(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror with your tour guides, horror experts Matt Donato and Ariel Fisher. In this edition: one of the scariest scenes in Paranormal Activity is like…a caprese salad.)
Say what you will about the horror’s found footage boom, but do not deny Paranormal Activity its rightful accolades as one of the most influential genre releases post-millennium. Oren Peli helped forever shape Jason Blum’s desire to generate box-office-profitable horror on capped budgets, and everyone from the biggest studio to the smallest indie troupes wanted to make their overnight culture shocker. Paranormal Activity is to a decade of imitators as Saw is to the post-911 “torture porn” craze, both born from 2000s franchises that defined mainstream horror trends. There’s a reason why Paranormal Activity remains one of the undisputed found footage success stories over a decade since Toby cursed our mortal realm.
With so many scares to mine in the first film alone, I direct my attention not towards the in-your-face finale. The scene that still interrupts my fleeting attempts to manage a healthy sleep pattern? When Katie stands over Micah, while the latter slumbers blissfully unaware.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Pulse proves you don’t need a jump scare to induce goosebumps.)
20 years after its initial Japanese release, Kiyoshi Kurosawa’s supernatural chiller Pulse (Kairo) hits closer to home than ever. The similarities between the film’s events and the global pandemic lends a prescient quality to Pulse that reads differently today. Kurosawa’s unsettling ghost story draws basis from a terrifying concept; a heavily overcrowded afterlife caused the dead to spill over into the world of the living. It spreads like a viral infection, plunging the globe into despair and death through the very thing meant to connect us – technology.
Everything about Pulse set it apart from the J-horror craze that swept through horror at the turn of the century. Instead of long-haired ghosts in white or jump-scare laden curses, Kurosawa opts for a slow-burn atmosphere that coils the unease tighter at every turn through the power of suggestion. Never is that more evident that the movie’s scariest scene that shows the ghostly invasion in action. Kurosawa transforms the seemingly mundane into pure nightmare fuel with the surreal appearance of a haunted figure.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: 28 Days Later relies on stakes and staging to draw out tension in its most intense scene.)
The early aughts marked a substantial shift in the zombie subgenre. The back-to-back releases of Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later and Zack Snyder’s Dawn of the Dead remake introduced faster, meaner swarms of zombies that couldn’t be outmaneuvered quite as easily as their predecessors. While the former technically classifies as an outbreak feature rather than a zombie movie, 28 Days Later bears all the hallmarks of a post-apocalypse zombie movie made famous by George A. Romero. No matter where you fall on the zombie debate, nearly all agree that Boyle changed the genre landscape with a kinetic horror film that brought poignancy and terror in equal measure.
No scene exemplifies the nail-biting intensity of 28 Days Later quite like the stress-inducing flat tire that pushes the limits of a narrow escape. Boyle maximizes the suspense through expert staging, heightened emotions and sound, and already established stakes to deliver one of the most unforgettable moments in modern horror.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: REC understands the importance of a satisfying payoff in horror, saving its most potent chill for last.)
Endings matter. Ideal endings provide resolution and leave a lasting impression. The final moments on screen should affect the viewer emotionally on some level. In horror, the last scene tends to offer stark relief or unsettling unease via one final scare. Narratively, though, the genre can struggle with satisfying payoffs. When the mysterious unknown is inherently terrifying, tidy answers can retroactively make everything that came before un-scary. It’s a constant struggle in genre fare, with many fizzling out before reaching the finish line.
Enter Jaume Balagueró and Paco Plaza’s REC, a 2007 found footage film that reinvigorated the sub-genre with innovative use of its style that maximized the terror from beginning to end. Moving at a breakneck speed, REC‘s onslaught of scares rarely gave viewers time to catch their breath. More impressively, Balagueró and Plaza saved the best for last, ending their feature on such a shocking moment that it instantly became iconic.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: The Vigil uses atmosphere and scares as more palatable delivery system for exposition.)
Writer/Director Keith Thomas’s feature debut pulls off the impressive task of creating an atmospheric and creepy chamber piece that shakes up the tired religious horror subgenre by introducing new mythology from an underrepresented voice in the genre. Thanks to The Exorcist, possession-based horror follows a similar formula, and nearly all religious-themed horror movies are framed from a Christian or Catholic perspective. The handful of films told from a Jewish lens tend to center around the dybbuk, a malevolent possessing spirit. Even fewer lean into the folkloric golem.
The Vigil sets its sights higher by bringing a Jewish demon to the screen; the Mazzik, a Talmudic mythology demon. Introducing relatively obscure mythology to new audiences requires exposition, and Thomas finds an innovative way to seamlessly deliver it through scares. In the film’s scariest scene, critical intel on defeating the demon gets nestled within an intense and tension-filled build-up to a significant jolt. It’s a compelling scene that doesn’t just make the exposition more digestible, but it raises stakes in the protagonist’s struggle to survive the night.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: House on Haunted Hill unsettles with nightmare imagery and shocking dream logic in its surreal Saturation Chamber scene.)
The remake of the 1959 Vincent Price horror film House on Haunted Hill marked the producing debut by Dark Castle Entertainment. The production company, operating under their initial goal to reimagine William Castle’s horror films, gave a slick update to the original material that boasted an impressive production design and a stacked cast. Most of all, it offered a surrealistic, macabre approach to the ghostly inhabitants that made the movie a standout in 1999 horror.
A harrowing opening sequence establishes the impetus for the haunting and why the quest for revenge has endured. The methodical and unrelenting pursuit for revenge leads to fast-twitching entities, gruesome deaths, and a possessed building that’s taken on an evil life of its own, all of which offers up nightmare fuel. Still, none hold a candle to the Saturation Chamber scene’s unforgettable imagery, which catapults both a pivotal character and the viewer into a dizzying descent into madness.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: It Follows uses wide angles and a disorienting setting to unsettle before delivering a one-two punch scare for the ages.)
Writer/Director David Robert Mitchell knows how to build a chilling atmosphere. With a minimalist approach to storytelling, the success of It Follows as a compelling horror film owes much to Mitchell’s use of wide shots and distinct visual style and production design. Subtle shifts in seasons and time subconsciously unsettle as viewers cannot place when and where the narrative takes place. Lead characters wear bathing suits in one scene and chilly fall coats in the next. The set further disorients with decor from various eras- unconventional and made-up technology clashes with retro televisions that play ‘50s sci-fi features. Mitchell intentionally creates a contrast to give his feature a timeless quality. All of this, combined with carefully choreographed terror that can come from anywhere in the wide-open spaces, induces agoraphobic dread.
It works to set the mood for the film’s biggest scare, a terrifying scene that delivers not one but two potent scares without a second to spare for the audience to catch their breath. Even more impressive is the way Mitchell layers in visual complexity that offers multiple reads upon repeat viewings.
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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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