Year-end coverage often focuses on the award-worthy contenders. While 2020 featured no shortage of Oscar potential, what’s most notable about the performances this year was the element of surprise. Unexpected breakout roles, actors that chewed scenery like no tomorrow, and daringly bold choices resulted in many unforgettable characters that brought immense joy and entertainment during a dark period.
Save the award talk for another time; here we’re celebrating the weird, quirky, and remarkable parts that reminded us of why we love movies so much.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: His House uses misdirection and unpredictability to create the year’s biggest scare.)
Remi Weekes’s feature debut uses horror to explore the anxieties, indignities, and trauma of the immigrant experience through a Sudanese couple’s lens. Weekes doesn’t hold back on the scares in this Netflix release. His House offers up one of the year’s most terrifying films, with the scares given just as much attention as the story. Rendering an already vulnerable couple even more so at the hands of a nightmarish figure that arrives each night to torment them, His House offers a unique, often heart wrenching twist on the haunted house format.
The filmmaker’s ability to elicit tears and send shivers down your spine is remarkable, and never is the latter as evident as it is in the film’s most unnerving moment. Through atmosphere and misdirection, one night of emotional intensity crescendos into a waking nightmare with the ghastly arrival of an unwelcome specter.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: The Invisible Man delivers its biggest jolt by subverting its innovative use of negative space.)
As 2020 finally draws to a close, the time to review and reflect upon the year’s best cinematic offerings is upon us. This bizarre year might have thrown a complete wrench in everything, including the theatrical release slate, but it didn’t slow horror down in the slightest. The genre repeatedly proves that it can thrive in any setting, from the box office to the small screen. Among this year’s best in horror is Leigh Whannell’s The Invisible Man, a new take on a Universal classic that just so happens to be one of the last theatrical experiences pre-pandemic lockdown.
Whannell consistently delivers new thrills and chills in modern horror, using a savvy movie-goer’s knowledge against them. With The Invisible Man, Whannell wields negative space like a weapon, creating nail-biting tension throughout, thanks to audience expectations and innovative camera work. It culminates in one of the film’s biggest scares; Whannell subverts his careful crafting of negative space to pull the rug out from under the viewer with a shocking jolt.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Cat People delivered the first significant jump scare of the sound era and created one of cinema’s most enduring scare techniques; the Lewton Bus.)
The jump scare gets a bad rap. It’s understandable; when used liberally for cheap thrills, the jump scare comes across as an easy crutch to create unearned horror. Overuse of them renders them ineffective and impotent. There’s an artform to the jump scare, though. If you’re a regular reader of this column, then you know the most chilling and memorable moments of fright take a lot of time, planning, and forethought to prepare. It requires technique.
Among the early pioneers and masters of scare crafting is legendary producer Val Lewton, whose first mission once hired by RKO Pictures was to run a new unit dedicated to horror B-pictures with A-picture quality. He was inspired by Universal Studios’ monster movies’ massive success but felt he could achieve similar success with a fraction of Universal’s budget by building fear of the unseen or suggestive horror. Lewton’s first assignment under RKO Pictures was 1942’s Cat People. Operating with a minuscule budget, Cat People is constructed entirely out of fear and implied dread. Lewton’s brand of building tension out of nothing is perfectly encapsulated in Cat People’s most famous scene, featuring a scare so potent that it birthed a new jump scare technique lovingly dubbed “the Lewton Bus.”
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: A critical scare Insidious: Chapter 3 is as frightening as it is vital to the narrative.)
Patrick Wilson is set to return to The Further, both in the director’s seat and as original protagonist Josh Lambert in the upcoming latest installment of the Insidious franchise. The plot will return to the Lambert family, or at least some of them, with Dalton (Ty Simpkins) heading to college. That effectively will pass the series’ baton from psychic medium Elise Rainier (Lin Shaye) back to the Lamberts, picking up from the events of Insidious: Chapter 2. One notable departure for the franchise is Leigh Whannell, who penned all four previous installments. This time Whannell will be getting a story credit while Scott Teems is tackling the script.
Whannell’s long amassed a solid reputation for crafting scares with his screenwriting, but he’s quickly proving his horror mettle as a director too. That started with Insidious: Chapter 3, his directorial feature debut. More than just a smart prequel that marked Elise as the series’ heroine, Whannell honed his ability to scare the pants off viewers with no shortage of terrifying moments. The most potent of which utilized great direction, a horrifying new villain, and foreboding footsteps to guide audiences’ eyeline straight to the terror.
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This Terrifying Scene in ‘The Babadook’ Marks the Nightmarish Storybook Character Taking Control of the Narrative
(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: A terrifying pop-up storybook character left the pages and skittered into reality to create a waking nightmare in The Babadook.)
Jennifer Kent’s feature debut delivered an incredible new monster in The Babadook. The nightmarish character from a pop-up storybook terrorized a single mom and her son, relying on psychological terror to break down their guards until it could take control. While Kent employed familiar horror language and tactics to create an unsettling atmosphere, what left critics raving was how the filmmaker used her monster as a metaphor for deep-seated grief and depression. The Babadook may have gone on to become a gay icon, but the character began as a chilling embodiment of repressed emotions that ate away at someone from the inside.
