These are my selections for the 13 scariest movie moments in the history of cinema. They’re not necessarily the bloodiest or the most famous, but they’ve been scaring the crap out of film fans for decades. I urge you to rent them and find out why.
As you may notice, the most recent one is from 1990. I was a little surprised about this myself, but I think it indicates the lack of imagination shown by many modern horror movies (especially those dreadful Platinum Dunes releases). And besides, how many ways can someone come up with to kill barely-clothed teenagers?
But like any list, I’m certain plenty of people will take exception to my picks. Well, that’s why we have a comments section. If you want to argue about why this one was included and that one wasn’t, feel free to take a few moments and type up your thoughts. All comments must be approved before being posted, so don’t even bother with a curse-laden tirade about what a jackass I am.
- Leatherface’s Debut from The Texas Chain Saw Massacre (1974) – The first of our scariest movie moments provides a harrowing lesson on what NOT to do when wandering the lonely countryside of Texas. Unfortunately, Kirk (William Vail) was trapped inside the film instead of watching it, so he strolls right up on the front porch of a ramshackle farmhouse and knocks. Receiving no answer, he pushes the screen door open and wanders inside. Bad move, especially when he heads straight for a doorway where animal skulls are clearly visible. It’s like he’s TRYING to get himself killed by cannibalistic hicks. He soon gets his wish, as Leatherface makes his debut by coming out of nowhere and braining Kirk with a hammer. It’s a real gotcha moment in the annals of cinema, and the fright factor is reinforced by repeated blows and the victim’s bloody body flopping around like a fish. And when Leatherface slams that sliding metal door shut, one can’t help but be reminded of a slaughterhouse.
- The Shower Scene from Psycho (1960) – After stealing $40,000 so she can marry her lover and start a new life, Marion Crane (Janet Leigh) stops in for some rest at the isolated Bates Motel. Bad move. Lonely owner Norman Bates (Anthony Perkins) takes an immediate liking to her, but we get the sense that he would’ve been interested in any female who stopped by. After getting undressed (which Norman watches through a peephole in the wall), Marion counts her money, decides to return it to its rightful owners, and then pops in the bathroom for a cleansing shower. And, boy, does she really look to be enjoying that shower. Unfortunately, her enjoyment is interrupted by a darkened female figure who creeps into the room, throws back the curtain, and proceeds to introduce Marion to a rather large butcher knife. Cue the iconic screeching violins courtesy of composer Bernard Herrmann (Hitchcock originally wanted the scene to play out in silence). As the knife is plunged downward time after time, Marion performs an impromptu dance of death before finally crumpling in the tub and pulling down the curtains in a final, desperate spasm. As Hitch transitions from a swirling drain to Marion’s lifeless eyes, 1960 audience members vowed to take nothing but baths in the future.
- Torture Scene from The Marathon Man (1976) – After his brother dies in his arms, Thomas “Babe” Levy (Dustin Hoffman) is abducted by a couple of goons and strapped into a chair in a warehouse. Then the lights come up and Dr. Christian Szell (Laurence Olivier) enters the room. A Nazi war criminal and (gasp) dentist, he proceeds to the sink and begins to wash up. He asks Babe if it’s safe, a question that completely confuses the young man. The same question comes over and over, and Szell produces dental instruments to examine Babe’s mouth. Cautioning the prisoner to take better care of his teeth, he locates a cavity and digs into it, causing Babe to scream in pain. “Is it safe?” Even one of the henchmen turns away as Szell continues in this fashion, instantly lowering the public opinion of dentists everywhere. After a very different attempt to get Babe to talk, he finds himself back in the chair. This time, Szell breaks out the electric drill and goes for a healthy tooth. Goddamn Nazis.
- The Chestburster from Alien (1979) – After being brought back aboard the spaceship Nostromo with SOMETHING attached to his face, Executive Officer Kane (John Hurt) is relieved when the face-hugging nasty detaches and dies. All is right with the world, or so his unsuspecting fellow crewmen believe. Over a dinner that looks like an outer space Tupperware party, Kane laughs and jokes with his shipmates. That is, until he begins to convulse violently. Within seconds, a tiny, toothy alien explodes from his chest in a spray of blood and gore. “In space, no one can hear you scream.”
- Ralphie Glick’s Homecoming from Salem’s Lot (1979) – This one is actually a TV mini-series, but I’m putting it on my list of scariest movie moments anyway. After his brother goes missing, young Danny Glick (Brad Savage) struggles to fall asleep. But then his brother, Ralphie (Ronnie Scribner), comes home…sort of. Danny is relieved to see his sibling at the window, so much so that he fails to notice THE KID IS FLOATING THROUGH THE AIR AND GRINNING LIKE A MADMAN. As he levitates and scratches at the window, more vocal horror fans will no doubt scream, “Don’t let him in, you idiot! He’s a vampire!” But Danny isn’t listening to the peanut gallery on this one, as he opens the window right up and invites fanged death in for a midnight snack. Ralphie looks pleased, baring his pointy teeth and then sinking them into his brother’s neck. While the idea of one brother killing another is creepy enough, the maniacal look on Ralphie’s face really seals the deal. The second film on this list to be directed by Tobe Hooper; it won’t be the last.
