(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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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: This claustrophobic scene in Alien relies heavily on the intensity of the actors’ performances to sell the fear.)
Ridley Scott’s seminal 1979 sci-fi horror film Alien birthed an iconic movie monster as well as an enduring franchise. It also birthed one of the most iconic scenes in cinematic history with the infamous chest-bursting scene. That scene delivered one of the most shocking, blood-drenched moments in horror, coming in at the tail end of a lighthearted family-style gathering around the dinner table. It marks the turning point of the film; going forward, the crew becomes prey to one deadly extraterrestrial. Nothing sold the intensity and horror of it like the air duct scene, which sees the Nostromo’s captain volunteer to enter into the vents to track and kill the stowaway. The simplicity of the scene, the claustrophobic setting, and the powerful performances of the actors collide in one of horror’s most palpable moments of dread and terror.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: This iconic scene in What Lies Beneath uses a classic scare tactic to catapult the tension to unbearable levels.)
Upon release in theaters 20 years ago this week, Robert Zemeckis’ attempt to channel Alfred Hitchcock with his PG-13 supernatural thriller What Lies Beneath failed to impress critics, despite making a strong showing at the box office. Written by actor Clark Gregg (The Avengers, Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.), the film employs the typical scare tactics, a fairly standard ghost story, and a few overt nods to Hitchcock’s Rear Window. The film’s biggest strength comes from its casting; Michelle Pfeiffer makes for a compelling, sympathetic protagonist unaffected by the script’s limitations. The second not-so-secret weapon is the memorable bathtub scene that kickstarts the film’s thrilling climax. Zemeckis eschewed the traditional role of a jump scare by using it to create tension instead of relieving it, and it delivers the film’s standout moment as a result.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: the most memorable scare from The Autopsy of Jane Doe takes advantage of fear conditioning through sound to maximize the terror.)
Simplicity tends to be an asset in horror. A less-is-more type of approach to the narrative lets the horror do the heavy lifting, and it often becomes much more effective as a result. The Autopsy of Jane Doe serves as a great example. A chamber piece oozing with atmosphere and limited answers makes for one of the more terrifying entries in modern horror. The straightforwardness of the setting and narrative lets the characters and scares to take center stage, creating a haunting tale of familial obligation, grief, and trauma-induced rage. Director André Øvredal transforms this intimate tale into something remarkable in how he patiently and insidiously conditions the viewer to unwittingly develop a triggering fear response to a sound that would be benign in any other situation.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: An iconic scene from The Exorcist III single handily proves the merit of the jump scare.)
The jump scare gets a bad rap. One of horror’s most oft-used tools is the equivalent of a cinematic magic trick, an artform of misdirection to create an abrupt fear response. There’s nothing like a perfectly executed jump scare to make your heart skip a beat. Yet, like most tools, relying on the jump scare solely to create frights versus atmosphere often relegates the technique to cliché.
All of which to preface this – after the abysmal and chilly reception of Exorcist II: The Heretic, an anticipated follow-up to an all-time horror classic, no one expected the franchise’s third outing to deliver one of cinema’s most significant jump scares. The Exorcist III proved to be a pleasant surprise in more ways than one, including its perfection of a genre artform. Nestled deep within a sequel that relied heavily on atmosphere and psychological chills, writer/director William Peter Blatty mastered misdirection and delivered an iconic scene that would be emulated in pop culture still to this day.
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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 and memorable scene in Child’s Play marked the transition from atmospheric chiller to full-blown practical effect driven extravaganza.)
Of all the horror icons to emerge from the ‘80s, killer doll Chucky and his Child’s Play franchise seems to have left slasher titans like Jason Voorhees and Freddy Krueger in the dust. Between last year’s reboot and upcoming Syfy series Chucky, the pint-sized maniac is still going strong. Granted, no other horror icon traversed as winding and complicated a path as Chucky, from serial killer hellbent on revenge to depraved family man. The mouthy, psychotic Good Guy always opted to eschew traditional slasher convention.
There’s something inherently terrifying about a possessed doll, and Child’s Play boasted no shortage of creepy moments. Yet it’s a game-changing scene halfway through the film that delivered chills with a deceptively simple manipulation of tension that proved to be most memorable of all. Not just for its effectiveness, but because it transitioned the terror of Chucky from psychological fear to full-blown practical effect driven spectacle.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness kicked off the second act with a memorable introductory scene to the insanity ahead.)