The film’s critical scene that sees that dam of repressed emotions shatter also happens to be the most petrifying. Kent delivers an onslaught of fear to drive home when a struggling woman loses her grip and lets grief take over. The Babadook skitters out of the pages of a book and into reality, creating a waking nightmare for those around her.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: A terrifying physical performance unleashed nightmare fuel in this introductory scene to Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark’s most memorable monster.)
Among the countless new horror titles releasing this month, Amazon’s Welcome to the Blumhouse kicked off the first of two double features with Black Box, a tech-based thriller. In Emmanuel Osei-Kuffour, Jr.’s debut, a man seeks to restore his memory through an experimental treatment that leaves him questioning his identity. During these treatments, he’s haunted by a nightmarish figure credited as “Backwards Man,” a presence rendered downright terrifying for the way he contorts in seemingly inhuman ways. The character’s unique physicality belongs to “Twisty” Troy James, an actor who’s quickly building a reputation for his bendy horror performances.
Last year, James unnerved on the big screen as the Jangly Man, an amalgam monster from Scary Stories to Tell in the Dark short stories “Aaron Kelly’s Bones,” “What Do You Come For?” and “Me Tie Dough-ty Walker.” Director André Øvredal adapted Alvin Schwartz’s beloved book series and Stephen Gammell’s creepy illustrations, delivering a gateway horror movie perfect for the Halloween season. But the filmmaker didn’t skimp on the scares, especially when it came to the Jangly Man’s grand entrance.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Ghost Stories used sound and shadow to build up unrelenting tension for this utterly terrifying scene.)
Few things frighten and fascinate as well as a good ghost story. The supernatural taps into fears of the unknown, but it more directly ties into the concept of an afterlife. Nothing inspires obsession and conversation quite like death and beyond. An “existential terror,” Ghost Stories’ Charles Cameron (Leonard Byrne) explains why ghosts are such a draw for many. In the film based on the 2010 stage play of the same name, it’s existential terror and the pursuit of disproving supernatural phenomena that drives the narrative forward in this unique spin on the anthology format.
Directors Andy Nyman and Jeremy Dyson waste no time plummeting everyone into the deep end of fear, creating separate vignettes that work to build momentum in both narrative and scares. It’s the first that sets the high bar, creating a disconcerting atmosphere that systematically ramps up the tension at a steady pace then yanks the rug out from under once dread reaches a fever pitch. It results in a nerve-fraying scene that brings maximum chills.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Poltergeist used an iconic scare to herald the film’s true climax.)
“Now clear your minds. It knows what scares you. It has from the very beginning. Don’t give it any help, it knows too much already.”
This ominous line from spiritual medium Tangina (Zelda Rubinstein) comes at a critical moment in Poltergeist when the paranormal activity within the Freeling household has reached a fever pitch, and the threat of losing Carol Anne (Heather O’Rourke) forever looms large. Tangina’s arrival marks what initially seems to be the film’s climax. The soft-spoken medium delivers eerie exposition on the great evil that has taken over the home before firmly leading the charge in the thrilling spectral rescue of the Freelings’ kidnapped daughter. The grand spectacle ends with Tangina declaring the house cleansed, and the family left to cope with the trauma.
As fans of this classic horror movie already know, it’s far from over. The Tobe Hooper directed and Steven Spielberg produced/co-written suburban nightmare left an indelible mark on cinema that ensured permanent placement in the pop culture collective and launched a franchise. Poltergeist‘s success has as much to do with its endearing characters as it does with its impressive special effects and terrifying imagery that instilled nightmares in younger audiences duped by its PG rating. Though there’s no shortage of haunting imagery in Poltergeist, from the pool corpses to the rotting face of a paranormal investigator, few managed to chill as effectively as the scene featuring the iconic clown doll.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: This blood-curdling scene in Paranormal Activity 3 creates palpable tension with the advent of a new horror technique.)
Horror filmmakers use any tools and tricks they can to scare their audience. That’s the central goal of a scary movie, after all. Thanks to the success of The Blair Witch Project, the found footage approach became a prevalent technique among studios and filmmakers hoping to achieve similar success. – so much so that its overuse means the phrase “found footage” now tends to be met with groans. Still, when it’s done well, few things evoke terror as well as found footage. See Shudder’s Host for a recent example – or better yet, look to the subgenre’s largest and longest-running franchise, the Paranormal Activity series.
With six films released so far and another installment on the way, the franchise about a family haunted by a demonic entity keeps audiences coming back for more. Mythology aside, the Paranormal Activity films showcase what found footage excels at: an ingenuity and effectiveness in scare crafting. The series has delivered no shortage of memorable scares and chilling scenes, but the utter cleverness of an oscillating camera in Paranormal Activity 3 might be the pinnacle of blood-curdling chills.
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