a conversation between astronauts David Bowman and Frank Poole about whether or not to disconnect him, HAL tricks Frank into replacing a supposedly faulty part on the outside of the Discovery spacecraft. HAL’s murder of Frank is downright terrifying for several reasons; the ominous sight of the ship’s EVA pod turning of its own accord, its clamps opening in preparation, the actual act of HAL cutting Frank’s oxygen tube (the one thing keeping him anchored to the ship) with one of the pods occurs off-screen, the sudden stop of the sound Frank’s breathing (which is heard for several minutes beforehand, making its disappearance all the more evident), his panicked fumbling as he drifts helplessly through space (a presumably very real fear for this upcoming age of space-tourism), and the jumpcuts to the cold, unfeeling red sensor of HAL. Positively chilling.
Donnie Darko (2000)
Similarly to The Shining, Donnie Darko is a film to be discussed for decades to come. I’ve seen it at least six or seven times, and I still find myself puzzled over the why, how and what of Richard Kelly’s film. It’s not a straight-up horror film in that it scares you immediately (well, Frank’s rabbit costume is unsettling), instead incorporating elements of the genre subtly The horror, for me personally, comes from the slow realisation after the film finishes that Donnie’s actions for the good in the alternate timeline have now been erased, which means he never burned down Jim Cummingham (Patrick Swayze)’s house, revealing Cunningham to be a paedophile, thus protecting his little sister and her dance troupe from him. It’s a realisation to put one hell of a dampener on your day.
Funny Games (1997 & 2007)
Michael Haneke’s decision to remake his 1997 horror deconstruction Funny Games, shot-for-shot, but in English, is a bit of an odd one. Both versions are identical, except for cast and language, which means it’s two-for-one on this creepy moment. The films centre around two psychopathic young men, who invade the home of a plain-white-bread nuclear family, for no other reason than shits & giggles. The premise plays on a very natural fear most people have, but what pushes it over the edge is the first moment one of the psychos breaks through the fourth wall, looking dead into the camera, smug as humanly possible. It’s unexpected, unsettling and makes us, the audience, question why we’re watching this take place. We’re just as implicit in the crimes as the two young men in white, we’re letting it take place by letting that world live in our imaginations. No one wants to feel guilty when watching a movie, and this first glance to camera lets us know hell is about to break loose.