- The Freaks Come Out at Night from Freaks (1932) – When his fellow circus freaks learn that Cleopatra (Olga Baclanova), the wife of wee little Hans (Harry Earles), is a gold-digger who plans to murder her kind-hearted hubby and then run away with the circus strong man (Henry Victor), they decide to exact an especially ironic form of revenge. As a massive storm rages, the freaks come after Cleopatra with firearms and all manner of bladed weapons. Even in this politically correct era, the sight of a guy with no arms or legs clenching a knife in his hate-twisted face is enough to spook someone. The strong man is never heard from again–although he was castrated in the original version–and Cleopatra is tarred, feather, and burned until she resembles a human chicken. She’s promptly put to work in the circus sideshow, a fitting punishment for someone who once looked down upon and ridiculed the normally good-natured freaks.
- Pig’s Blood from Carrie (1976) – Everyone seems to hate Carrie White (Sissy Spacek). Her fellow students mock her when she has her first period, and her religious nut mother routinely locks her in the closet and otherwise abuses her for being a sinner. But Carrie has a secret: Beneath her plain looks and quite demeanor, a powerful force is slowly growing in strength. It comes roaring out during the high school prom, as a group of teen a-holes decide to vote Carrie as homecoming queen and then douse her in pig’s blood. Oh, the plan works, but the aftermath isn’t so funny. With a crazy-ass look in her eyes, Carrie turns loose both her telekinetic powers and repressed anger, killing students and faculty alike with a fire hose, falling rafters, electricity, and a massive fire (even John Travolta is powerless to stop her). Spacek’s blood-drenched, wide-eyed visage gave me nightmares for a long time, and I refused to see Coal Miner’s Daughter for this very reason.
- Hospital Murder from Exorcist III (1990) – William Peter Blatty, author of The Exorcist, gets behind the camera for this third film in the series about demonic possession. While the movie is an overlooked classic, there’s one instance that stands out among the elderly people crawling on the ceiling and Brad Dourif acting like a madman. I’m talking about the tension-filled sequence in which a young nurse investigates a strange noise in the hospital. Framed mostly with long shots, Blatty lures the audience into feeling distant and detached from events transpiring on the screen. When we do move closer, everything takes on a greater significance. There’s a “gotcha” moment involving a cup of melting ice and a cranky patient, and it seems that the little scene is winding down. That’s when Blatty zooms in and hits us with the payoff, a shit-your-pants moment featuring a figure wrapped in bed sheets and wielding a massive pair of surgical shears.
- Clown Attack from Poltergeist (1982) – The third Tobe Hooper film to make this list of scariest movie moments, Poltergeist is about a family living in a house that happens to be built on top of a cemetery. Needless to say, the restless spirits aren’t pleased. They demonstrate this displeasure in a scene with the family’s son, as his creepy clown jumps into his bed and tries to strangle the life from him. Luckily, toy clowns can’t fight worth a damn, and soon the boy is literally beating the stuffing out of his assailant. But the look on the clown’s face, and the creeping dread you’ll experience when you watch the scene…man, those are almost enough to make me give up my clown porno fetish. ALMOST.
- Meet the Shark from Jaws (1975) – When a shark begins terrorizing the residents of Amity Island, three brave souls set off in a boat to kill the creature. One of them is Martin Brody (Roy Scheider), the local police chief who knows nothing about seamanship. He draws chum duty, bitching the whole time about having to throw fish guts and blood into the water. But as he looks away to complain, the massive great white emerges from the water in all his toothy glory. Brody bolts upright, backing away and remarking to the ship’s captain (Robert Shaw), “You’re gonna need a bigger boat.” Yeah, and unsuspecting audience members will probably need a clean pair of pants.
- Heart Attack from The Thing (1982) – Stuck in the freezing wasteland of Antarctica with a shape-shifting alien killer, a group of American researchers quickly fall to paranoia and in-fighting. MacReady (Kurt Russell) is suspected of being the creature in disguise, but he wards off his colleagues with dynamite and a flamethrower. The stress of this standoff is too much for Norris (Charles Hallahan), and he’s rushed to the medical lab after suffering a heart attack. Doctor Copper (Richard Dysart) does his best to revive him, but Norris’s chest suddenly bursts open and massive teeth bite off both of Copper’s arms. Chaos ensures from there, as a spidery upside-down head skittles across the floor before getting par-broiled. But it’s the unexpected revelation about Norris that still causes audience members to jump in their seats.
- Regan’s Antics from The Exorcist (1973) – Seeing a 12-year-old girl possessed by a demon really freaked out audiences in 1973. It still does today. And there’s plenty to get freaked out about, as poor Regan MacNeil (Linda Blair) spews pea soup into the face of a priest, levitates above her bed, spins her head all the way around, and masturbates with a crucifix while screaming obscenities about Jesus.
- The Bathtub Scene from Les Diaboliques (1955) – After teaming up with his mistress to murder her foul husband, weak-hearted Christina (Vera Clouzot) begins to suspect that he’s returned from the dead. As the film draws to a conclusion, Christina creeps through the darkened hallways of her boarding school. After discovering proof that her husband might still be around, she flees back to her room and enters the bathroom to calm down. That’s when she spies the corpse of her husband floating in the bathtub. As Christina looks on in horror and clutches her chest, the corpse slowly rises up from the water and stares at her with pupilless eyes. Screaming, Christina dies of fright on the spot. I won’t reveal the twist that comes next.
That concludes our look at the 13 scariest movie moments. If you haven’t passed out from fright, go ahead and follow the links below to even more great articles: