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What is the scariest movie you have ever watched? Many films make that bold claim and every summer another trailer surfaces for a film that will “scare you senseless”. I remember the theatrical release of Final Destination and the trailer cunningly revealed footage of various cinema-goers looking genuinely affected, explaining how it was such a terrifying experience that their bladders damn near evacuated where they sat. This kind of cheap marketing ploy invariably leads to disappointment as an unfair level of anticipation heaps additional pressure on the film to deliver, which it rarely does. In the case of James Wong’s film it was totally unfounded as it was hardly what you’d call a nerve-shattering experience.
This summer it’s all about The Conjuring and from what I understand, James Wan’s white-knuckler may actually come good on its promise and deliver a sound dose of the willies. But what are the scariest moments in horror cinema history? I wouldn’t be pompous enough to suggest I have the answer to that poser, after all it’s all subjective. If you have an irrational fear of spiders then Arachnophobia may well be enough to make you shit fluids but, if you have a pet tarantula, then it’s practically Incy Wincy Spider. Anyhoots, the following are a list of some of the cinematic chillers that really got under my skin and lingered there for weeks.
Oriental horror cinema is by far the most visceral thanks to a history steeped in supernatural folklore and Hideo Nakata’s Ringu was the original nightmare maker. We all know the money shot well by now I’m sure as Sadako drags herself out of that ominous well and slowly shuffles forward to the front of the TV screen, proceeding to clamber through into the front room of her petrified onlooker for his ill-fated extreme close-up. Anyone of a weaker disposition would likely suffer instant cardiac arrest but even the more hardened horror heavyweights amongst us would feel the twinge of terror from this landmark scene.
Predictably it wasn’t long before the Americans caught wind of Nakata’s terrorizer and promptly remade it for their own audiences with respected director Gore Verbinski at the helm. While in no way a travesty, the two key moments the Stateside reboot woefully overlooked were the sight of Sadako’s hands gripping the floor with fingernails chewed way past their cuticles and, as we were still gasping for precious air, the close-up of her rolled back bloodshot eye peering through those long blackened locks.
The Eye (2002)
Sticking with the Far East for a little longer (and Ju-on: The Grudge could just as easily have made the cut), The Pang Brothers’ modern masterpiece featured a number of pant-wetting instances but one especially heart-stopping moment that lingered in my thoughts for days afterwards. I’m speaking of the old man in the elevator, hovering off the floor with only half a cranium, slowly rotating while our female lead stands frozen with fear. This scene offers excellent reasoning to take the stairs forevermore and there were numerous other instances scattered throughout to chill the blood in our veins. Once again, the US remake failed to grasp what made it such a horrifying scene and squandered their attempt at adapting it for western audiences. Evidently, the Americans are less comfortable with the kind of stark imagery for which the Far East is renowned.
The Blair Witch Project (1999)
Eduardo Sánchez and Daniel Myrick hit pay dirt with their found footage frightener and it went on to become one of the highest grossing independent movies of all time. Two scenes stood out for me although it’s the second which really did a number on me. Any keen campers among us would have likely have shit a brick when our ill-fated trio were bombarded by an unseen entity as they huddled together inside their tent. If that wasn’t sufficient to stop our hearts then the sound of a young girl laughing/sobbing outside amidst the chaos would have done it. The closing scene and, in particular, parting imagery took things further still. We had already been informed of the witch’s preferred means of dispatch, so after Heather had spent a few fear-fraught minutes meandering around the abandoned shack observing bloody handprints, only to stumble across her compadre standing in a darkened corner of the room, head down and facing the wall, we knew exactly what was in store for both of them. As a firm believer in what you don’t see being far more affecting than what you do, this chilled me to the marrow. If that makes the Keeper a wuss then so be it but if horror doesn’t give you the willies then what’s the fucking point of calling yourself a buff in the first place. Me? I slept on my front for around six weeks afterwards as looking into a darkened corner of my room was somewhat less than appealing.
For the most part, Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s film was more survival horror than all-out chiller which is precisely why the final five minutes knocked the stuffing out of me so. With the proverbial shit having hit the fan throughout the apartment block, our final girl took solace in a darkened room and it appeared that the danger had passed. Deciding this is the one place the foaming undead couldn’t get to her, she breathed a sigh of palpable relief but little did she know that she had locked herself into the hornet’s nest with none other than the Queen bee. The creature in question was one of the most hideous creations ever crafted, a lanky streak of terror with sagging breasts like two pool balls in sodden gym socks and a pair of dirty period panties, roaming around armed with a hammer and with a face even a mother would have a hard time loving. You can guess the rest.
