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Five horror scenes that scared us silly
24 April 2014

This is the High 5 column that first prompted the idea that we have a High 5 column in the first place, five moments in film that scared the living crap out of us, one Camus colourfully labelled at the head of his submission, 'Trousers on Brown Mode'. But once we started work on our respective lists, the focus soon narrowed to examples from horror cinema only (plus one horror-tinted comedy-thriller). There'll be another one later for dramas and thrillers. Despite this one being my proposal, Camus finished his first, as is his way. This actually proved a good thing for me, as I could easily have repeated all five of his choices, but was keen that we have a wider selection. One has been doubled up, but that was unavoidable, and I'll explain why below. It's also worth noting that one key title is missing from both of our lists, the reason being that we're preparing a sizeable article on the film, which I aim to post in June, which explain the reasons for our respective reactions in more detail.

As before, these are not designed to be definitive lists, just five personal favourites plucked from the darker corners of our memories. If you want to throw us some of yours then feel free, but you probably won't.


1. Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

There is a very specific difference between jumping in shock at a loud noise or a sudden cut or surprising appearance (something most filmmakers can manage without too much difficulty) and that of imparting real, bone marrow-cold fear that actually alters your perception of the world. Alien, most could argue, is a haunted house, a 'Boo!' movie with impeccable design and a humanoid shaped creature with the distinction of being one of very few truly original incarnations of 'other' that has power beyond the screen. The xenomorph (no, I don't know either) exudes and promotes terror from its character - it lives to kill. Nuance is for victims. As Ash says "I admire its purity." Director Scott also knew (up until the last scene where the ball is very slightly dropped) how best to shoot this abomination; mostly in close up, and any wider treat it like a ballerina rapist. The shot of the creature advancing on Lambert at the faux climax of the movie is indelibly printed on my mind as being both breathtakingly beautiful and ultra-horrific. But for the recollection of horror, I have to acknowledge the shape of the alien's head. The bedroom I slept in for weeks after I saw the film for the first time had a lampshade that when the light was switched off, ambient light outlined it in the silhouette of that same bullet shaped head. I imagined it moving, just slowly tilting up. I still have that image buried in my subconscious somewhere. I should have known what I was in for. As Kane starts to wolf down the noodles, my godmother's son stopped watching the screen and turned to watch me... He'd seen it before and I was now the entertainment. He knew what was coming. I didn't but extraordinarily, it's still coming...

2. The Haunting (Robert Wise, 1963)

One scene in this superior shocker had me climbing the walls and its genius boiled down to the fact that it was using my own imagination against myself. What was so notable was that I first saw the film on a Sunday afternoon on television, in black and white. Its presentation could not have been more inoffensive. I wasn't trapped in the dark. I could walk away but I sat there imagining what was outside that door. As far as I remember two women (one played by Claire Bloom) end up in the same bedroom at night and over the course of a few utterly terrifying minutes are subjected to supernatural attack. The genius of this scene is that it is all suggested, never shown. The terror inducing catalyst for one's imagination is the horrific pounding on the wooden door, some soft and rhythmic, some bludgeon-like. I can still recall the slight electronic crispness to the end of the sound of the door thumps as the two women cowered in fear. It really has extraordinary power. Again, context is all. In this YouTube bite sized scene drenched culture we're in, it's probably easy to call up the moment. If moved to sample the scene, please see it within the movie it's designed to be an integral part of. Thank you.

3. Exorcist III
(William Peter Blatty, 1990)

Another one you can easily cheat and look up on YouTube. Please don't. This is by far my favourite 'jump out of your seat' moment. I've not been plagued with nightmares because of it but one of the reasons I hold it in such high regard is that almost every element of it is beyond cheesy but put together, it's genius, the very essence of cinematic gestalt. You'd think any scene from a second sequel to one of the best horror movies of all time wouldn't make it on anyone's top five. Well, this is a good movie with very strong performances not least from star George C. Scott. There was a lot of post-production shenanigans and Blatty's original ideas were somewhat trampled on by studio interference  but I'm giving him full credit for the 'nurse' scene. All it is, is a corridor, a long wait, a scary wail on the soundtrack, a white gowned hooded figure, a nurse and medical shears for cutting off limbs. Let's also remember the cheesiest aspect - a zoom. But somehow, all put together, this is one of the best 'Boo!'s in the business.