The cosmic terror that permeates throughout H.P. Lovecraft’s work tends to make for a tricky task when it comes to cinematic adaptations. Vast, shapeless creatures from beyond that are too horrible and strange for the human mind to comprehend, let alone describe, was the favored style of Lovecraft’s horror. That means it’s up to the reader’s imagination to fill in those blanks, which conflicts with the visual art form of film. Thus far, it seems the best approach to creating the distinct brand of Lovecraftian horror for the big screen is with an original story inspired by the author’s works.
John Carpenter’s In the Mouth of Madness, penned by Michael De Luca, wove in various references to Lovecraft stories but created an original plot that perfectly captured the unsettling, indescribable cosmic horror that shatters the minds of those who encounter it. In the Mouth of Madness announces the surrealism ahead in its opening moments. Still, it’s the simple, memorable scene that kicks off the second that chills with an unnerving declaration that Carpenter fully grasps the mind-breaking nature of Lovecraftian horror. From this moment on, reality ceases to be what it used to be.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: The Ring violated the viewer’s expectations and sense of security with this iconic scene.)
Much of horror’s effectiveness stems from its ability to elicit a visceral response from suspense and anticipation; the viewer knows something terrible is going to happen, but it’s the when of it that creates a feeling of unease and dread. The best horror instills a foreboding sense of anticipation through a variety of tactics and then shocks with a violation and subversion of audience expectations. It’s the latter that proves the trickiest; building suspense is far easier than delivering a satisfying payoff. Just ask Stephen King; the prolific horror author has developed a reputation for scaring the pants off of readers only to fail to stick the landing in the story’s conclusion. So much so that It: Chapter Two poked fun at the “bad Stephen King ending” cliché in a scene that featured King himself in a cameo.
This is what makes one of the most iconic scenes in modern horror stand out. The Ring stretched out anticipation to its fullest and lulled viewers into thinking they’d already witnessed the terrifying conclusion. When other horror movies would be winding down with a happily-ever-after epilogue, The Ring unleashed one final, memorable scare that served as a traumatic sucker punch that violently ripped away all sense of security.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: Black Christmas ushers in an exhilarating climax with a minimalist approach to the horror and a peeping eye.)
Director Bob Clark helmed not one, but two definitive Christmas classics in his career; A Christmas Story and Black Christmas, two widely varying takes on the holiday. While the former elicits endless replays on cable and theaters this time of year, the latter established itself as a prototype to the slasher subgenre and played a vital influence on John Carpenter in the creation of Halloween.
Initially released in the U.S. under Silent Night, Evil Night, on December 20, 1974, audiences failed to show up. It wasn’t until the original title was restored and re-released in theaters a year later that Black Christmas finally found its audience. Audiences who were then promptly terrified with Clark’s minimalist approach and a refusal to reveal the killer’s identity outside of a few key POV shots and obscene phone calls. It all culminates in a thrilling final act that begins with a crucial scene; one that that heightens the fear dramatically with the startling sight of a peeping eye.
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(Welcome to Scariest Scene Ever, a column dedicated to the most pulse-pounding moments in horror. In this edition: M. Night Shyamalan’s specific visual rules for the supernatural effectively triggered a fear response in viewers, setting up the biggest scare in The Sixth Sense.)
“I see dead people,” became an iconic mantra after the release of M. Night Shyamalan’s debut feature twenty years ago. Whispered by a timid, melancholic little boy with a supernatural affliction during a moment of confessional vulnerability, the four-word line aptly summed up the film’s entire premise. A PG-13 drama centered around a dejected child psychologist aiming to redeem himself by helping a troubled young boy through his trauma matched its emotional potency with devastating supernatural scares. These elements, combined with one hell of a twist ending, made The Sixth Sense the sleeper hit of 1999.
In the decades since the film’s release, M. Night Shyamalan has solidified his reputation as a king of twist endings, racked up an impressive list of credits, and fostered emerging voices in film and television. The latest of which is Tony Basgallop’s Servant, premiering over Thanksgiving. While Shyamalan’s career has grown immensely since 1999, his impressive debut is a crowning achievement. The film’s blend of heartbreaking character work and potent, bone-chilling scares is uncannily effective. While The Sixth Sense boasts no shortage of goosebumps-inducing spectral encounters, none hold a candle to the film’s most terrifying encounter of all with a vomiting child ghost. A vital scare scene for which Shyamalan invested a lot of time visually and emotionally priming the viewer to achieve maximum levels of fear.
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