The Omen (1976)
Richard Donner’s 1976 film is fondly remembered as one of the most terrifying of its era and the musical score by Jerry Goldsmith alone was sufficient to make the hairs on the back of your neck stand rigid. Meanwhile, the demonic nanny played by Billie Whitelaw and her canine sidekicks were a cardiac arrest waiting to happen. Mesh the two together and it was a recipe for nightmares. Poor ill-fated Lee Remick, having already been sent plummeting by her little angel on a three-wheeler, was greeted by Mrs Baylock’s demonic face and dead staring eyes as she got caught up in her hospital gown and this time the fall was considerably more conclusive.
I’m sure I’m not alone in stating that there ain’t a damn thing funny about clowns. Indeed, these smiling assassins sit alongside porcelain dolls at the very forefront of my nightmares. So when the jester in question performed a vanishing act from its perch, my heartbeat had already doubled in speed. Befuddled Robbie frantically surveyed his surroundings to locate this grinning terror and decided, like any lad his age, that peace of mind couldn’t be attained until he’d checked under the bed. Nothing there, momentary relief washed over him but it proved to be fleeting as, when he sat back up, the circus had come to town. Tobe Hooper’s supernatural extravaganza had us on the edge of our seats on a number of occasions and, as if that wasn’t enough, the tree outside his window proved just as dubious.
Salem’s Lot (1979)
This one gave me restless nights for months and I’m guessing I’m not flying solo here. Back when a Stephen King adaptation was regarded as something to get very excited about, this chilling tale of small town vampirism gave us an image to carry with us and one decidedly good reason to catch those Z’s with one eye open. In truth, it was this moment which was responsible for me submerging myself in bed-linen with very little breathing space so as not to allow the foul creatures of the night to have an opening of any sorts.
It began with a mist rolling in and amassing outside a young boy’s full length bedroom window and we already know that is not going to be a positive. From the ominous fog emerged a malignant child, complete with wild eyes and grin that suggested he certainly wasn’t to be trusted. He proceeded to scratch away at the pane invitingly as he levitated above ground level. Mesmerized, the foolish child dimwittedly afforded him access and he hovered in, still beaming devilishly as he made a B-line for the soft unblemished neck of his witless quarry. Insomnia ensued and, once again, King stole a little of my childhood innocence. Rotten bastard.
Shock aka Beyond the Door II (1977)
The Italians have a fair idea how to get you and the late Mario Bava was a bona fide master at his trade. This unsettling piece may not be considered one of his finer works but it could boast one moment in particular which, to this day, still gets my blood pumping like no other. Our heroine had already been run ragged by dark forces and her elusive son so, when she saw him at the far end of the corridor, her tattered nerves finally appeared to have been given a welcome rest. Not the case! As her brattish offspring ran towards his delirious mother and reached her personal space, he was suddenly substituted for a freakish full-size man resembling Donald Sutherland’s bedraggled doppelgänger, who proceeded to lunge forward with a look in his eyes that could only be labelled crazed. It was a truly unnerving incident and exhibits the Italians’ grasp of the macabre superbly. Granted, Shock was something of a slow burner and not without its faults, but sometimes one moment is all it takes.
The Changeling (1980)
Where to begin with Peter Medak’s definitive haunted house archetype as it was chock-full of scares and it’s no easy feat pinpointing a specific instance that stood out. Grieving George C. Scott was attempting to get over the freak accident which claimed his wife and child, and what better way than by moving into a colossal mansion, filled with dark secrets and constant bumps in the night. It’s hard not to think that he somewhat had it coming there. If I had to choose a highlight, then the creepy wheelchair trundling around as if by demonic remote control would possibly take the prize but, in truth, the unsettling tone stretched right through its running time and it seldom afforded its audience a solitary breather once it shifted gears.
What Lies Beneath (2000)
A surprise choice to close with perhaps as Robert Zemeckis is better known for family friendly fare but his glossy chiller featured a number of decent scares spread across its duration. Harrison Ford and Michelle Pfeiffer are always good value and the well orchestrated chills provided plentiful jolts. Fear hits the mark most effectively when you have no idea it’s coming and the scene where the curious Pfeiffer succumbed to her voyeuristic nature and peeked through her binoculars at a neighboring house, only to realise that someone was, not only aware of her presence, but staring straight back at her, none too amused was worth its weight in platinum.
So there you have it, not a definite list by any stretch of the imagination, but just a handful of perfectly implemented shocks and scares to keep you up at night. I’ll never cease hanging out for these moments and it only helps that I’m actually pretty easily scared. If a movie can relinquish me of my skin then it is onto a winner from the start and, with the likes of Scott Derrickson’s dreadfully promising Sinister waiting in the wings, it looks like there are plenty of sleepless nights in the foreseeable. I sure hope so. You see, it’s all about that adrenaline, and any way to get it pumping is a distinct positive in my book. Hell, I’m probably the only forty-year-old man who still checks beneath his bed every night and not for his porn stash either. Fear may well be the mindkiller, but it’s also something of a thriller and my fingers remain perpetually crossed for something evil lurking in the dark, preferably a beast with forty eyes or a corpse’s shell to rot within. Now where did I leave my bedpan?