4. The Innocents
(Jack Clayton, 1961)

I have stayed in large houses many times for work and play and nothing sparks the tinder of fearful imagination more than a dark corner. In the days of Henry James' The Turn of the Screw (surely one of literature's greatest titles), the novel on which The Innocents was based, candlelight was de rigueur and the movie version exploits this cinematically to the full but the most shocking image in this movie was in a dark corridor but it was daylight. Miss Giddens the governess is playing hide and seek. She moves through a corridor doused in shadow. We see her smiling face (she is playing a game) and then there's an extraordinary cut to a hooded woman walking from left to right a few yards in front of her. No such woman is officially in the house and the image is desperately unnerving. It's the one picture I project into my dark corners when faced with similar architecture. You'd think Giger's alien or Regan's incarnation of the demon Pazazou would be waiting to pounce but no. For some reason (a personal one that I am yet to fully understand) it's a hooded woman in a long dark dress who haunts my subconscious.

5. The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981)

I saw this first on VHS with the esteemed editor of this site and another friend and I honestly cannot remember what kind of a trick they pulled but I still remember the fear. The one scene I remember with crystal clarity is the card calling scene. It's the starting pistol for the horror (and it was horrific, none of the humour in the subsequent entries leaked into this one. This one was nasty). It's a very simple effect but at the time I was struck by how apt it was in ushering in the fear. The Evil Dead in its first incarnation is from this point, unremitting. You can never metaphorically put your feet up. You're dancing on your nerves in stilettos. Two girls are playing card mind reading and one is winding up the other by letting her believe she's getting the cards right. Suddenly a third voice starts revealing the cards sight unseen while she stares out of a window. We see the cards and the voice changes from an anxious young lady to a demonic growl and she spins around, evil make up in place and we track in quickly for the full effect. Yes, there is a laugh to be had looking at it through the thickness of 2014 air but at the time... I'm a nervous horror fan - or was and then at the age of twenty, my fear cells were fully charged. That said, I can still scare myself by going out to the shed for firewood. All it would take would be a wrong sound, a chit-chittering of an alien presence or a movement in the shadows. A torch beam's selection of 'what's seen' is more suspenseful because of what's not seen. Scary.


The Mummy (Karl Freund, 1931)

The best time of all to be petrified by a film is when you are too young to be able to clearly differentiate fantasy from reality. My parents were somewhat cautious in that respect, but one of the babysitters they employed was not, and she'd let me stay up to watch the classic Universal horrors on late-night TV as long as I kept quiet about it. That much I remember. What I don't recall clearly is the experience of seeing most of these films for the first time. All except one. When I was a small boy, for some reason there was nothing that scared more than the prospect of an Egyptian mummy coming back to life after a couple of thousand years and creeping around the countryside and corridors of houses. And this was the mother of all Egyptian mummies, a steely-eyed Boris Karloff in Jack Piece make-up, photographed in dream-like monochrome by Charles Stumar under the direction of Czech master cinematographer Karl Freund. As soon as Imhotep entered the same room as one of the faceless leads I was hiding behind the sofa and whimpering, doubtless to the amusement of a babysitter I had convinced of my readiness to watch such adult material.

The Cat and the Canary
(Elliot Nugent, 1939)

My mum let me watch this one as a small boy because it was toted as a mystery thriller rather than an all-out horror and a comic one at that, but it still scared me senseless. It may seem old hat and even clichéd now, but to a child with preciously little experience of such tales, the idea of a house in which the eyes moved on paintings, walls opened to reveal dark and cobwebbed secret passages, and panels that opened on headboards from which grasping hands then emerged, was just the sort of thing that prompts small boys to beg for the hallway light to be left on at night. It was the hand reaching out of the headboard that really did it for me, prompting the inevitable, "That's the last time I let you stay up and watch a film like this" from my mother and repeated checks to ensure that there was no way this could happen on my bed. What pleased me immensely when I returned to the film as an adult was that it still managed to send a few shivers down my spine, and remains my all-time favourite blend of horror and comedy.

