The Horror, The Horror – Film’s Freakiest Scenes (A Personal List)

Cinema is an emotive beast; it can make us laugh out loud, shed a tear or think about things is a new and different way.

It can also scare the bejesus out of us. Horror is almost as old as cinema itself and over the past century or so has adapted to reflect the times we live in.

We love having our primal fears tapped into and each of us is affected differently. For some it’s slasher movies, while for others it’s good old fashioned creature features. For me it’s supernatural horror, which shouldn’t come as a big surprise when glancing over the list below.

This is just a limited selection of scenes that have freaked me out over the years. There are many more I could list, but I’d much prefer to find out:

What are your scariest scenes?

Ring (1998)
Sadako

The J-Horror wave produced plenty of scares, but none as blood-curdling as this deeply unsettling scene from the supremely effective Ring (Ringu). Unfortunate viewers of a cursed video receive a phone call telling them they will die exactly one week later.  It’s a fate that befalls poor Ryūji (Hiroyuki Sanada), who watches the TV with mounting horror as the vengeful spirit of Sadako crawls out a well and then out of the TV towards Ryūji. It’s a terrifying conclusion to a film that severely curtailed my video cassette watching.

The Haunting (1963)
“Whose Hand Was I Holding?”

There’s nothing like a well-made haunted house movie to really chill the bones and Robert Wise’s classic The Haunting (as opposed to the dreadful 1999 remake) is as good as it gets. Highly strung Eleanor Vance (Julie Harris) agrees to join several others to disprove the ghostly tales that have built up around a creaky old house by staying there for a few days and nights. Big mistake. Wise slowly cranks up the tension and spooky goings on to unbearable levels, not least of which in the unnerving scene when Eleanor is in bed and trying to shut out the ghoulish crying and laughter emanating from the walls. She thinks her hand is being held by Theodora (Claire Bloom), only to discover she’s in bed across the room. “Whose hand was I holding?” a terrified Eleanor asks, not wishing to know the answer.

Zodiac (2007)
The Basement

Although not a horror movie per se, there’s plenty in David Fincher’s 2007 masterpiece about the obsessive – and ultimately unsuccessful – hunt by a detective (Mark Ruffalo), crime reporter (Robert Downey Jr) and political cartoonist (Jake Gyllenhaal) to identify the Zodiac killer, who murdered several people in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Fincher, who showed he could do grisly in Seven, amps up a different kind of dread here, not least of which in the hair-rasing scene when Gyllenhaal’s Robert Graysmith visits the home of movie projectionist Bob Vaughn (Charles Fleischer), believing he can shed light on the case. Following the unnerving Vaughn down into his basement, the paranoid Graysmith suddenly believes he’s standing in front of Zodiac himself. It’s a masterclass in psychological horror on Fincher’s part, helped in no small part by Gyllenhaal’s convincingly strung out performance.

The Blair Witch Project (1999)
The House

One of the first films to properly take advantage of viral marketing, the buzz around The Blair Witch Project had audiences freaking out before they even set foot in the theatre. Despite trying to convince you otherwise, horror movies are generally at their best when they adopt the less is more approach and it certainly works here. It also reinvigorated the found footage sub-genre, for better or worse. More than just a story of three student filmmakers getting lost in the woods while investigating a local witch legend, the genuinely terrified reactions of its cast elicit a raw fear in the audience that builds and builds until the frenzied finale when they enter what appears to be an abandoned house… only to find out something terrible lurks inside.

REC (2007)
Night Vision

One of the more effective found footage films that followed in the wake of The Blair Witch Project was this low-budget Spanish zombie flick, which follows a TV crew as they cover a fire station’s night shift. They’re called to check on an old woman who’s trapped in her apartment, but before they know it all hell breaks loose when the old dear – and others within the apartment block – turns very, very nasty. Although not to everyone’s taste, REC‘s use of ‘shaky cam’ is particularly effective and adds a sense of chaotic terror to proceedings. It’s a pretty scary film throughout and the heart beats that much faster during the nerve-shredding climax, which borrows the night vision technique of The Silence Of The Lambs and throws in extra nastiness.

The Eye (2002)
The Lift

The second Asian film on this list (and another product of the Hollywood remake machine) that truly chills, the concept of The Eye  is simple. A young blind woman regains her sight after undergoing cornea transplant surgery, but this gift turns into a curse when she begins seeing figures that seem to foretell death. Her visions are as distressing as they are supremely hair-raising, in particular the one she experiences when she enters a lift and realises she’s not alone. As the lift ever-so-slowly reaches its destination, a figure first seen facing the corner floats closer and closer to her, cranking up the creepiness to unbearable levels.

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Four Frames – Night Of The Living Dead (1968)

I’m proud to say that I’ve become an offical contributor to The Big Picture, the internationally-recognised magazine and website that offers an intelligent take on cinema, focussing on how film affects our lives. Aimed at the enthusiastic film-goer at large, The Big Picture provides an original take on the cinematic experience. This piece is part of the Four Frames section, wherein the importance of four significant shots are discussed, in this case from George A. Romero’s horror classic Night Of The Living Dead.

It’s perhaps fitting that in the year that saw the world descend into civil unrest, a micro-budget splatter movie in which the dead rise from the grave and usher in the apocalypse would redefine both the horror genre and contemporary cinema.

Night of the Living Dead

There’s horror before 1968’s epochal Night of the Living Dead and there’s what came after, such is the seismic impact that George A. Romero’s debut feature continues to have.

Chucking out the rulebook in true anti-establishment style, he found a unique and unorthodox way to envisage the tipping point society seemed to be inevitably careering towards at the time.

Night of the Living Dead

Romero monkeys about with the audience’s expectations from the film’s opening moment when siblings Barbra (Judith O’Dea) and Johnny (Russell Steiner) visit their father’s grave. Our assumed hero Johnny latches onto his sister’s unease and, putting on his best Boris Karloff pokes fun saying: “They’re coming to get you Barbra!”

He continues to freak out an angry Barbra and observes a shambling figure seen earlier in long-shot drawing ever nearer. “Look! There’s one of them now!”

Night of the Living Dead

The unintended irony of this statement arrives with a jolt when the man (Bill Hinzman, who in basing his shuffling gait on Karloff in The Walking Dead proves that the old ways are sometimes the best) attacks Barbra. We presume Johnny will come to the rescue, but in fighting the ghoul (the word “zombie” is never uttered in the film) he falls and smacks his noggin on a headstone. Not so much the hero after all.

With our assumptions in tatters, all bets are off as Barbra flees to a farmhouse and is joined by Ben (Duane Jones), who doesn’t convince anyone, least of all himself when he shuts the growing horde of undead out (or imprisons them both, more to the point) and says “it’s alright”.

Night of the Living Dead

Not for nothing has Steiner’s Karloff impression become a defining moment in horror cinema. Romero, deciding that no-one else was going to do it passed the baton to himself by choosing to subvert an old icon, as if to say: “That’s then, this is now and you ain’t seen nothin’ yet.”

Tellingly, it’s the one amusing moment in a film that, like its implacable army of the undead, relentlessly progresses towards a soul-shattering conclusion.