The Exorcist (William Friedkin, 1973)

As is always the way with game-changing films, it really is impossible for anyone watching this film today on DVD or Blu-ray to imagine what it was like to be confronted by it in a cinema back in 1974. The press reports of early audience reactions has built anticipation to fever pitch, and there really was nothing you could watch before it to prepare you for what you were about to see. The Exorcist didn't just break new grown, it tore it asunder. Everyone was talking about it, but as a 14-year-old school kid I was technically barred from seeing it. But I was tall for my age, knew how to dress to sell myself as older, and early kung-fu movies had already given me practice at bluffing my way into X-rated films. Watching The Exorcist for the very first time, surrounded by nervous adults, was an experience I will never, ever forget. I was well into the film when I realised that, for the only time in my cinema-going life, I really wasn't old or experienced enough to properly deal with what was unfolding on screen. I was out of my depth and completely and utterly petrified – this wasn't the safe scare that I came to associate with great horror movies, it was borderline traumatic. People around me were openly screaming, which only served to stoke my fear. But I somehow held my ground, sinking in my seat and suffocating the overwhelming urge to start squealing aloud. Yet of all the things in the film that frightened me silly, the one that came the closest to catapulting me to the lobby is not one that most would single out as the most frightening. Following a sequence that I genuinely could not see making it into a mainstream film today ("Let Jesus fuck you!"), Regan slaps her mother halfway across her bedroom and a chair scoots across the floor and slams the door shut. It's then that it happens. A huge wooden dresser advances towards the camera under its own steam, creaking and grinding across the wooden floor and filmed at an angle that transformed it into a monster out of my nightmares. I actually let out a scream at this point, one high enough in pitch to reveal my true age and betray the small and terrified child cowering inside. I'm still unsure why this one particular moment had such an effect on me at the time, but the fact that the film is widely recognised as one of a pinnacle of the horror film craft does at least partially validate my youthful terror.

(John Carpenter, 1978)

Every year on my birthday I used to treat myself to a horror movie, assuming, of course, that there was one playing at one of the local cinemas (curiously, there always was). Halloween was that year's very special delight. I was already a fan of its up-and-coming director and a short while later I made the easy decision to write my film school thesis on his early work. Like The Exorcist, Halloween wasn't working from a template but was unknowingly about to become one. This is a horror film with precious few precedents (we'll give a nod, perhaps, to Bob Clark's splendid Black Christmas) and a singular purpose – to scare its audience shitless. Mission accomplished. Back in that first screening, I sat in my seat and was slowly wound up and intermittently made to jump, but it was the final, unrelenting ten minutes of terror that really did it for me. And it wasn't a shock or a sudden act of violence that cranked up the tension into the realms of terror, but the simple act of accompanying young Laurie Strode as she enters the building in which her friends have been killed. The house is in darkness, we know what's waiting for her but she is unaware, and there are noises upstairs. "Hello?" she asks of the darkness, as this particular audience member curled into a ball and seriously considered rolling out through the fire exit. This is just the sort of experience that turns casual film viewers into movie obsessives. You can read more about why this film had such an effect on me in my Blu-ray review.

Alien (Ridley Scott, 1979)

While this horror-science fiction crossover gem is on Camus's list as well, and he's already made an excellent case for why it should be there, I need to also include it on mine for one very simple reason: my first viewing of Alien was the last time that I sat in a cinema and cowered with terror. I knew little about the film when I sat down to watch it beyond some exciting advance word and the fact that it was directed by Ridley Scott, whose first film, The Duellists, I had really responded to. I booked a ticket well in advance for its opening Saturday at the Odeon Leicester Square, but a week before the screening was I hit with a crippling bout of gastroenteritis. As the Saturday approached and the illness showed only vague signs of starting to shift, I phoned the cinema and managed to swap my near front-centre seat for one further back and at the end of a row, giving me quick and easy access to toilets should I suddenly need them. Getting to and across London in such a state was a job and a half, but I arrived nonetheless and wedged myself into my emergency seat, armed with the latest issue of Time Out, which sported a mouth-watering review of the film. Seriously, check out this bit: "By developing a number of ingenious twists, pacing each shock with a calculation amounting to genius and using his imagery like a Freudian tommy-gun, Scott makes it look and feel like a new experience." And the film did not in any way disappoint. It looked amazing, sounded superb and gradually built an air of genuine dread that exploded in the now famous chest-burster scene, after which the tension just didn't let up. But the moment I nearly slid under my seat in fear was when Captain Dallas crawls into the air shafts that we and he know that this huge and lethal creature is using to move around, a claustrophobic space too restrictive to allow for easy escape in any direction. Kicked off by the teeth-on-edge scrape of the metal iris doors used to close off sections (a brilliantly foreboding bit of production design), it reaches a heart-stopping peak when the creature is detected and heads straight for where Dallas is sitting, helplessly wondering which way to go next. And what do you know, so wrapped up was I in the film that I didn't once feel the need to dive off to the loo, and emerged from the cinema feeling better than I'd done on well over a week. Films really are the very best medicine.